Those of us in the autism community know how this common statement ends: “If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism.” This refers to the fact that the autism spectrum disorder is indeed a giant spectrum– infinite, actually. So while there are many traits in common for people with autism, there is also so much variety that it’s impossible to write a character that will depict a portrayal of autism that will resonate with everyone.
In my YA novel Me and the Mirror Girl, main character Lily has a younger brother, Josh, who has Asperger’s syndrome. Josh is modeled after my own son, the Teenager who is currently being treated for OCD and anxiety in kids with autism. Even during the course of writing the book, the portrayal of Josh has changed as my son has changed. Josh doesn’t have OCD– Teenager didn’t, either, until recently. Because autism is super fun like that– quite unpredictable in its manifestations.
Sure, he’s always had a few tics, struggled with anxiety, been uncomfortable with uncertainty, and needed order and structure. These are traits common to many kids (and adults with autism).But starting in the middle of seventh grade, compulsions and anxiety took over in a whole new way, and the autism comes into play mainly in the way he responds (or doesn’t) to traditional treatments.
When life is tough, like it is for Josh and Lily in the book after their father abandons their family, all of the anxiety and “autistic traits,” to whatever small extent these even exist, ramped up. Way up. And things always get tough, in books and in real life, right?
So my point: it’s really difficult to write believable characters with autism. Here are a few books that I think, for various reasons, do it quite well:
Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World, which is also one of my all time favorite young adult novels, is the story of high schooler Marcelo who is forced (by his father, who would really prefer him to be “normal,” a word I usually take issue with but is so important to this story and to pretty much every book I can think of that deals with any kind of disability or neuro-atypical character) to leave his comfortable special needs school and spend the summer working in his father’s law firm.
Besides just being a great story about family, relationships, moral questions and loyalty, and first love, Marcelo’s straight-forward character is an exceptionally rounded portrayal of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome. He is also incredibly self-aware, though easily duped (for awhile, at least) by the office bad boy who tries to take advantage of him and his friend/love interest. Most importantly, Stork works hard to avoid the usual pitfalls of disability tropes (like the disabled character having some kind of magical “superpower” or being sacrificed for the sake of an abled character. For more about disability tropes, see, for starters, this great discussion from the blog Disability in KidLit) There’s a lot more to say about this book— but just read it. It’s awesome. It also features a POC with autism — a rarity.
A recent YA I read and LOVED was Claire LaZebnik’s Things I Should Have Known. The autistic character in this book, Ivy, is not the main character, but she’s still the star.Her sister Chloe narrates as she tries to set up Ivy with another autistic boy, and fails to see all kinds of things about who her sister is. It’s a spoiler (but not really, because it’s obvious to the reader WAY before it’s clear to Chloe, which, by the way, is part of what makes the depiction of the title on the cover so darn clever), is that Chloe isn’t at all attracted to Ethan– she’s way more interested in her female friend, and it’s IVY who finally tells her well-meaning, clueless sister that she thinks she is gay. It’s AWESOME. Things I Should Have Known is the first book I’ve encountered featuring an autistic character who isn’t heterosexual, which is groundbreaking on so many levels. Many, many people with autism are neither heterosexual nor gender conforming (perhaps, in part, because gender is a social construct and persons with autism are unaware of many unwritten social rules). My favorite line of the book is when Chloe tells her mother that she could be supportive “maybe if you didn’t make everything so heteronormative,” to which her mother responds with a clueless stare. I also love the way that despite the fact that Chloe is the narrator, Ivy takes control of the narrative. It gives her a voice and a power that we don’t always see in autistic characters. Go, Claire Lazebnik. I can’t wait for your next book!
I have many more amazing books featuring autistic characters to rave about, particularly middle grade titles . Stay tuned…