I have an autistic kid. (I prefer this terminology to “autism mom,” which makes it sound like I’m the one with the autism. Dealing with ASD is much more work for my son than it is for me.) Since his diagnosis I’ve learned a ton about autism and its many very different incarnations. I feel like people don’t understand it very well, and what’s the cure for a lack of understanding? Well, writing, of course. Reading fiction has been shown to increase empathy, and it seems to follow that reading fiction about different kinds of people should help us empathize with all them.
Novels by autistic people are especially important. The memoir Songs of the Gorilla Nation gave me insight and understanding of autism that I’d never had before. But those of us who are neurotypical can also include autistic characters in our work. I daresay we should. If not one character in anything we write has a disability, it’s not very realistic.
I have a story percolating with an autistic hero, but I’m not ready to write it yet. I only have very broad sketches of the plot so far. Meanwhile, I am including autistic traits in a number of other characters here and there. It’s not actual representation, but I still feel it’s important to normalize that some people show they’re happy by flapping their hands, or that some people need help tying their shoes.
One of the easiest ways to do this is by writing about beings from other planets. I’ve often heard that parenting a child with autism is like introducing an alien visitor to our planet. “On this planet, we don’t take off our pants in public. We humans like to ask before touching somebody.” We’re not saying our child is wrong–they just need to learn the rules for interacting on Earth, and we’re the helpful human diplomat, showing them the ropes.
But the metaphor goes the other way in writing. I really do have aliens arriving on Earth in my fiction, and we can see that their feelings on meeting humans and learning our strange habits might be similar to an autistic person’s impression of them.
As one species makes contact with another, there’s this interesting process of learning the other species’ way of communicating. When my lizard people are happy, they lower their eyelids, and when they’re mad, the crest of spines on their head prickles. That’s something other species have to learn about them, rather than assuming that their alien friend is fine because they aren’t reacting the way a human would.
The hero of my last novel, Tria, is half a person. That is, the other half of her body and brain is a whole separate person, Resa. Abilities aren’t distributed evenly between the two of them–Tria got the verbal and logical skills, while Resa has the feelings and spatial skills. What this means is that Tria is a brilliant biologist who easily calculates large math problems in her head, but she can’t tell when her friends are upset and she needs Resa’s help to brush her teeth. Resa, on the other hand, is deeply empathetic and quickly catches onto people’s motivations, but speaking is very difficult for her.
While neither is meant to be autistic–their species is all like that–they have traits, like alexithymia, poor fine motor skills, or verbal dysfluency that will be familiar to autistic people and their friends and family. In the story, these “disadvantages” aren’t really a disadvantage as long as they have each other. And that’s really how I feel about disability in general. A disability doesn’t have to be a disadvantage if we learn to rely on one another for the things we can’t do, and offer our talents to others when we can.
If you’re thinking about writing a character with autism or any other disability, my advice is this: learn all you can about the condition. Follow people on Twitter or read bloggers with it–find out what their real problems are (spoiler: it’s often less the disability and more the ableism they deal with) and what tropes are driving them crazy. Then after your book is written, find and pay a sensitivity reader to root out any accidental offensive tropes you included. For autism, this would include “autism is a massive tragedy to the family of the of the autistic person,” “autistic people have no empathy,” and “autistic people are all nonverbal savants.” It’s hard to know all the things that have been overdone about a disability you don’t have, so do your best to find someone who can root those out for you. And always pay them for their time. Educating you is emotional labor that it’s not fair to expect for free.