Vampires. Post-apocalyptic settings. Autistic characters. All three have been discussed—and complained about—as trends in children’s literature and YA literature. Certainly books with these topics have received plenty of attention and accolades in the past ten years, and certainly more books with these topics have appeared. But is it appropriate for literary critics to approach an actual disability in the same manner they approach supernatural beings or hypothetical futures?
Since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time came out in 2003, many more books with autistic characters have been published. Some of these have been designated for children and young adults, and a few have been award-winning—Mockingbird received the National Book Award, Al Capone Does My Shirts and Rules received Newbery Honors, and Navigating Early and The White Bicycle received Printz Honors. Reviews of these books on Goodreads, Amazon, and other websites have often been unfavorable, dismissing the use of autistic characters as a “fad.” Even professional reviews sometimes imply this. One literary critic sparked a fierce debate by stating in a review that he found autistic narrators “so yesterday.” He has since redacted that statement, but the comments section still testifies to the controversy, and the discomfort lingers.
The objections to literary critics complaining about autistic characters are obvious. Despite the increase in the number of portrayals, autism is still underrepresented and highly misunderstood. Such remarks are not only misleading, but discriminatory.
This idea of autism as “a fad” is also present in real life. Some psychiatrists believe that autism is being over diagnosed and have made ill-advised comments about it being a “fashionable” diagnosis. This is a dangerous statement that leads to people with autism being accused of “faking” or not getting the help they need. It makes the criticism of autism in literature seem even more ominous.
However, I have my own reservations about the new prevalence of autistic characters. Many of these books are written by neurotypical people, some of whom have no personal connections to autism and/or have done little research. This often results in overwhelmingly similar portrayals, which are very misleading because autism is such a diverse condition. As the public fascination with autism rises due to increased awareness, and many books with such characters garner praise, I wonder whether authors would have chosen to write characters with autism if books with those characters were less prone to spots on the bestseller lists.
For me, there is a problem with autistic characters, and it has nothing to do with over-saturation. Instead, it’s a question of authenticity—and, in part, of ethics. My disability is a real condition that affects my life in profound ways, and as much as I crave representation in fiction, it bothers me that some people seem to see autism as a way to create conflict or add a unique viewpoint to a narrative. It is even more disturbing when so many of these portrayals are inaccurate or incomplete.
Autistic characters, when written well, are good and necessary. Proper representation helps to ward off stigma and misunderstanding, and cultivates appreciation of the unique insights autistic people have to offer. Shaming the rise in representation will have more harmful effects than the current use of autism in literature does. Before acting on the impulse to disparage the use of an autistic character, critics should think about why they feel that way. Chances are, if they examine their thinking, they will realize that their problem is not with the character themselves, but how they’re used—as a tearjerker, as a marketing ploy, as a plot device. If the criticism given is more intelligent, portrayals of autism will in turn become more intelligent, and that will benefit everyone.