There has been a boom of books about autistic characters in the past years, which should be really exciting. Except there seems to be a formula to the way they’re being marketed, and sadly, it’s a problematic one. Plot summaries are designed to highlight the story conflict, the question the protagonist must answer, the obstacles they must overcome. It’s a great marketing tool, an elevator pitch, so you can see what the book is about — or at least, part of what the book is about. Marketing departments choose to focus a book in a certain way when they write these summaries, and summaries for kidlit featuring autism often seem to focus on the same things. Let’s look at some real summaries — edited only for length — to several autistic kidlit titles. See if you can spot the pattern.
Emma-Jean Lazarus is a lovable oddball who thinks she can use logic to solve the messy everyday problems of her seventh-grade peers. It’s easy: she just follows the example of her late father, a brilliant mathematician. Of course, the more Emma-Jean gets involved, the messier her own life gets. Suddenly she’s no longer the person standing on the outside of all social interactions. But perhaps that’s a good thing?
— Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis
Thirteen-year-old Merilee Monroe maintains a Very Ordered Existence, VOE for short. As long as she keeps up with her minute-by-minute daily schedule, she can avoid the internal trauma caused by change and spontaneity. So when two very distracting newcomers arrive in town, Merilee does her best to ignore them and stick to her plans. But can even a VOE have some room for friendship?
— The Very Ordered Existence of Merilee Marvelous by Suzanne Crowley
Rose Howard has OCD, Asperger’s syndrome, and an obsession with homonyms (even her name is a homonym). She gave her dog Rain a name with two homonyms (Reign, Rein), which, according to Rose’s rules of homonyms, is very special. … Now Rose has to find her dog, even if it means leaving her routines and safe places to search.
— Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin
Colin Fischer cannot stand to be touched. He does not like the color blue. He needs index cards to recognize facial expressions. … Colin Fischer is a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, and his story — as told by the screenwriters of X-Men: First Class and Thor — is perfect for readers who have graduated from Encyclopedia Brown and who are ready to consider the greatest mystery of all: what other people are thinking and feeling.
— Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz
Kiara has Asperger’s syndrome, and it’s hard for her to make friends. … But being a true friend is more complicated than Mr. Internet could ever explain, and it might be just the thing that leads Kiara to find her own special power.
— Rogue by Lyn Miller-Lachmann
In Caitlin’s world, everything is black or white. Things are good or bad. Anything in between is confusing. … Caitlin discovers that not everything is black and white—the world is full of colors—messy and beautiful.
— Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
Eddy Thomas can read a college physics book but can’t read emotions on faces of his classmates. He can spend hours tinkering with inventions but can’t spend more than a few minutes in crowds. … Eddy invents a traffic signal using parts he has scavenged from discarded machines. When his invention fails, he needs to go outside his comfort zone and find another solution. Along the way, Eddy discovers new friends, who help him realize that his childhood “friend” Mitch is really just a bully. As he grows to better understand the world around him, Eddy gains courage to face the bully and moves beyond a purely mechanical definition of success.
— The Reinvention of Edison Thomas by Jacqueline Houtman
There were plenty more I could’ve chosen from, but these particularly highlight the problem. Keep in mind I know nothing about these authors, if they are on the spectrum, what amount of research they’ve done, how autism is handled in the book itself. None of it. But do you see the trend?
In each of these summaries, the character’s innate personality traits, their autism, are listed as the flaws they need to fix. Their symptoms or quirks are given top billing, as though they’re what make the characters interesting. For some of these, it seems relevant to the plot, like if everything is black or white for Caitlin and she has to learn to see beyond that, even if it is stereotypical. But for others — how is Colin hating the color blue relevant to the character or plot? — those quirks are being listed as intriguing selling points, even though they tell us nothing about the character in the story’s context. Like we’re just our quirks, nothing more.
I don’t know if the main plot in each of these books is about the character having to overcome their autism — I suspect at least some of them are — but they are being marketed as such. In other words, marketers think this is the framework of story that will most draw in readers: presenting autism as the character arc and conflict of all of these books.
Some people do want to overcome their disabilities, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when that’s all we see, especially coming from outside the disabled community itself, or it’s portrayed without nuance, it can be problematic. The message we receive is that the only way we will be accepted is by our assimilation. But our disabilities are things to be worked with, not bulldozed over, just like any other aspect of a person. There can be no self-acceptance in a narrative that relies on viewing our illnesses as inherently faulty. And when they are then marketed in this way, it reinforces the idea of disabled people as Other, rather than someone to be related to as another complete human being. These summaries set these characters apart not because they’re the protagonists but because of their differences as people, and how they can become less different.
To me, that’s the antithesis of what kidlit is about.