Narrative Devices and the Autism Voice

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“Voice” in a novel can take many forms. The author’s voice. The novel’s voice. A character’s narrative voice. A character’s dialogue. All these contribute to atmosphere and character to a greater or lesser degree.

I found Franny Billingsley’s Chime a marvel on a sentence-to-sentence level because of how the protagonist expresses her self-loathing; the voice in Beware the Wild by Natalie C. Parker shines, painting a creepy, dreamy view of a small Louisiana town and its neighboring swamp.

Voice is about word choice, sentence flow, what authors do or don’t tell. Sometimes authors include other devices, which range from breaking grammar rules to tweaking the presentation on the page.

There is nothing inherently wrong with such devices, but it’s noteworthy that they’re so commonly used for autistic narrators. Authors will use a range of approaches to convey their autistic characters’ different manner of thinking. Let’s look at some examples.

Cover for RAIN REIGNIn yesterday’s review of Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin, Marieke Nijkamp discusses several elements of Rose’s voice, including the artificial way Rose narrates the story and the frequent additions of homophones and numbers to the narrative. Some examples from the sample on Amazon:

I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a true story, which makes it a piece of nonfiction.

This is how you tell a story: First you introduce the main character. I’m writing this story about me, so I am the main character.

I’ve stayed back for two semesters, which is a total of one year. (1/2 + 1/2 = 1.)

The historical moment in time in which this story begins is October of my year in fifth grade.

When Rain and I are at home alone together, we sit inside or on the front porch and Rain puts one (won) of her front feet (feat) in (inn) my lap. I rub her toes (tows), and she gazes into my blue (blew) eyes with her eyes, which are the color of a chocolate bar.

Cover for THE REINVENTION OF EDISON THOMASIn Jacqueline Houtman’s The Reinvention of Edison Thomas, the narrative contains regular interjections of facts from Edison’s “random access memory,” and is peppered with Latin names for animals and plants (which particularly stood out because Edison is never shown being particularly interested in biology, but instead in engineering).

Eddy’s breakfast, as usual, consisted of cornflakes, a banana (Musa balbisiana), milk (1 percent), and orange juice (calcium-fortified). His mom emerged from her studio, a pencil behind her ear and ink smudges on her face. She refilled her oversized coffee cup shaped like a squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), with the tail for a handle.

Eddy had his usual, Arachis hypogaea butter and Apis mellifera vomit on whole Triticum aestivum bread. Justin had Thunnus alalunga again.

Eddy didn’t forget his lunch. He did, however, forget to put his schedule back in his pocket.

Fact Number 9,192,631,770 from the Random Access Memory of Edison Thomas: In the past, time was measured based on Earth’s rotation. Modern atomic clocks are so accurate that, in 1967, scientists redefined the second based on the vibrations of a cesium-133 atom.

On the walk to school, Eddy brooded about the science fair.

Had he made things worse? He was developing a painful egg-sized bruise on his elbow. Yes, things were definitely worse.

Fact Number 24 from the Random Access Memory of Edison Thomas:The egg of the ostrich (Struthio camelus) contains the largest single cell on Earth.

Eddy got to lunch in time to get a table to himself in the corner.

Cover for MOCKINGBIRDMockingbird by Kathryn Erskine also contains a number of interesting narrative quirks: long words have the emphasized syllable capitalized, all dialogue takes the form of italics, and phrases referring to concepts Caitlin has had to learn via therapy are capitalized.

My Dictionary says CAVernous means filled with cavities or hollow areas.

Her face squishes up like she’s trying to Get It.

Cover for COLIN FISCHERColin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz includes excerpts from Colin’s notebook, frequent footnotes, and puts every mention of an emotion in a different font to mimic Colin’s “emotion cheat sheet.”

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is written as a diary, and includes many illustrations and schematics of maps, maths problems, schedules, elements Christopher encounters (such as company logos, patterns, train announcements, ATM screens, and more) and Christopher’s line of thinking.

Cover for THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIMEThese are all fairly obvious deviations from a standard narrative. It can also take subtler forms, such as a curiously distant, clinical narrative voice, which is present in most of the above books—as well as Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork, which does not otherwise use any narrative devices:

“Marcelo, are you ready?”
I lift up my thumb. It means that I am ready.

The train slows down and I hear the screeching sound of metal rubbing against metal. I instinctively put my hands over my ears. Harsh noises are painful to me.

A woman is standing in front of a huge copying machine. I know it’s a copying machine because I can see a line of light move back and forth, just like the machine they have at Paterson.

There are two desks, each facing a wall so that when people sit at them, they will have their backs to each other. I decide I like that arrangement, assuming that I will sit at one of the desks.

I know from Paterson that “fuck” is an inappropriate word that means sexual intercourse, but is more often than not used to convey anger and even hatred.

“Excuse me.”

Someone is speaking to me. I turn around and there is the secretary who sits in space number eighteen. I search for her name. Space eighteen. Beth. The lawyer she works for is Harvey Marcus. I stand there not knowing exactly what to say to her.

“Where is Jasmine?”

I like those kinds of questions. “She went to the post office.”

“Shit!”

This is an unexpected response.

Cover for MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD

The smell of fish reaches me and I take a deep breath. I like strong smells.

I’m certain there are more books I could use as examples, but this gives a good overview of approaches authors have taken in depicting their autistic narrators.

I’m interested in voice from both a writer’s and reader’s standpoint, and a good, unique voice can convey so much about a character that it would be ridiculous to write off these kind of devices entirely; I also want to acknowledge that none of these devices are unique to autistic narrators. They may be used for any character meant to be quirky or different.

That said, these deviations in narration are so disproportionally common with autistic narrators that I’ve grown skeptical of them. The voice quirks often aren’t particularly related to the character’s situation or personality, but instead very much about the character’s autism. It sets the character apart in an attempt to convey “the autistic mind.”

Autistics often recite and focus on facts, so let’s add footnotes and interjections.

Autistics may struggle with emotions, so let’s indicate those with a different font.

Autistics obsess over their special interests, so let’s pepper the narrative with homophones or Latin names to convey this all-consuming obsession.

Autistics can sound stiff and official, so let’s mimic this with a detached narrative voice.

And it works, in the sense that the devices paint a clear picture of the character—but not in a way that necessarily flatters the character or the author’s view of autism. Instead, it continually paints the character as other. These devices and distant “autism voice” continually redirect the reader’s attention away from the story and toward the characters’ oddities, latching onto ways autistic people may differ and blowing up those differences so there’s barely room for anything else. Narrative affectations become the characters’ defining elements, rather than their actual actions or personality. In addition, this disproportionate focus on quirks and differences can make it feel as though the character is being gawked at.

The distant voice in particular feels like an outside-in approach, and not an inside-out approach: it comes across as though authors focus on the way autistics present externally and extrapolate what they must feel and think like on the inside. Except—whose insides and outsides line up that neatly? Especially for autistic people, given that a common symptom is difficulty expressing emotions in ways that are recognizable (let alone acceptable) to neurotypicals? If an autistic person comes across as stilted, even robotic, it’s often because they’ve had to consciously learn how to express their thoughts and feelings. It doesn’t mean those thoughts and feelings themselves are robotic.

But that is how it comes across in many books. Even in books from their own perspective, autistic characters are rarely given the same emotional depth or descriptive inner life as neurotypical characters. Their emotions are simplified and superficial, with no capacity for skepticism, self-reflection, self-consciousness, or self-awareness. Preferences and thoughts are often depicted in the form of rational observations or helpless reactions, rather than, well, feelings.  This says telling things about how people view autism; we’re often thought to either lack emotions entirely or only have a narrow range.

Consider those quotes from Marcelo: “I like strong smells.” “This is an unexpected response.” “Harsh noises are painful to me.” Note that I loved many things about this book, and so did other autistic people. Yet, I’m continually bothered by the clinical voice. Why don’t we see him reveling in that strong scent, being surprised by a response and wondering what it means, describing the way the painful sound feels? Given that a key element of autism is the tendency to feel things strongly, sometimes to the point of being overwhelmed, why is the narrative voice in many books so mechanical?

It’s hurtful when autistic people are so often portrayed as unworldly, hyper-rational blank slates defined by a series of unusual behaviors. Authors should be careful not to feed into those stereotypes, even accidentally.

It’s particularly notable that many of these books are praised exactly because of their voice. The books are described as immersive, realistic, honest, and allowing neurotypical readers to understand autism.

And, sure, if the voice works for the character and the book, so be it. If an author has a certain detached, matter-of-fact style, so be it. I even like certain elements I highlighted above—I sometimes recognize aspects of myself and autistic friends, and have read reviews by autistic people who do relate to a certain way of thinking. I also appreciate that our differences aren’t completely glossed over in order to make the narrative more palatable. I don’t mean to pick on individual books.

But … to me, such narrative voices are rapidly becoming a method of exoticizing the autistic character and spoonfeeding their quirky/heartbreaking reactions to a neurotypical audience.

What I’d love is for authors to consider whether they really need to rely on superficial narrative devices to convey an autistic narrator. Our autism is just part of us. Authors can include all the same elements and indicate all the same traits in a different, subtler fashion. For examples, just read books like Harmonic Feedback by Tara Kelly, The Real Boy by Anne Ursu, or Rogue by Lyn Miller-Lachmann. You can convey an authentic autistic character without flashiness, without distinguishing the character as “other,” without reinforcing stereotypes, without overshadowing the plot, without robbing the character of emotional agency, and without drowning out the character’s actual experiences, rich internal life, and breadth of emotions—

The same way authors would integrate a neurotypical character’s personality traits and interests.



About Author

Corinne Duyvis

Corinne Duyvis is a critically acclaimed author of sci-fi and fantasy novels. Otherbound, her YA fantasy debut, received four starred reviews; Kirkus Reviews called it “original and compelling; a stunning debut,” while BCCB praised its “subtle, nuanced examinations of power dynamics and privilege.” On the Edge of Gone, her second YA, is about an autistic girl during the apocalypse and received three starred reviews. SLJ said: “Insightful, suspenseful, and unsettling in its plausibility.” Her most recent novel is Guardians of the Galaxy: Collect Them All, an original novel set in the Marvel Universe.

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7 Comments

  1. Corinne,

    What a fortuitous time for me to run into this article (via Twitter). I’m working on a novel with an autistic main character, and I’ve been struggling with this exact issue. I just finished reading Rain Reign and Marcelo, and I enjoyed both books, but their characters bugged me a bit because of the exact thing you describe above – the autistic voice. I want my character’s thoughts to come across as more of a typical teen interpreting the world, but then have his autistic aspects appear whenever they might appear in real life. For example, my character has a clear understanding of what’s going on around him and what it means, but he has great difficulty expressing himself clearly, so he must sometimes think of creative ways to get his thoughts/opinions across.
    I would love to talk with you further about this, in the hope that you can help me make sure my character’s voice is more authentic and true-to-life — while not losing sight of the effects his autism has on his interactions with the world.
    If you have a moment, could you email me directly, so I can ask you a few questions?

    Thanks again for the fantastic post – very well-written and timely.

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  3. Yeah, this device *really* annoys me. I find that when I read things that actual autistic people have written, it really doesn’t sound “voicey” at all (case in point, your article, Corinne!). The “voicey-ness” might be a cool gimmick, but it is a complete misrepresentation of how any human being speaks/thinks.

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  7. OHMYGOD THANNK YOU. This is EXACTLY what I’ve been trying to say but I’ve been finding it so hard write it down properly! THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!

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