Autistic Characters, Infinite Possibilities by Sarah Kapit
I didn’t know I was autistic as a kid. But I knew that I was a reader. I was the kid who brought five books along on a day-long visit with my grandparents, just to make sure that I didn’t run out. Oftentimes, I’d read on a bench somewhere while other kids my age ran around the playground. This led to many awkward moments when adults tried to get me involved in some game or another when I was happier alone with my book, thank you very much. The characters I read about felt like friends to me.
I now notice that there is a common theme among many of my favorite characters. Like me, they were outsiders.
They were Harriet of Harriet the Spy, scribbling down not-so-nice thoughts in her trusty notebook.
They were A Wrinkle in Time’s Meg Murray, traveling to different worlds even as she struggled to fit into her own.
They were Animorphs‘ Tobias, who would rather fly around as a hawk than go to a dance at his former school.
I do not believe that these characters were explicitly written as autistic representation. Indeed, many of the books were first written at a time when scientific and popular understandings of autism were far different than our own. Nevertheless, I saw myself in them.
Upon finding the autistic community, I discovered that many other autistic people also related to Meg and her brother Charles Wallace. They related to Harriet and Tobias, to Anne Shirley and Hermione Granger and Luna Lovegood, among many others.
Perhaps the fact that these characters were not written as “autistic characters” contributes to their depth and relatability. Louise Fitzhugh did not set out to write an autistic character in Harriet. She wrote a girl detective who was observant and obsessive, who appeared prickly to others, who expressed her emotions best in a notebook. And that’s a character that many autistic people relate to, without ever having to use the word “autism.”
However, implicit representation is not quite the same thing as explicit representation. When we look at characters that have been explicitly identified in children’s literature, the picture becomes less positive.
In my childhood reading, I can recall coming across one explicitly autistic character. The book was The Baby-Sitters Club #32, Kristy and the Secret of Susan. In this book, our hero Kristy babysits for Susan, an autistic girl who spends most of her time at a boarding school that would be better termed an institution. Susan does not speak verbally and has what is commonly known as a savant skill: the ability to play the piano perfectly.
While being non-speaking and having savant skills are common stereotypes of autistic people, Susan could have still been a fully-fleshed out character. Planet Earth is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos is a wonderful book starring a non-speaking autistic girl.
Unfortunately, Susan is not accorded any agency or respect in the story. Like so many other disabled characters in older works of literature, she exists primarily to teach a lesson to non-disabled characters. Ultimately, she is packed up to go back to her institution and readers are told that it is for the best. People like her, apparently, do not belong with the rest of the kids in Stonybrook.
Today Susan is not the only autistic character in kidlit. I welcome the change. Unfortunately, however, there are still too many books that rely on tired stereotypes: The autistic person who doesn’t understand love. The autistic sibling who is a burden to others. The hyper-logical autistic scientist who has few other discernible personality traits.
These stereotypes are not reflective of my reality, or the many autistic people whom I have come to know and care for in nearly 15 years being part of the community. There are, of course, some exceptions, especially several #ownvoices books that have been published in recent years. My favorites include On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis, State of Grace by Rachael Lucas, and Planet Earth is Blue.
Yet overall, the state of autistic representation in kidlit is still disappointing. That’s one reason why I wrote Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen!
Vivy, like me, adores baseball–a trait not usually associated with autistic people. She learned how to throw a knuckleball–baseball’s quirkiest pitch–through a lot of grit and hard work. She cares deeply for her older brother, her parents, and the boy who becomes her best friend and catcher. Like all of us, she makes mistakes, but not because she is uncaring or lacks the ability to determine right from wrong. She has a strong sense of morality, like so many autistic people that I know.
And she is explicitly identified as autistic. That part is important.
I wanted to write a character like Vivy to give autistic kids a character they can relate to, much as I related to Meg and Harriet and Tobias. My hope is that Vivy, and other explicitly autistic characters, will begin to chip away at the harmful stereotypes that are so often found on our bookshelves.
In 2020, implicitly autistic characters are not enough. We need to give kids explicitly autistic characters so that the full humanity of all autistic people can, at last, be acknowledged.
This is part of the work of the neurodiversity movement. The neurodiversity movement is a political movement that advocates for the equality of all autistic people. We don’t believe that autistic people should be packed off to institutions, like Susan, or to segregated schools and programs where autistic people are taught to appear as non-disabled as possible. We want autistic people to be fully included in our community from childhood onwards.
My work as a writer is only a small part of that mission. Nevertheless, I hope Vivy’s story helps further these goals. Autistic kids deserve to be in classrooms with their non-disabled peers. They deserve to play sports, sing in choirs, and act in plays. And they deserve to see themselves in stories.
Sarah Kapit lives in Bellevue, Washington with her husband and their goofy orange cat. She earned a PhD in history from the University of California, Los Angeles, and she’s always happy to talk about the history of women, medicine, and any other history geek topic. She has a longstanding involvement in the disability rights and neurodiversity movements, and serves as chairperson of the Association for Autistic Community. Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! is her first novel.