Problems with the Portrayal of Autism in Literature

Mar 13, 2017

I recently discovered this excellent website. There are some great articles on the site about the issues with representation of autistic characters in young adult, middle grade, and children's books. I'm interested in this because I'm currently writing a Y.A. book that features an autistic character. I will definitely take some of the advice to heart. The collective critique that can be drawn from these articles reminds me of Edward Said's foundational, post-colonial work Orientalism which showed how the 'Orient' had been posited in western academia as a culturally static thing (other) that could be studied, depicted, and reproduced. In these articles, the authors are often decrying a similar sort of 'Austim-ism' in which autism is posited as a compendium of traits largely drawn from the DSM 5 diagnostic criteria which are foisted onto characters. These characters do not grow or evolve in the common literary sense. Instead, their autism is used as a device that drives the plot and often must be overcome in order to achieve resolution. Some of my favorite quotes:

“Autism, in this landscape, is never simply a part of a character’s identity, and it never was. Instead, it’s merely a means to an end, a storytelling device, something to move a plot, and the characters, along.” (http://disabilityinkidlit.com/2015/04/22/the-extra-special-autistic/)

"In truth, though, our autism does not exist “for” anyone; and neither is it targeted at anyone, either to hurt or to help. It affects both us and others, in both good and bad ways, and it doesn’t make us less real or less human.  It can be shown similarly in fiction; we can be active characters with agency, instead of being included to make other characters sympathetic or to provide education or entertainment." (http://disabilityinkidlit.com/2015/12/18/autistic-representation-and-real-life-consequences/)

"Fiction can show good character growth for autistic characters. For example, it could show us gaining coping skills, learning to accept ourselves, and learning how being disabled affects us and what it means. (Note that we can grow in some of the same ways that non-autistic people do, too—it doesn’t all have to be about autism!)" (http://disabilityinkidlit.com/2015/12/18/autistic-representation-and-real-life-consequences/)

"If authors do want to center the plot on their autism, let’s read about a character exploring and learning to understand their own behavior. Teach them self-acceptance, self-advocacy, and coping skills. That would be nice to see for a change."(http://disabilityinkidlit.com/2015/04/26/happy-endings-and-overcoming-autism/)

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