Note: Portions of this blog entry were taken from a paper I presented at last year's Pop Culture Association (PCA/ACA) Conference in Albuquerque, NM.
In a recent article published in the Wall Street Journal, author Eli Gottlieb describes his struggles with creating a novel told entirely from the perspective of a first person narrator with ASD. Gottlieb first explains that realistic novels should instruct readers, implying that he hopes his book will instruct his audience about the characteristics, differences, and challenges of living with ASD. However, the author says that he comes to an impasse when trying to write from this distinct point of view.
I find myself continually shoved up against a paradox: How do you make interesting a world which is by definition pathologically self-enclosed? How does the tool kit of the novel, with its venerable elements of dialogue, landscape and plotting, persuasively present the first-person experience of someone who is overstimulated by the input of life and yet lacks the cognitive means to process and communicate it? (par. 2).
In response, Landon Bryce, author of I Love Being My Own Autistic Self and supporter of neurodiversity, writes, “Someone who feels that autistic people are ‘pathologically self-enclosed’ is not, as the Wall Street Journal headline claims, ‘Giving a Voice to Autism.’ He is, with the best intentions in the world, giving a voice to bigotry” (Bryce par. 2-3).
This dialogue demonstrates the dilemma faced by both writers and readers of fiction narrated in first person by characters with ASD. While the writers of these novels often have the expressed intention of enlightening and instructing readers through their depictions of the nuances that exist along the autism spectrum, they may grapple with giving these characters an authentic voice. In some of these novels, autism is depicted as a disorder. In some, a difference. In some, both.
The pattern I have observed in these novels is that the authors attempt to recreate the voice of a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), or Asperger’s Syndrome through a first person narrator. In the beginning of the novels, the effect is that the reader comes to understand these neurological differences and appreciate them. However, the narrative arcs of these books often concludes with the narrator being “transformed” by the love of a partner, family member, or friend. The result? The narrator appears and sounds less autistic than they did at the beginning of the novel.
In some of these novels, autism is depicted as a disorder. In some, a difference. In some, both.
I find this incredibly problematic. While people with ASD can learn how to better communicate through increased social interaction, the idea that people can or need to be changed through a parent’s love or the love of a boyfriend or girlfriend is ridiculous. More distressing is that the transformation is treated almost as a transition from a childlike state to a state of maturity. Again, having ASD does not make a person less mature or more childlike. Yet, this coming-of-age character arc of maturity and transformation occurs in book after book.
Now, having said this, I love the books discussed here. I think they are well written and, in the case of several, bittersweet and poignant. However, I feel the same way about these novels as I feel about retellings of Cinderella—they’re fun to read, possibly even touching, but not always realistic.
Marcelo and the Real World by Francisco Stork is perhaps the most realistic of these novels. Marcelo begins his story as a socially awkward teenager. Through a job at his father’s company, Marcelo meets and falls for a young woman working in the mailroom. In Marcelo’s narrative arc, he starts out completely naïve and slowly comes to fully comprehend what is going on around him. Marcelo feels the pain and struggles that others go through, and begins to develop neurotypical emotional awareness he did not previously possess. By the end of the book, Marcelo is able to overcome deficits previously caused by ASD. The story is tenderly depicted and Marcelo still retains his “special interests” and non-neurotypical narrative style even though he has become more mature.
British author Mark Haddon published one of the first novels featuring a narrator with Asperger’s Syndrome. At the opening of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, fifteen-year-old Christopher is a socially isolated child who has great mathematical abilities. Christopher also has violent repetitive reactions when overwhelmed by sensory input, which can include anything from too many people in a room, to seeing too many yellow cars in one day. His negative behavior includes screaming, groaning, refusing to speak or eat, and smashing things (Haddon 46). At the beginning of the book, he shows an extreme lack of empathy, even while misreporting his mistaken belief that his mother is dead (Haddon 26). By the end of the novel, Christopher retains his academic prowess, but is also able to have an in-depth conversation with his parents about trust (Haddon 218). His violent behaviors diminish, and like Marcelo, he becomes more mature.
Literary critic Tom Cutterham explains that in Haddon’s book, as well as in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, “the alienation of the autistic perspective is continually being countered by structures of loving protection, radiating out from family, society, and the state” (par. 15). In the same way, both Jodi Picoult’s House Rules and Jael McHenry’s The Kitchen Daughter feature narrators who undergo a coming-of-age experience through the power of familial love.
This coming-of-age pattern can also be seen in Australian author Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project and its sequel The Rosie Effect. Don, a professor of genetics with ASD begins the first book as a socially isolated man driven by his obsessive routines. After he falls in love with Rosie, many of his ASD characteristics disappear. In order to repeat this cycle in the sequel, Don’s ASD qualities reappear when the newly married he discovers that his new wife is pregnant. Then, the narrative arc is reestablished, so that by the end of the novel, Don is able to again fully communicate and narrate his thoughts and feelings while empathizing with his wife.
These novels all demonstrate an authorial attempt at solving the “dilemma” of autism by using the very lens of ableism they have tried so painstakingly to eliminate. In truth, the answer to solving this dilemma is simple: instead of attempting to “cure” these narrators, authors need to allow readers to connect with these characters in spite of and because of their neurological, social, and communicative differences. In doing so, readers can gain a better awareness of autism and can come to appreciate these differences rather than feel distanced from them.
Perhaps novels of this type will come from writers who themselves have ASD, or perhaps, they will come with time as more people learn about and come to accept the principles of neurodiversity. Whatever the case, there is a need for accurate representation of this population, which can only be accomplished through realistic plots in which characters are allowed to grow and develop without losing their unique neurologically diverse perspectives.