Worldbuilding is a key aspect of speculative fiction. When we worldbuild, we imagine a world that is different from the daily one we live in. That difference can be small (it’s two minutes in the future and the Internet is slightly more advanced) or large (we all live in city-sized walker-mechs roaming a vast plain of bones that drift like sand) or anywhere in between. Either way, speculative fiction is work that focuses on that difference, work that immerses us in it. But the choices we make when building a fictional world can reflect on the world that we live in now. So how do we worldbuild with disability in mind?
I’m going to talk about some examples I’ve seen of different ways successful authors worldbuild while including autism. Autism is my specialty, because I’m an autistic writer of speculative fiction myself. (I’ll also be including topics unusual to Disability in Kidlit, such as adult fiction and short stories, in order to better make some of my points.) However, all of what I’m written here applies to the kind of worldbuilding you’d use in a young adult book, and I hope that most of it also generalizes to other disabilities. In my reading, I’ve encountered three basic strategies: worldbuilding about, through, or with a disability.
Utopias and Dystopias: Worldbuilding About Autism
One approach to take with worldbuilding is to put disability at the center. We can imagine a world in which disabled people, or the entire concept of disability, are completely different. The difference might not be good or bad, but the most common way of building with these differences is to make a utopia or dystopia. The tradition of utopian and dystopian worldbuilding involves thinking about what problems you see in today’s society, and either eliminating them, or taking one of them to such an extreme that it plunges the world into misery.
The planet Guera in C.S. Friedman’s This Alien Shore is an example of utopian disability worldbuilding. On Guera, everyone has a mental or sensory disability, including autism. Since everyone has one, disabilities are no longer stigmatized. Instead, they are codified and accommodated. Guerans are proud of their kaja—the cultural symbols denoting different disabilities, and see each kaja as an irreplaceable part of individual identity, bringing characteristic strengths as well as difficulties.
Guera is a much more accommodating place than our world today, but that doesn’t mean it’s free from problems. Elsewhere in the same book, societies exist where ableism is even more pronounced than today. On Earth, humans long ago wiped out all disabilities from their own population. So when Earth and Guera enter a power struggle over new forms of space travel, ableist prejudice and Guerans’ reactions to it are what come to the forefront. Simply by imagining different ways of handling disability and their consequences, Friedman ends up with a complex world full of interesting conflicts for a story to center around.
Dystopias serve as an even more direct social commentary than utopias. By showing the terrible consequences of something when taken “to its logical conclusion,” a dystopia serves as a straightforward critique of that thing. In this light, ableism is as good a basis for a dystopia as any other. But the critique offered by a dystopia works best when the imagined increases in ableism don’t come out of nowhere; they should be attitudes and actions that could logically progress, with a little more time and technology, from the way things are today.
One example of an autism dystopia that works this way is Erika Hammerschmidt and John C. Ricker’s YA novel Kea’s Flight. Hammerschmidt and Ricker’s premise sounds fanciful on its face—instead of selective abortion, developmentally disabled embryos are put into a spaceship, and flown far away, to colonize another planet! But the details that bring it to life on the page are drawn from present lived experience. The inflexible, infantalizing attitudes of the ship’s able-bodied crew echo Hammerschmidt’s own experience in special education classrooms. This is what helps the book ring true despite its science-fictional twists.
Similarly, in Meda Kahn’s short story “Difference of Opinion,” what’s really frightening about the dystopian future presented is that the attitudes of the people in the story aren’t too different from people’s attitudes now. Only the technologies they can use to keep autistic people out of the way—including a memory erasing procedure and a Committee for Eugenics—have increased.
This kind of worldbuilding results in a heavy focus, not just on disabled characters, but on the social treatment of disabled people and ideas about how it should and shouldn’t be done. Utopian and dystopian impulses are a good way to develop stories about disability—and the social structures that keep it in place.
Culture Shock: Worldbuilding Through Autism
Let’s say you want a softer approach. You want a world where everything is a little different from how it is here and now—including our approaches to disability—but you don’t want approaches to disability to be your main starting point. This kind of worldbuilding is great and very doable; it results from building a complex world, and then tracing the implications of how the culture, magic, or technology in that world would affect an autistic person.
A really good example of this kind of worldbuilding is Rose Lemberg’s Birdverse. One Nebula-nominated Birdverse story, “Grandmother Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds,” centers around a family from a culture called the Khana. The Khana are deeply divided along gender lines: men are scholars who stay cloistered, while women travel and trade. Because men are scholars who read and write, a minimally verbal child named Kimi can’t be accepted by the Khana as a man. So Kimi instead goes on adventurous trading journeys with their sisters. The underlying attitudes of different people towards Kimi—family who respect and support them, strangers who are helpful, and others who are not so helpful or who see them as a burden—are recognizable from life, but the culture of the Khana and of others in the story puts its own twist on how those attitudes are expressed.
Magic and technology can also affect how autistic people experience the world. Most obviously, some technologies are intended as assistive in nature. Even technology not intended to be assistive can change autistic people’s experiences—think of how the Internet, for example, has affected the social lives of some autistic people who have a limited ability to socialize in person. Any technological (or magical) change potentially gives you an avenue like this to explore.
Magic and technology can also cause problems for a worldbuilder, though—because at some point, technology will emerge that could be used as a “cure.” There are already a lot of stories depicting what might happen if autistic people were offered (or pressured towards) a cure, and in general, it’s a story that many autistic readers are tired of hearing. But if people in your story can magically or medically rewire people’s brains, how do you justify not simply turning autistic characters neurotypical?
A simple answer is write your story so that the technology exists, but not everyone wants to use it. Maybe nobody does. Maybe some people do, but those who don’t are respected and given other viable options. Maybe cost, risk, and other factors make the technology inaccessible or undesirable for some. If respect for autism as an identity exists in your world, then you can pull this off without making it the focus of the whole story.
Even This Alien Shore does this to some degree: Guerans have the technology to change parts of their brains. But most don’t use it, because they are proud of their kaja, and see changing their kaja as sacrificing a part of themselves. Some do choose to make that sacrifice, to a degree—usually opting to reduce some of the effects of the kaja rather than erasing it altogether—and that choice is also respected.
A second example comes from another Birdverse story, “Geometries of Belonging.” The main character, Healer Parét, is a mind-healer who can magically tinker with many aspects of a patient’s mind. An autistic teenager named Dedéi is sent to Parét, by their abusive family, to be cured. But Dedéi does not want to be cured. Parét refuses to perform the procedure, because it is important to him to never use his magic without consent. Instead, Parét befriends Dedéi and helps them find a way to escape.
Magic, technology, and cultural customs are one thing; attitudes are another. By combining these intelligently, you can build worlds where your autistic people are respected and supported by the people around them—in ways that are very different, yet recognizable, to readers who live here and now.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here: Worldbuilding With Autism
What if your secondary world isn’t that different from the real world? Maybe you want to write an autistic character, right here and now, who just happens to meet wizards or vampires or aliens. Or maybe you want to write a few hundred years in the future or past, but you don’t want to fixate on how autism might be different in your setting; you want your autistic character’s experiences to be drawn straight from life.
It’s totally fine to write a story where nothing “affects” your characters’ autism—they just have it, and go on magical adventures anyway. A good example of a magical realist story like this is Nino Cipri’s “A Silly Love Story.” Jeremy, the protagonist, is a young man who’s described only as “neurodiverse,” but who can easily be read as autistic or as having a related disability. His autism has an effect on him: most notably, he’s having difficulty with the transition to adulthood, and with school/jobs. But that’s not the focus of the story. It’s on his cute budding romance with a person named Merion, and on that pesky poltergeist in his closet! The result is fun and heartwarming, and none the worse for its lack of emphasis on Jeremy’s neurotype.
Stories where autistic people just matter-of-factly have the same adventures as anyone else are great, and you don’t have to stick with modern magical realism to make them work, either. You can write them in almost any genre. All that’s required is that the differences between how autism is treated in your storyworld and how it’s treated here and now are small enough to fade into the background without being confusing. So for example, you can have a story like Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, set three hundred years in the future with spaceships and hollowed-out asteroids. Fitz Wahram, an autistic androgyn, has adventures with politics and romance and getting stranded on dangerous planets. There are a couple of scenes that mention aspects of how he manages being autistic (he takes vasopressin, for instance), but the focus isn’t there. It’s on the adventures!
But of course, there’s also the other reason you might want to set an autism story here and now. You might not want to write a character who “just happens” to be autistic; you might want to write about the problems that real autistic people have here and now, while also including science or magic. It’s OK and important to center these things, too.
A good example here is Corinne Duyvis’s YA novel On the Edge of Gone. This story is set only a few years in the future. A comet is hitting the earth, and some people have hastily developed new technologies like spaceships to deal with it; apart from the spaceships, though, On the Edge of Gone’s setting is taken directly from the present-day Netherlands. The near-future setting allows Duyvis’s autistic protagonist, Denise, to struggle with survival and ableism in ways that are instantly recognizable to an autistic reader, without any far-fetched magical or technological complexities getting in the way.
Whatever your worldbuilding flavor, there’s a way to work autism in—and whatever kind of story you want for your autistic characters, there’s a world for it. Utopian and dystopian writing can use concerns about disability as the basis for a whole world. Autism can intersect in fascinating ways with the technological and cultural details of your world. Or autism can be treated the way it is here and now—which can be an opportunity to comment directly on real-world disability issues, or to focus on including autistic characters in a more universal experience. Either way, speculative fiction gives us a full box of tools to write exciting adventures for all sorts of autistic people—in any possible world.