The Extra-Special Autistic

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In 2003, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time debuted to widespread critical acclaim and substantial autistic eyerolling. The British mystery novel revolved around Christopher John Francis Boone, a character with an unspecified condition that was identified as ‘high-functioning autism’ or ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ or the dreaded ‘savant syndrome’ in promotional copy. Like most autistic characters, he wasn’t actually defined as such in the book, a telling testimony to society’s determination to shy away from openly discussing autism. Boone finds himself drawn into a mystery when the neighbour’s dog goes missing, and the book pulls readers along as he investigates and makes entries in his ‘mystery book.’

One of the reasons the book was so widely heralded was a key artifice of the plot: This was a mystery that only Boone could solve, one that required the application of his magical autistic powers.

This kind of exceptionalist narrative might, at first glance, seem like a positive or even empowering one. At last, autistic readers can plunge into texts where their identities are presented as a positive, where their personality traits become keys to solving problems and viewing the world with a new perspective. But, as it always goes when it comes to depictions of disability, the situation is much more complicated than that–because the truth is that many autistic people are utterly unexceptional–just like neurotypical people–and there’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t expect every neurotypical person to be a crack detective, so how does it follow that we demand the same of autistics?

These stories construct autism as a singular set of symptoms and a very narrow range of experiences, rather than an incredibly diverse spectrum, and every personality trait of every character is ascribed to autism, as is every achievement. A character who’s been abused by her father was abused because she was autistic–and her subsequent anxiety and PTSD were caused by her autism, which made it impossible to process her experiences. A character is able to solve mysteries with the power of his autism. Another character has the power to save the world, but not because she’s a talented problem solver, or because she works with those around her, or because she’s worked hard to acquire the needed skillset: It’s because she’s autistic.

Such frameworks position autism as either a distinct advantage–rather than just part of a character’s personality–or as something that needs to be overcome in order to unlock a mystery, enter into the ‘real world,’ become emotionally available to friends and family, or resolve a situation. Here, autism is a stumbling block and a barrier that keeps the character from ever achieving true success and happiness unless it can be suppressed, sending a stark lesson to real-world autistics that they must needs hide and subvert their identities in order to be both accepted and respected in the world at large. Their autism, such books tell them, is preventing true success in life.

The idea that perhaps the world should shift to accommodate the character’s autism is never brought up.

Either characters have been blessed by the magical autism fairy, who sprinkles them with sparkling dust so they can go forth into the world and do inspirational good, or they’ve been cursed by the autism bad witch, and they need to find a pail of water to throw over her.

In these sorts texts where autism is used as little more than a tool, characters like Boone are rarely fully-formed and dynamic, with authors relying heavily on their autism to carry them, without any additional characterisation. Moreover, such texts usually portray a very strange version of autism, one that would be rather strikingly unfamiliar to many autistics, because it doesn’t reflect an accurate and authentic version of the autistic experience. Such characters ‘play autism,’ as it were, with authors selecting from what feels like a narrow box of traits to describe their autistic characters: Either they are ‘high’ or ‘low’ functioning and their personalities are sorted accordingly, relying on stereotypes and vague beliefs about what autism must be like. While many autistics agree that functioning labels are troubling and inaccurate, they’re a frequent character device, with ‘low’ functioning characters being treated as less valuable and in some cases less human–or, when they are human, as object lessons for neurotypical characters. Here, the magical autism fairy strikes with a shower of inspirational autism-as-plot-device sparkles.

‘Low’ functioning characters don’t speak, rock back and forth frantically, moan or grunt, and have wrought inner monologues if we’re allowed glimpses into their thoughts at all, betraying a lack of understanding of autistic communication and experiences and casting these behaviours as the entirety of the character’s personality–a character isn’t portrayed as a person, just as an object who sits in the corner grunting to herself. Some are violent, others prone to doing things that embarrass family members in public–particularly siblings. ‘High’ functioning characters are equally one-dimensional, their characters once again reduced to a series of traits.  They’re often unbearably clever and come with ‘cute quirks,’ like needing to count or touch things in a certain order before leaving the house, or having to do math problems before they can calm down (Rain Man provides a particularly egregious example). Neither set of traits is negative–but their execution can be, and the very use of functioning labels carries a stigma, suggesting that there is something inhuman about those slapped with the ‘low’ label, and that ‘high’ functioning autistics are acceptable either by virtue of their ability to pass in society or because of their special traits, like a high degree of mathematical competency or the ability to acquire languages with ease.

‘High’ functioning autistics are the most common narrators and stars (Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with her obsessive tendencies, Marcelo in Marcelo in the Real World with his internal music, Clover Donovan in Viral Nation with her anxiety and service dog)–while Very Special Episode ‘low’ functioning characters are doomed to serve as objects and lessons for neurotypical characters in other texts (see: Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird living the ‘gentle giant’ trope, Natalie in Al Capone Does My Shirts with her constant tantrums and counting, David in Rules with his lack of understanding about the ‘rules’ of life). Few books featuring autistic characters are written by autistics, offering few opportunities to see autism reflected through lived experience, rather than the nondisabled lens.

In The London Eye Mystery, siblings Ted and Kat have to track down their missing cousin Salim–and Ted is a classic inwardly focused ‘savant’ character who’s an absolute wizard with numbers, but awkward and clunky around people. The book pushes Ted out of his comfort zone and proposes that while his talents help solve the mystery, he’s also forced to overcome the ‘challenge’ of his autism in order to find his cousin and achieve his true destiny. It’s Ted’s sharp eye that finds the solution to the puzzle, but readers are never allowed to forget that his brain ‘runs differently’ from that of the other characters, an exceptionalist narrative in which someone in distress wouldn’t saved without the intervention of an savant, but the savant himself is a cardboard, one-dimensional character.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close follows nine-year-old Oskar in a post-11 September landscape as he attempts to sort out the mystery of a key, labeled ‘Black,’ that he finds in the ruins of a smashed vase. Once again, the exceptionalist tendencies of a character with autism–a sense of dogged pursuit, for example, appear, and they’re tempered with stereotypical ‘autistic child’ traits, like self-harm and anxiety, as though a child who’d lost a parent in the World Trade Center attacks wouldn’t have anything to be anxious about, or wouldn’t experience depression.

As he criss-crosses the city trying to find and talk to every Black in New York and track down the story of the key, little does he know that his mother has called ahead, warning everyone about their soon-to-arrive young visitor. The result is a somewhat saccharine narrative of a small child determinedly plodding through a city in the hopes that he can find out who his father really was, while being secretly nudged from behind the scenes by his mother. It’s a strange mix of exceptionalism (his determination to solve the mystery) and autism-as-obstacle (the need for his mother to go behind his back).

The Silence of Murder, meanwhile, tells the story of a murder suspect with selective mutism through the voice of his sister, Hope–literally depriving a character of the right to speak for himself and tell his own story. When Jeremy is accused of a killing, his sister decides that her sibling couldn’t have committed the crime, in a story that paints the autistic character as a simplistic, generous person, a characterisation that conjures up the familiar stereotype of disabled people as sweet and inspiring angels brought to Earth to bathe nondisabled people in their goodness. This characterisation is made all the easier by the fact that he doesn’t speak and spoil the illusion.

Autism, in this landscape, is never simply a part of a character’s identity, and it never was. Instead, it’s merely a means to an end, a storytelling device, something to move a plot, and the characters, along. Such characters seem to be everywhere, perpetuating the notion that autism gives people special abilities, whether they be mystery solving or animal taming or mathematical ability. This narrative approach presupposes the idea that autistics are just people, who aren’t defined by their autism any more than blondes are defined by the colour of their hair.



About Author

s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California, with a journalistic focus on social issues, particularly gender, prison reform, disability rights, environmental justice, queerness, class, and the intersections thereof, with a special interest in rural subjects. International publication credits include work for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, and AlterNet, among many other news outlets and magazines. smith's writing on representations of disability in science fiction and fantasy was recently featured in The WisCon Chronicles, Volume 7. Assisted by cats Loki and Leila, smith lives in Fort Bragg, California.

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8 Comments

  1. This has been a fantastic series that everybody writing books touching on autism (either with a protagonist or a supporting character) should be reading.

    One theme that’s come up several times is that the use of “high-” and “low-functioning” is problematic. I kind of understand how these labels are problematic (they’re labels, for one), but I also see a big difference between the people in my life who have what was called Aspberger’s and my friend’s daughter, who may or may not be able to live independently when she reaches adulthood. The former group have a different set of struggles and need different accommodation (mostly understanding) than the former. Is there a better way to draw those distinctions?

  2. Thanks for the links.

    I can see why you read my comment that way, but to be clear, I wasn’t looking for new terms, but an understanding of the issues around the terminology and categorization.

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