Autism is a topic close to my heart. My eldest son (14), my husband, and I are all autistic. Let me tell you that makes for an interesting household! All of us have different ways of how it presents itself. My husband struggles with time management and I constantly must be on time or early, my son has a hard time with coordination and communication. I would like to think that we all complement each other or at the very least we are aware of each other’s struggles and can accommodate them appropriately.
I wanted to delve into this piece because more and more often when I do read a book that has an autistic individual as the main character, they are being misrepresented. They are portrayed as a standoffish, aloof, and generally very socially awkward individual. Yes, these things can be personality traits in autistic individuals BUT they are traits that can be present in everyone neurodivergent or not. They are some of the most intelligent, creative, and understanding people – they aren’t to be feared or mistrusted. When they feel, they feel deeply, whether that’s for family members or the natural world, they feel a bone-deep love for them. They should be protected because their thoughts and feelings are so inherently pure.
Examples of autism in fiction? Well, I’ll use one example that everyone will have heard of – The Rain Man film featuring Dustin Hoffman. The 1988 portrayal of an autistic man is both stereotypical and quite damaging in bringing about awareness of Autism. The film was an instant success and although it made Autistic people visible it brought about the Autistic “Savant” viewpoint. It’s incredibly damaging to believe that these people only have interests in STEM fields or music. it’s nearly been 34 years since its release but in hindsight has it been a blessing or a curse for the autistic community?
It’s during this time that not much was known about Autism. Was it a mental illness or was it a developmental disability? I really hate when it’s referred to as a disability, I just don’t personally see it that way. We are differently-abled – we see the world differently, sure, we can feel the different spectrums of emotion and we can most definitely think outside the box. We really aren’t the cold and emotionless creatures that films like Rain Man and other works of fiction have you believe.
So, what exactly is Autism, I hear you ask? As defined by the National Autistic Society website – Autism is a spectrum condition and affects people in different ways. Like all people, autistic people have their own strengths and weaknesses. Below is a list of difficulties autistic people may share, including the two key difficulties required for a diagnosis.
They struggle with numerous challenges, including, social communication and social interaction, repetitive and restrictive behaviour, over-or under- sensitivity to light, sound, taste, or touch. Meltdown or shutdowns. Now because it is a spectrum condition, not every autistic individual will struggle with all these perhaps only one or two. Autism looks different for everyone.
Lisbeth Salander, the protagonist in the series of books, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson is portrayed as autistic. Now, although it isn’t outrightly said that she is autistic, Mikael Blomkvist wonders aloud whether she has autism or Asperger’s. Lisbeth has the stereotypical traits of being withdrawn and not playing well with others. She also has been dealt the “savant” blow of being obsessive about data, facts, and computers.
Unfortunately, I have yet to find a true and honest account of an individual with autism. The stereotypes are rife and they are always done a disservice by how they are portrayed. Think of any character you have come across in fiction, film, or the media, have they honestly been portrayed as normal? No, they are seen as weird, obsessive, and emotionally distant. Take Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory – maybe it’s a contested point but often I think that show makes fun of those on the spectrum. The comedy might make it seem less obvious with the fun and quirky character. He’s hyper-intelligent and relationships are notoriously awkward with him – he avoids and is deadpan serious about everything.
Going to give a reasonably good example of autism on TV, which is the portrayal of Maurice Moss in The IT Crowd. Played by Richard Ayoade, we are given a rare glimpse of how these individuals can be funny, loveable, and totally likable. I can only put it down to Ayoade’s stringent research into the role because he smashes anything he is in. it’s the one role that seems to have the character embrace what he is without making it weird and stereotypical. We appreciate his genius and his wit without making it about autism spectrum disorder.
I’d love to find some books that tackle Autism in a positive and honest light. If you read something with an autistic character and believed it to be a good account, id love to read it. Also please leave your thoughts in the comment section.