Tag Archives: Temple Grandin

Tackling the hot topic of autism

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.

Hearing voices

One of the things that can make or break your story is getting the voices of the characters right. You’re ploughing through a book, enjoying the plot and then one of the characters uses language that just doesn’t fit (e.g. a five-year-old uses the word ‘loquacious’ or something equally unlikely). The whole story suddenly becomes less plausible. Things don’t ring true.

One wrong word or phrase can stick out like a disastrous casting decision in a movie. Months of research on your plot can go to waste if the voices grate.

So how do you get the voices right? One of the tricks is to listen. If you’re writing about children, talk to them first. Listen to how they blend, shorten, mispronounce or approximate words. My daughter recently told me a princess in one of her videos was named “Uriness”. It took me a bit of work to establish that the castle staff were actually calling the princess “Your Highness”.

You’ll also need to do your research. Because one of my narrators in Game as Ned has an autism spectrum disorder, I did a lot of reading on how this can affect thinking, speaking and relating to the world. Most importantly, I found books by authors with autism such as Dr Temple Grandin and Donna Williams. This helped me view the world through eyes that brought different perspectives to my own.

Another character in GAN, Mick, is an ocker raised on a farm and suffering post traumatic stress disorder after his tour of duty in Vietnam. I’d assumed I’d be safe for Mick to use typically Aussie ‘strine’ expressions such as “she’ll be right” and “no worries, mate” but these were queried by the publishers as potentially too recent for a character in a 1970s setting. So you need to fact check voices too. Phrases and slang have use-by dates.

For the record, my intrepid wife tracked down a linguistics professor who was able to carbon date and verify the phrases I wanted to use.

You also need a good sense of what make your characters tick. If you understand and feel the things that motivate them, you should start to sense how they’d communicate. Would they have oft-repeated favourite words or phrases? Their own idiosyncratic idiom?

And, when you have spent enough time with your characters you might actually start to hear them in your head. Rather than a sign of madness, this can be a breakthrough moment. Writing their voices is almost like dictation once you can hear them.

I began writing GAN as a teenager. After a journalism career postponed the project, it was more than a decade before I returned to my manuscript. As I read through my earlier work, everything felt wrong. It took me a while to realise that, just as I had aged, so had my characters. Their voices sounded too young. I had a lot of rewriting ahead of me. The story is, I believe, the better for it.

Incidentally, there’s nothing to say a five-year-old can’t use the word loquacious. But if it’s going to be plausible you’ll need to create a character who can persuasively and believably spit out all those syllables.