Sara BarrettThis article is more than 5 years old
Since being diagnosed with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) in her late teens, Sara Barrett has found herself becoming angry at the portrayal of autistic characters in books – none more so than The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Here’s why
Sun 3 Apr 2016 09.00 BST
Since being diagnosed with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) a few years ago, I have found myself becoming more and more angry at the books, movies and TV shows portraying autistic characters. One of the biggest culprits is Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
But why? I hear you ask. Curious Incident is a lovely book.
Yes. It is. It’s a beautifully told book about a boy with special needs. The thing is that for someone like me, it’s really depressing. For one thing, the book starts with the main character of the novel, Christopher, living with his father, his mother having walked out on the family because she can’t deal with Christopher’s disability.
Can you imagine how hard it is for someone with autism to read? It feels like I’m basically being told that no one will ever love me because of my autism. Everything will fall apart because of my autism. I will always be a problem BECAUSE I HAVE AUTISM.
And Curious Incident isn’t the only place where I’m being taught that message. On TV there are films like The Imitation Game and TV series like the Big Bang Theory. All of which are telling me that I’m impossible to live with and will never ever manage to have friends who actually like me.
Now okay, these extreme examples aren’t the only things out there. I can tell you of at least two slightly more hopeful books that feature characters with ASD. The Night School series by CJ Daugherty and the Gone series by Michael Grant. Night School features Zoey, a character who constantly makes me cry because of how much the people around her not only accept her autism, but often actually prefer her company because of it.
Gone isn’t quite as good. Little Pete is a very extreme example of autism and is generally looked on as a freak by most of the characters. It is only the main characters that protect him and care for him. But they do protect him. And they do love him. Something that just seems so completely absent in autistic fiction.
How is it these books with even a slightly decent depiction of autism are two minor characters in long series? Added to that is something that I will go on to explain now; both these characters are portrayed with symptoms more commonly found in boys.
When it was first suggested to me that I might have autism. I rejected the idea completely. I didn’t want to think that I was anything like Christopher. How could I be? I had friends. I didn’t shut myself away from people. I had, mostly, been a normal, lively, very sociable teenager. How could I possibly have autism?
Christopher is not me. Apart from a few differences, I have nothing in common with him. I don’t like maths (or have any skill in it whatsoever). I’m not happy with my own company. I want friends. Surely for that thing along, I don’t have autism!
But the fact is, I do.
For a long time it was believed that only boys had autism. This is not true.
In general, girls with autism show different symptoms than boys. There are exceptions, both with girls who show more boyish symptoms and boys who show more girl-like symptoms. But in general terms, we are quite different. The main difference is that whereas most autistic boys are happily being left to themselves, girls with autism WANT to be social. We make friends. We talk to our friends. We learn a lot more about how to be with our friends. And then we do things wrong, because hello! We still have autism, and our friends hate us. Sometimes we make up, sometimes we don’t. This hardly matters. What you can see is that we are very different to our more quiet, less social male counterparts.
There is a fiction book that tells the story of a girl with autism and even that is rather generalised. This book is called M is for Autism and is written by students from a school especially for girls with ASD. And don’t get me wrong, this is an extremely important book, but it is too short, too much of a basic story and it is only the bare minimum of what SHOULD be written about.
To end with, especially because this article has been so depressing and negative, I want to talk about an author that is writing the right things, who does write about female autistic characters is a positive way. Her name is Corrine Duyvis.
Duyvis’ new book, On The Edge of Gone is an apocalyptic novel about an autistic girl named Denise who is trying to survive and prove herself useful in a society when usefulness is necessary, where people will only share supplies with those they think will be useful.
This touches on an important feeling that those of us with autism often feel. We are different. We are seen as socially inept and often it feels that society would do far better without people like us in the world. Corinne Duyvis is an autistic writer. She has written about autism, for people with autism. And the most beautiful thing about the book is that Denise is a normal girl. She just has ticks. She just has a few things that set her apart. Because in the end, we are normal. We may seem different from everyone else, but we aren’t so different really. We feel a lot of the same things as everyone else. We feel scared. We feel lonely. We feel afraid. And we need more writers like Corinne Duyvis to give us books we can relate to for once.How do I get involved in the Guardian children’s books site?Read more
Let’s look to a future with more autistic writers and characters!Topics