My lovely wife recently stumbled across this School Library Journal article which looks at depictions of autism spectrum disorders in fiction. The catalyst for the well argued piece was the tagging of a book with “current cool disability” on the very handy LibraryThing site.
Now, for those with no clue as to what the previous convoluted sentence means, here’s the skinny. LibraryThing is a website for anyone who wants to keep a record of books in their collection or titles they’ve been reading. Whenever you add a book to your online collection you can tag it to help other site users looking for similar tomes. For instance, I tag books in my collection with ‘books for boys’ if I think they will work for reluctant male readers. That makes them easier for me to find – and anyone else who might be interested.
So, someone read a book which features an autistic character and tagged it as “current cool disability.” Hmmmmm, wonder what the previous trendy disability was…
It’s a cheap shot. The fact that there are growing numbers of novels that explore autism doesn’t mean that this disorder is cool. It might mean that with rising numbers of autism diagnoses there’s a market for stories that shed new light on what can be a very challenging condition. I doubt that many families directly affected by autism would consider it cool. Heart-breaking, perhaps. Testing, yes. Inspiring. Instructive. Many other adjectives could be used. But not cool.
In my first novel, Game as Ned, the title character has a form of autism. I didn’t have autism in mind when I began writing. Apart from Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Asperger’s syndrome in Rain Man, I knew very little about it. But I could visualise my character acting in a particular way and needed to research why and how this behaviour might manifest. Many hours of research later, I found that autism could explain what I wanted to describe.
This was a start point, not an end to my research. I read books by authors with autism (especially Dr Temple Grandin and Donna Williams). I attended exhibitions by artists with autism. I spoke to families dealing with autism and interviewed disability professionals. All this work showed me autism spectrum disorders involve a vast range of behaviours, difficulties and abilities. It helped me understand a character in my story could express himself in a way that most of us would never consider. It was liberating and intimidating.
When I heard about Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time I was devastated. I didn’t think anyone else would want to read about an autistic teenager, given that CI had been so successful. A publisher assured me that yes, there was a market for novels relating to autism. Game as Ned was eventually launched by a very generous lady with extensive and personal experience of autism.
My book is now one of several novels that explore this condition. I believe this is a good thing. We all see the world in unique ways and if more of us understand this, fewer might judge, dismiss or belittle folk because they’re different. Sure, we could argue that a rash of books on vampires renders bloodsuckers hip. That doesn’t mean a handful of novels tackling autism makes for a groovy disability.
For references on autism spectrum disorders, scroll down my Teachers’ Notes page.