Why Autism Representation Matters in Literature

Representation and diversity are two words on everyone’s lips in the book world. As a book blogger, writer and general book world lurker, I see these conversations go back and forth in the news, in events, on twitter. When will we see representations of X in literature? Can we do better than this singular example of X? These are incredibly important questions, particularly in the world of autism.

I’m one of the “Lost Generation“. I got diagnosed as autistic at twenty eight, only six months ago. It’s a strange thing discovering that you’ve been living your life not knowing a really quite fundamental thing about yourself. I had always felt like everyone else had an insight into the workings of society that I lacked, but I chalked that up to just being a bit weird, awkward, somewhat uncomfortable in my own skin.

autism in literature

Skip forward to my mid twenties, when a friend of mine got diagnosed after meeting another autistic woman. After reading into experiences of people raised-as-women, I realised I was autistic (I’ve written about this on the blog this week here). Recognising myself in other people was key to my diagnostic journey.

I decided to approach being autistic as I do with any new project – research the heck out of it. I immersed myself in books about autism or those that featured prominent autistic characters, partly as a learning experience but also to see how people like me were represented across the board. Even pre-diagnosis, I knew that there was slim pickings for media representations of autistic people.

Most people’s experience of autism is Rain Man or Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. The former is pretty good, if usually the one people have in mind when I disclose that I am autistic, trying desperately to match my actions to Dustin Hoffman’s. Hoffman spent a lot of time with autistic people such as Kim Peake, learning how to hold himself and see the world as we do.

The Curious Incident presents a problem however. The book has become well known as a piece of fiction written about autism, and now has a popular theatre adaptation in London. The issue is that Mark Haddon openly did the bare minimum of research into autistic people’s lives and thought processes, instead choosing to give it a good go based on what he thought was probably right. [source: here] It’s frustrating because he hides behind a defence of “i never said the word autism” and whenever I tell people they are a little bit furious. So much of what they knew about autism was based on that book. Pretty sloppy research there Mark.

I didn’t get that buzz of recognition from either of these, likely because Raymond Babbitt’s presentation of autism is different from mine and Christopher Boone’s is made of loose stereotypes.

Where were the girls? As a lover of children’s and young adult fiction, I dived headfirst into the shelves, messaging publicists for information on novels they had that featured autistic main or prominent side characters.

best autism books

I’m incredibly relieved to say that the results of this excursion so far have been largely positive. The first book I read that gave me the buzz of recognition, a flutter in my stomach, was Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. Caitlin describes how her therapist and parents would encourage her to look at people, reminding her to look for a period of time and look away. The author writes this as To Look at the Person, her use of capitalisation illustrating the manual nature of attempting “normalised” socialisation. I laughed out loud, recognising my own thought processes and lists when confronted with new social situations. While Mockingbird does confuse a lack of empathy with alixithimia, it is a solid autistic first-person children’s novel.

I got the buzz again with Ann M. Martin, author of The Baby-Sitter’s Club, released How to Look For a Lost Dog (known as Rain Reign in USA). Rose lives in a life of homophones and prime numbers, collecting them like pearls. Martin also touches on the parental abuse often faced by autistic people, grief and the special connection autistic people can make with animals.

But the buzz I got from The State of Grace, the first novel about an autistic main character written by an autistic person, was barely comparable. Rachael Lucas’ first young adult novel follows Grace as she experiences her first crush and date with the most desirable boy in school, against a background of her family falling apart. It is charming and honest and wonderful. The end pages of the final edition even have a list of things neurotypical people can do to help autistic people.

Another time I experienced it was with Naoki Higashida’s first book The Reason I Jump, a collection of essays written by a nonverbal autistic Japanese boy about his life, being autistic and the frustrations of being disabled and underestimated. It’s a truly wonderful collection and this week I received an early copy of his next book, Fall Down 7 Get Up 8. I flapped and squealed for ten minutes upon opening the package.

I still hold out a little space in my heart for Hermione Granger being autistic because she was the closest I found as a kid, someone else who was a bit literal, a bit too serious, a bit too studious for her peers.

The common theme in those books I mentioned are that two are written by autistic people, and the other two are written by people who are close to autistic people. They are authentic, genuine experiences of autistic people’s lives and also highlight why multiple representations are important, especially with autism where two individuals’ experiences can almost be poles apart.

Reading about other people’s experiences as autistic people were instrumental in understanding my own, and I hope that by promoting these important books I can help someone else feel that buzz of recognition.

Lizzie is an autistic book blogger and writer living in West London. On her blog, Hux Tales, she hosts a review list of books featuring prominent autistic characters or non fiction works about autism, called The Essential Autie List. She aims to teach every person she meets something new about autism, to dispel stereotypes and work to better the lives of other autistic people. She tweets @littlehux and vlogs at Sew Many Books.

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4 Comments

  1. 31 March 2017 / 5:41 pm

    Reading your post, I realise that autism does lack representation in books. There are many books that focus on mental illness, but not this particular form. I will make sure to add these books to my TBR list.

    http://www.carmensreadingcorner.co.uk

    • 2 April 2017 / 6:33 pm

      Lizzie will be so glad to hear that you've added these books to your list! Like you mentioned Autism isn't as well represented in books but the ones that Lizzie has mentioned are great examples of those that do 🙂

  2. 1 April 2017 / 4:41 pm

    What a lovely post, it really got me thinking about how books can help for the better. I can't believe how late you were diagnosed too, gosh!

    Lauren x Huggled

    • 2 April 2017 / 6:35 pm

      Unfortunately women and girls are still having trouble getting diagnosed as well as boys/men so it's not uncommon for this to happen. Hopefully this will change soon so the diagnosis system isn't so male-orientated!

      I'll let Lizzie know that you enjoyed her guest post and be sure to follow her too 🙂

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