, , ,

Both my girlfriend and myself are wannabe writers who would gladly give up our aspirations in science and international law respectively if we landed a publishing deal. Our writing styles are radically different, with her favouring elegant, witty, subtle prose, fantasy, historical fiction and science fiction, and me preferring to write bombastic, emotionally-driven, wordy prose which is deliberately vague on location and time period. One thing we do have in common is that we sometimes write autistic characters. In my case, I can’t help it, I write what I know, and what I know is an autistic viewpoint. I can write neurotypical characters of course, but I feel closer to the autistic ones, like I’m putting a bigger piece of myself onto the page than when I write a neurotypical character. Jaime will write autistic characters for differing reasons, such as exploring neurotypical arrogance and the sad shortcomings of a curebie mentality. Both of us really have a hard time connecting with autistic characters that we read in books written by neurotypicals (Though I’ve developed a curious crush on Glenn, aka Crake from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and Jaime has a similar crush on Lisbeth Salander) finding them to be one-dimensional and suffering from the curious phenomenon of having all of the symptoms of autism simultaneously, even when those symptoms contradict each other owing to the delightfully heterogeneous nature of autism.

I genuinely wish that there was a better selection of autistic characters written by neurotypicals. I think the best ways to accomplish this is for NT writers to get over the “anthropology” instinct that many develop towards characters who come from cultures, neurotypes, backgrounds, traditions, or ethnicities other than their own. It appears to be a de-facto assumption that this is the best way to learn about how your character would act. But that creates an iceberg effect, where you are only getting a small portion of what really goes on. This is especially true for writing autistic characters, because so much of what we do is not given a verbal explanation, and it’s very easy to get the wrong idea as to why we stim, or why some of us eat peculiar foods, why a piece of sheepskin is so appealing, and other common traits. The way to get over this is to get over this anthropology mentality and actively engage with autistic people (with their permission of course) and ask questions that you feel could be helpful to developing your character. Many would gladly help, if you treat them respectfully and don’t condescend. You could even offer credit to them once the book is complete.

Another way of approaching an autistic character is to not write from their first person perspective. First person is difficult for me in any case, but when my character is radically different from myself, it becomes a matter of saving a story to do it in second or third person, lest I screw up the character badly. This is probably why Jaime and I are more fond of Lisbeth and Crake than we are Christopher from The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night Time or Lou from The Speed of Dark. We can imagine what is going on in these character’s heads without having that ruined by a writer believing that breaking the rule of “show us, don’t tell us” is equivalent to writing an autistic POV.

But that’s only half of a solution towards more interesting, well-developed autistic characters. The other one should be obvious, judging from my opening paragraph eh? Promote the work of more autistic writers, and encourage autistic children who have an interest in verbal or descriptive fields to take up writing as a creative outlet. I believe that many autistic people are unaware that they can find satisfaction and creative expression in writing, only because there’s this strong assumption that we lack imagination. Rubbish. That’s not only insulting to autistic people, it’s insulting to fields which autistics (stereotypically) go into, like science and math. Do you think that Einstein, Newton, and other famed scientists could have seen what they saw without a spark of creativity?

Thus, promoting autistic writers and encouraging them to find their voice would serve two purposes: It would radically reduce autistic portrayals in literature as being purely outsider’s perspectives, and it would shatter stereotypes about what autistic people can and can’t do with their lives, which can only improve the quality of life for autistic people of all ability levels in all fields.