Does the trend piece make the trend? When it comes to sub-genres such as women’s literature or lesbian and gay literature, the field’s development hinges on the increased visibility of writers from these identity categories. But despite the common misconception, sub-genres written by marginalized groups can draw a broad audience. Many assume women’s or LGBT literature demands a narrowing of readership; the implication is that only women will read women’s lit and only lesbians will be interested in a lesbian protagonist. But that doesn’t need to be the case, and at the very least the development of a sub-genre should at least benefit the marginalized writers in that group. So what’s the story with “autism literature?”
Back in May, when I first encountered Donna Levin’s Smithsonian.com article “Why Your Next Favorite Fictional Protagonist Might Be on the Autism Spectrum,” I wanted to believe Levin was trying to invent a trend where none existed. Highlighting the supposed rise of “aut lit,” Levin’s article suggests that autistic protagonists are experiencing a surge in popularity, and goes on to list a number of books following in the footsteps of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. One of the most obvious things aut lit is missing, though, are actual autistic writers.
In fact, not only are autistic writers excluded from Levin’s would-be-trend, the works highlighted do harm to the autistic community through their superficial gloss of our experiences. This is especially true in the case of autistic women and girls.
Male Protagonists, Neurotypical Writers
Filling in for autistic writers in Levin’s conception of aut lit are neurotypical writers and their loveable, would-be-neurodivergent protagonists. And those protagonists? Well, whatever their personal traits, they were nearly all male. From Christopher of Curious Incident to Lou Arrendale in The Speed of Dark and Jack, the son in Levin’s own novel There’s More Than One Way Home, boys dominated the show, even when the authors were women. The only book on the list featuring both female characters and an autistic author is the unusual M is for Autism jointly written by the students at Limpsfield Grange, a British school for autistic girls.
Of course, it makes sense that neurotypical writers predominantly choose boys and men when writing autistic characters. Most neurotypical writers assume that austism affects boys and men at much higher rates than girls and women. Levin even cites the old statistic: 4 boys are diagnosed with autism for every girl, when the truth is that girls and women are more likely to be overlooked or diagnosed later in life due to gendered diagnostic bias. This was my experience as a woman who was diagnosed with autism at age 25, it’s the experience of many of my female peers, and it’s an experience that–increasingly–is backed by science. Autistic writers aren’t the ones erasing women from our own stories. Neurotypical writers are.
I’m Not Your Inspiration
The emphasis on male protagonists in so-called aut lit is a clear reflection of writers working from second-hand experience. As I researched Levin’s chosen texts, nearly every one of the authors cites their own child or time working with autistic children as a source of inspiration.
But why not lift up those voices, rather than writing on their behalf?
Or, writers could lift up the work of Autonomous Press, a small press that features a NeuroQueer imprint. The NeuroQueer Books imprint specifically publishes work that examine the intersection of neurodivergence with queer issues. Despite publishing a lot of fiction, NeuroQueer authors stand out from those claiming the aut lit imprimatur because they’re–as we say online–#actuallyautistic.
The neurotypical writers functioning within the aut lit framework are obviously working in fiction. But part of accepting that autistics are accomplished writers, and should be given our due, is to accept that the stories people hear are only the ones publishers are willing to invest in, the ones publishers deem marketable.
For the time being, supporting autistic writers might mean reading non-fiction by autistic writers, such as Donna Williams’ Nobody Nowhere or Laura James’ Odd Girl Out. People want the voyeuristic experience, the chance to be inspired by our lives–there’s a market for it, where we are the product to be consumed. But there can be an equally expansive one for our work in other genres, that allow us to be fully realized as writers rather than case studies or adjunct to parenting guides.
Autistic characters may abound in fiction right now, but they lack authenticity. The girls and women are missing. The trans and nonbinary autistic people are missing. The actual autistics are missing. Neurotypical writers need to take a step back from this forced representation. They’re still working from an awareness framework and it’s time to move on to acceptance, and celebration.
Allison Bird Treacy is an poet, essayist, and professional ghost writer from Staten Island, New York, where she lives with her wife and 6 (or more) cats. She holds an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies with an emphasis on Disability from Emory University. Bird’s work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Poetry Review and Buzzfeed, among other outlets and she is currently working on a collection of poems about the Willowbrook State School.