Writing Autistics: Fiction as Advocacy

by Jane Meyerding for Autism Acceptance Month, April 2012

We can only ever be very poor imitations of neurotypicals. We need to learn to be happily, successfully, independently autistic. --Landon Bryce

“Writing is a way of being happy even if what you're writing about is how unhappy you are," he explains. "Not in a therapeutic sense but in the sense that you get to convert things that you have to in life, perhaps, passively suffer into something that you can actively make on the page and so it can give you some sense of agency, power.” --Alan Shapiro

…the use of fiction gives us models of possibility. It gives us ways in which an event can fall out, you know? And it also gives us the pleasure of a sort of deeper competence, as if we see a wider landscape because we have put ourselves through the rehearsal of possibility in these various ways. --Marilynne Robinson

I’ve read that “we have to become the heroes of our own stories.” That may be a useful and, if Alan Shapiro is right, empowering goal for an individual autistic who needs to recover from being considered “defective.” For autistics as a group, as a demographic category, I think one important goal is to counter the stereotypical divide between the “intriguing savant” (the hero who “overcomes” or “transcends” autism) and the “pitiful sufferer” (the majority of those “afflicted by” autism). One way to work toward that goal is by creating a diversity of stories featuring realistic fictional autistics, each living a unique but distinctly autism-inflected life. Some of these autistic characters will be the “happily, successfully, independently autistic” people Landon Bryce calls us to be. Through characters we situate in less fortunate circumstances, we can illuminate the struggle required to move in that direction. Our characters can be, for other autistics and for non-autistics alike, what Marilynne Robinson calls “models of possibility.”

Here is one example. Although I never in my wildest dreams ever imagined myself writing a trilogy, I am delighted that things worked out that way. The character Kay Schneider, an autistic adult, showed up in my brain several years ago and decided to stick around. Working with Kay was great, because we got to share what we knew and were learning about living autistic lives. And once the first story was finished (Mapping Charlie, published 2010), I knew I wanted Kay to go out into the world, so other people could get to know her and gain some understanding of what her autistic life was like. Readers’ comments led me to believe Kay did provide that opportunity: they got to eavesdrop on her reactions to other people and to daily life events. What’s more, readers saw how the difference between Kay’s reactions and the reactions of non-autistics could cause confusion, misunderstandings, and even judgments dangerous to the well-being of the autistic in question.

Mapping Charlie also gave me a chance to highlight the success of Kay’s coping strategies, the utility of her talents, and her sense of humor. Over the course of the story, she becomes friends with a non-autistic person, a process in which both she and the new friend gain insights about friendship and about themselves.

In the second book (Forest for the Trees, out sometime in spring 2012), Kay has a service dog, and I love the way he makes previously undoable things possible for her. I also enjoy showing how NTs able to overcome their need for typical responses can come to enjoy interaction with autistics. The process by which someone gradually learns to let go of her normative expectations is fun to imagine, and I hope those characters may inspire some NT(s) out there to give it a try.

Equally enjoyable has been the writing, in book number three (under revision), of Kay’s encounter with another adult autistic and his young autistic daughter. Kay, like many adult-diagnosed autistics, has lived much of her life in isolation from other autistics, finally making contact via the Internet. When she is asked to advocate for an autistic adult, her experience allows me to show not only how easily an autistic can be misunderstood by NTs, but also how an autistic advocate can help a willing NT comprehend the reality of neurodiverse experiences of the world. Autistic differences from NT expectations can be positive without being “special” in the sense of spectacular abilities that “exoticize” the autistic in NT eyes.

I’d really like more (and more) autistics to try writing fiction that highlights a variety of autistic experience. Autobiographies are good and important; so are non-biographical non-fiction books about autistic lives. But I really long for there to exist a range of novels illustrating all our “flavors.” I’ve written my novels (so far) as mysteries because I need the support of a genre structure, and because I grew up reading the mysteries my mother and sister checked out of the library. Since many people don’t like and won’t read mysteries, I want to encourage other autistics to write novels in other genres, too – or to write “literary” novels that are not perceived as belonging to a genre. Like other groups before us (lesbians, for example, or people of color in the U.S.), we can make ourselves more real and less “strange” to those around us through the books we create. Fiction gives us the freedom (as writers) to show autistic realities from all sides, not just from our own, and to invite readers into worlds where they can walk with autistics on all kinds of roads.

Why don’t more autistics write fiction? Well, I know that writing fiction used to seem impossible to me. By my early 20s, I was sure I’d never be able to understand people well enough to write about them. Two things changed my mind eventually. First, I gradually increased my ability to recognize patterns of behavior and relate them to what I had learned about the human operating system most prevalent in the culture where I lived. Decades of reading played a huge role in that growth of understanding, along with watching TV/movies and becoming better able to focus on and analyze social interactions going on around me (not to mention the steady, cumulative effects of daily life). Well, now we can return the favor by allowing NTs the same kind of access to autistic lives in fiction. Most of us can’t create TV shows or movies, but technology is making it easier and easier to get our written work out there where people can find it.

The second realization that led me to attempt fiction was that fictional characters are, well, fictional. They are made-up, in a very literal sense. A fiction writer doesn’t need to understand the people around her down to their innermost core. All she needs to do is create characters her readers can understand and accept as plausible. When all is said and done, the only human being I’m ever going to understand all the way through, inside and out, is the one I have created myself – in the literary rather than the literal sense. Nobody knows Kay better than I do!

I think fiction can be an effective kind of advocacy. Creating an autistic character and narrating his or her passage through the world (any world) provides a wealth of opportunities for illustrating autistic differences and the ways in which the NT-designed culture can determine whether a difference functions as an advantage or is stigmatized and penalized as a disability or a flaw. As long as the story engages the reader, the advocacy will occur with the unwitting collusion of the reader, who will keep learning simply because, of course, we all want to know how the story ends.

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