Autism in Literature

Autism in Literature

A pop quiz to start: apart from being characters written by female authors, what do Boo Radley, Frankenstein’s monster, Mr Darcy and Luna Lovegood have in common?

Answer: All these characters appear in academic texts, books, blogs and/or discussion forums as having characteristics that define them, retrospectively, as autistic.

Attributing physical or mental conditions to fictional characters is neither new nor unusual, but is it helpful, either for our understanding of the books in which these characters appear, or for our understanding of these alleged disorders?

Firstly, actually, is it accurate? Frankenstein’s monster has long been a poster-boy for disenfranchisement and oppression, but he is also, according to American academic Julia Miele Rodas, a “persuasive autism advocate”.

In a 2011 essay she discussed his language development, his internal eloquence, and Frankenstein’s refusal to let his creation be part of society, in the context of how people with autism can feel. It’s compelling stuff.

As far as Mr Darcy is concerned, in 2007 Canadian speech pathologist Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer wrote a whole book on characters in Pride and Prejudice whom she perceived to be autistic.

She wrote that Darcy’s “unaccountable rudeness” and awkward social behaviour can be blamed on “high-functioning autism or Asperger’s (sic) syndrome”.

The National Association for the Teaching of English dismissed Bottomer’s ideas as “wonderfully absurd“, but it is possible, of course, that both Austen and Shelley wrote autistic characters without knowing it; in the early 19th century there was no word for autism.

With characters invented after the term was coined, though, diagnosis becomes more difficult; surely if Harper Lee or JK Rowling had intended Boo or Luna to be autistic, they would have said so?

Lee, notoriously private, has never said that Boo Radley was autistic, but he has been widely discussed on forums and blogs; academics and general readers have concluded that he would now be diagnosed as having an Autism spectrum disorder.

Rowling has publicly expressed her love of Luna, describing her as ‘…slightly out of step in many ways’ and, perhaps less politically correct, ‘completely out to lunch but fantastic’.

With authors neither confirming nor denying their characters’ apparent disabilities, readers are given free rein to see whatever characteristics they want. If you have a disability of your own, then it seems reasonable that you’d want to feel an affinity with characters in the books you love.

Caroline Narby, a Master’s student and writer from Boston, has a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome. She believes that “diagnosing” a character as autistic is impossible, because “one can only work with the clues in the text” rather than observing him/her “against a diagnostic rubric.” However she has no issue with “reading” a character as autistic if there is support within the character’s behaviour.

"it isn't just desirable but necessary for us to read autism or autistic difference..." In fact she thinks this reading is valuable: “…characters that are explicitly identified as autistic by the author or within the text are limited to a very narrow range of tropes and stereotypes.

For autistic readers looking for ourselves in the fiction we consume, it isn’t just desirable but necessary for us to read autism or autistic difference onto characters who are not explicitly identified as such. It’s usually the only way for us to see ourselves reflected in the stories that we cherish.”

Carol Povey from the National Autistic Society agrees.

“Explaining these much loved characters’ behaviour through the prism of autism and Asperger syndrome is a sign that awareness and understanding of this complex communication disorder is growing. And that’s to be welcomed. Children and adults with autism can experience bullying throughout their lives so anything that helps shatters misconceptions and aids understanding can only be a good thing.”

So on the one hand, reading autism into literature is clearly positive. How about from a purely literary point-of-view? Writing in The Guardian in 2007, Shirley Dent asked whether retrospective diagnoses help us understand the books better, and decided that they don’t.

“…having a neat medical tick box in which to place a character and understand them detracts from, rather than adds to, what the story is trying to tell us.”

That argument rather depends on who you believe to be the ‘us’ a story is written for. Autistic readers are ‘us’ as well.

Dent goes on to say that, to support people with autism, we should look forwards in literature rather than backwards, but Carol Povey sees no problem with looking at autism in fiction as simply a continuing theme:

“These characters, and others like them, arguably show that rather than being a new phenomenon, autism has been around for a long time. We just didn’t know what to call it before.”

What’s your opinion on the diagnosis of fictional characters?

World Autism Awareness Day 2013 was on 2nd April. You can read more about it here.

Jennie Gillions