I’m autistic. I’m also trans and queer. Furthermore, I belong to an ethnic and religious minority, and I’m from a non-Western country. Yet I all too often find that I can read a book about being autistic OR a book about any of these other kinds of experience—and that’s very firmly an exclusive or.
It’s as if each fictional character had a “minority quota,” with the maximum set to 1: characters who belong to more than one minority are somehow disallowed. If a novel—and especially a MG/YA novel—features an autistic character, the character can’t also be a person of color, a migrant, QUILTBAG, and so on … with very few exceptions in mainstream publishing.
I recently read Navigating Early, a middle-grade novel that is very firmly positioned as “a book with an autistic kid.” I had many issues with this book—for instance, that the autistic person is presented as a sidekick, an outsider to the narrative; he’s very much not the protagonist. But I’m not writing a book review, so I’ll only discuss one specific aspect of this novel, to illustrate my point.
Navigating Early is a book about two white American kids who run away from a navy boarding school. My lived experience has probably been as far from white American kids at an Anglo-style boarding school as humanly possible. That’s not necessarily a problem—I am naturally curious and interested in learning about cultures very different from mine. (White Americans, are you feeling exoticized yet?) But the telling of this particular story heavily leaned on the experience itself resonating with readers, expecting readers to share a cultural background with the author. Things were evoked and I as a reader was expected to have a set of associations and emotions about them that were not supplied by the text itself.
This made for very bland reading, on my end.
The only detail in the setting that had personal resonance for me appeared when one of the characters listened to recordings of Nina Simone, and this was a very small part of the background. The writing itself was not strong enough to draw me in and evoke the ambience of the setting. I felt, while reading, that it didn’t even make an attempt. I was not the target audience. I was on the outside looking in.
People often accuse science fiction of over-relying on defaults and readers’ previous knowledge. Starships, teleportation, and so on, all provide familiar templates a writer can use as building blocks to a story. But realistic fiction can also rely on defaults in a very similar manner. Moreover, in realistic fiction even more so than in speculative genres, these defaults are usually sociocultural defaults shared by the majority of readership: ethnic and racial majority people (usually Euro-Americans), straight people, typically developing people.
It has been discussed over and over that everything that lies outside the majority norm is exoticized. But we might also wish to look at the reverse: that everything that is included in this majority norm is assumed to be the default, unexamined, unexplained, underspecified. Flavorless. Colorless. (Somehow, white is never a color!)
Of course, truly great writing can make the familiar look striking and new, by examining and presenting it in a new light. Alas, most mass-market fiction is not this ambitious. But do we need writing to be earth-shattering for me to feel included? I don’t think so; I would like to hope that with an increased awareness of diversity, more and more writers will realize that their readers are not cast from a uniform mold.
Another basic issue with intersectional MG/YA reading related to autism is even more difficult. What happens when we do find a book with at least one major character who is autistic and also belongs to at least one other minority? I for one become really happy and throw myself on the book with great abandon. But then I sometimes end up disappointed, because the portrayal doesn’t ring true to me—and usually this involves the autism aspects, not the other minority aspects.
What probably happens is this: there are a lot more neurotypical authors than autistic authors. There are also a lot more minority authors in general than autistic authors specifically. So intersectional books related to autism will—more often than not—be written from a neurotypical perspective, even if they are at the same time written from a cultural-insider perspective about a minority culture.
Being autistic and also belonging to another minority might be one marginalization too many to sell children’s fiction informed by one’s own experience to a mainstream press, and that is a very sad thought. Will the trend of increasingly diverse autistic autobiographies ever turn into a similar trend of diverse autistic children’s and YA fiction? I write for adults and thus do not have as much insight into other writing markets, but I would certainly like to live to see that trend.