The curious incidence of autistics in fiction

The curious incidence of autistics in fiction

To mark World Book Day, aspiring author Penny Gotch takes a look at books which claim to feature central characters who are autistic. What she finds is disappointing and somewhat inaccurate…

I hate books about autistics.

I realised this a few months ago when I was waiting for a train at Stratford International and a book poster, for Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer, caught my eye. From the cover, it looked like a fun crime thriller.

Then I read the blurb. I saw the words of doom: “As good as Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’.” And I knew I’d hate it.

Why? Because I’m autistic, and none of the books about autistics seem to represent me. I’ve done research into this. In the fiction sub-menu of the autism resources section on Wikipedia, there are nine books. They are The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, Dear John by Nicholas Sparks, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, House Rules by Jodi Picoult, Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, Saving Max by Antoinette van Heugten, Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon, Le Voyage d’Hiver by Amélie Nothomb and With the Light by Keiko Tobe.

I added Rubbernecker to round the numbers up to ten and got analysing. The results weren’t surprising, but they were disappointing.

First, I checked how many of the authors were actually autistic. And the answer is one – maybe: only Amélie Nothomb was described as being autistic, and that was on a single website with nothing to back it up. None of the people writing mainstream autism fiction are confirmed autistics.

And that is wrong.

People don’t listen to autistics. We’re either too “low-functioning” to understand, or too “high-functioning” to count. Non-autistics silence us. Non-autistics talk over us. And now, non-autistics are telling our stories for us.

But surely any writer can cover any topic if they do sufficient research. So what did these authors do? Some worked with autistic children. Some have autistic children. Some spoke to the families of autistics. And one might be autistic herself.

None of them spoke to actual autistics. None of them consulted the people with first-hand experience of being autistic and experiencing the world that way.

Let me try to explain how silly this is. This is the equivalent of somebody who wants to write a story about the Eiffel Tower consulting a person who saw a picture of it once instead of somebody who’s been to the Eiffel Tower and seen it first hand. They’re talking to people who have seen the exterior of the experience rather than inhabiting it personally. It’s ridiculous.

But what about the autistic characters themselves? You’d expect them to be the stars of their own stories, wouldn’t you? But no. Only half of the books have an autistic protagonist. The rest have ensemble casts, or show the autistic character solely through the eyes of a neurotypical lead.

This doesn’t challenge the readers, show them anything new, or teach them what it’s like to be autistic. This is showing them the world through the same neurotypical bubble they always look through. And it’s pointless.

And the autistic characters themselves are disappointing. Only two are female, Aliénor Malèze from Le Voyage d’Hiver and Caitlin from Mockingbird. Expected, perhaps, when male autistics officially outnumber female autistics four to one. But many consider that statistic inaccurate due to the number of female autistics who are undiagnosed, so it frustrates me that women are so under-represented in this area.

But more worrying is the proportion who are presented as emotionless, particularly in The Curious Incident. This is a tired, dated stereotype of autistics and it needs to stop.

Autistics are not a monolith. If you’ve met one autistic, you’ve met one autistic. We vary wildly. Some of us are emotionally repressed, some of us wildly expressive. Some of us love maths and science, some of us love arts and language. We are all still autistic, and we deserve equal representation.

But none of these characteristics are the worst aspects of these books. There’s something worse than the neurotypical appropriation of autistic experiences, the shoddy research, the lack of main character status, the gender inequalities and the clichéd characterisations.

Only seven of the ten books have autistic characters in them. Yes, I’m serious.

Three of the books that are listed on Wikipedia in the autism resources section do not have autistics in them. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has nothing to do with autism. Mark Haddon has stated several times that his protagonist, Christopher Boone, does not have Asperger’s, despite what publishers put on book blurbs. And Nothomb’s Aliénor has a fictional form of autism that doesn’t exist in the real world.

And that just sums it up in a nutshell, doesn’t it? Almost a third of books about autistics don’t actually have autistics in them. No wonder I hate them.

But is there anything we can do to improve things? Of course there is. And that’s autistic fiction written by autistics.

Autistic authors aren’t unicorns. I should know, I want to be one myself. We exist, and we’re telling our stories every day. We just aren’t as well known. Take Nothing is Right by Michael Scott Monje Jr, a story of a boy with undiagnosed Asperger’s, written by a man with Asperger’s.

We need books like his. We need books about emotional autistics, artistic autistics, and female autistics. We need autistic protagonists as varied as autistic people. We need the neurotypical world to listen to us. And when it finally does, I might stop hating books about autistics.

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