What does autism representation in fiction mean to me? There is almost a formula for answering this question. A story about looking fruitlessly for yourself in the books you love, finally grabbing them to assert your right to be in them anyway.
This is a meaningful story which is real and important for a vast number of marginalized fans.
It is not exactly my story.
In my story, I am always reading. I teach myself at three, out of sheer book-hunger. Books are real to me, as a child. I am hyperempathic to them. I feel what the characters feel; I see in my mind’s eye everything they see. I can’t stand it when they are injured: I don’t feel the pain, quite, but I feel an awful wrongness in my body, just like theirs.
Contrary to autistic stereotype I have no trouble playing pretend. A lot of my peers’ interactions go over my head, but I find other children who like to play by declaring that “we” are other people, or are in some other world.
In every book, as a schoolchild, I have to figure out which character is “me.” This is the character whose feelings I feel. I feel better when “I” look and act like me. Fortunately, intelligent white girls with brown hair are not uncommon in the middle-grade literature of the time. I have no inkling yet that I am different from other people. That happens later.
I make it through elementary school undiagnosed, thanks to adults who quietly make informal adjustments behind the scenes. “She’s sensitive,” they tell each other. In junior high school, this is suddenly no longer enough. Everything about my newly hormonal body and the newly complex social environment is all at once too much to cope with.
I go into burnout. I have screaming meltdowns. I stop being able to clean myself, join a conversation, focus on a lesson, get up in the morning. I hide—in bathrooms, in gym lockers, anywhere—instead of going to class. Nobody knows what to do with me. People who used to admire my intelligence now scoot away from my presence in alarm.
I cope by going somewhere else. I write absurd fanfiction. I read the same books over and over again until I hate them, because I can’t deal with the overload of picking out a new one.
I still experience fiction immersively, maybe more immersively than before. My favorite experience, one that somehow doesn’t get old, is the soundtrack to Phantom of the Opera. The part of me that’s an actual teenage girl identifies with Christine, with her paradoxical desire to be whisked away mysteriously and yet protected. Another part identifies with the Phantom—an imaginative outcast who hides under the opera house because everyone hates him. I understand him, I think.
Fiction is a respite, but it doesn’t actually fix anything. Eventually, after an especially dangerous blurring of fantasy and reality, I get medication. That doesn’t fix everything, either, but it takes an edge off. Fiction also, curiously, gets duller. I learn to armor myself, to endure frightening scenes by finding conscious reminders that they aren’t real. I stop feeling what fictional people feel.
Eventually someone hands me The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher is nothing like me, but I don’t really know how this works. I just shrug and tell myself he must be lower-functioning.
I do relate to one scene: the one where Christopher, overloaded, hides in a train bathroom. The people who find him are a lot nicer than the people who used to find me in places.
By the time I turn sixteen, I am acting like a shy nerd again, as opposed to a creepy phantom. My peers start to look at me like a person. I hardly know what to do with them.
At seventeen, I date a Discordian. We take comfort in our mutual weirdness. His Principia Discordia is mostly nonsense, but one dialogue jumps out at me:
“Everything is true.”
“Even false things?”
“Even false things are true.”
“How can that be?”
“I don’t know, man, I didn’t do it.”
Later in life I meet eclectic neopagans who insist that everything humans believe in enough becomes real somewhere. I don’t know if I’ve ever believed that. What I do know is that stories aren’t nothing. Real things are in them. Whether they are the author’s distorted reflection, or something more.
I run across the social model of disability in college. It makes me intensely, viscerally angry. The idea that society should change to accommodate us strikes me as a dangerous idea, because they never will.
Later, I sort of tiptoe into social justice backwards. I learn about RaceFail secondhand, from my brother. I learn words like “privilege” and “marginalization.” I get, paradoxically, less angry. I notice that my speculative fiction friends want to hear about autism, but no one is actually saying much about it yet. It’s 2010 or so, and the huge push for representation that will start in YA and echo into spec fic hasn’t reached me. I have no idea what a wave I’m about to ride.
People keep waving autistic characters at me to see my reaction. None of them are anything like me. Sometimes I like them anyway. Sherlock, before his show collapses under its own self-indulgence, is weirdly attractive. Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory fascinates me because of his sheer indifference to other people’s expectations, his insistence on being himself.
Of course, the cost of Sheldon’s attitude is that to his friends he is an annoyance, a burden, even a child. Nobody really likes autistic characters, in the end. People put up with us. People selflessly shoulder the burden of our inconvenient selves.
“Are you going to freak out again?” asks my college boyfriend, five seconds before heading out the door. “Because we might as well not go.” The guy after him makes a point of explaining how many things I do wrong, from cleaning my house to speaking to asserting my boundaries. I leave that relationship terrified and gaslit. But it’s okay. These are good guys. They took a chance on me. People are attracted, at first, to my quirky intelligence; it’s not their fault that everything goes bad from there.
Here’s the thing. The people who can’t stand me aren’t the whole story. Some of the people who’ve loved me have really loved me. Some of my friendships, on and offline, are real friendships. We are genuinely excited by each other. We give and receive real support, the kind you can only offer as an equal who’s been there.
The trouble is that I can’t always tell which is which. I still look at the people who love me most right at this minute, people who love me more than I’ve ever been loved before, and wonder when they’re going to get tired of my shit.
When I read #ownvoices autistic characters, I often think the authors have had that same feeling. Many of these characters have devoted family, friends, romantic partners, even when the world at large is awful to them. Most of them first have to overcome a broken relationship with themselves. To learn to believe that they’re worthy as they are.
With autistic characters written by NT authors, it often feels like everyone is tired of their shit from the start.
When I am twenty-nine, I finally watch Community. I get obsessed with the friendship between Abed and Troy. The strongest, closest, most joyful relationship on the show is an autistic friendship. Not a friendship between the autistic man and a nice person who took pity on him, but a friendship based on sheer mutual excitement, a friendship which actively refuses to be normal. Troy and Abed spend their time wrapped up in science fictional worlds of their own devising, playing imaginary games the way I did as a child, gleefully indifferent to everyone else’s expectations of reality.
Has anyone ever in my life been as delighted by me as Troy and Abed are by each other? Maybe. At twenty-nine, I’m almost starting to believe that someone might.
I tell a person I’m in love with that he’s Abed and I’m Troy. (I’m the emotional, easily confused one.) He says “cool cool cool.” We practice doing the Troy and Abed handshake.
To Abed, everyone is already a fictional character.
Troy leaves in season five, of course. “I want to be one person,” he says. Even when you have a happier autistic friendship than it is physically possible to have, your friends will still get tired of your shit.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this, anymore, or what I am trying to say. Maybe I haven’t deviated so far from the formula, after all. Maybe all this can be boiled down to a discussion of which aspects of my life I see welcomed and acknowledged and which I do not. Maybe I want to shake your shoulders and ask if you’ve ever really believed, for two whole seconds, that autistic people are worthy of love.
Maybe I just want to be real.
© 2018 by Ada Hoffmann