15 August 2009

The Fantasies of Asperger Fiction

Among Oz readers and in other fantasy fandoms, I've met readers who acknowledge having some of the traits of Asperger syndrome, or even formal diagnoses of it. Indeed, I suspect that some fantasy literature might even hold special appeal to people with those conditions.

To begin with, fantasy literature involves figuring out how an unusual world or hidden aspect of this world works, often as an outsider. Many series end in societies that welcome people of diverse types, as in the Emerald City under Princess Ozma. Both qualities might appeal to smart readers who've found that they think differently from most of the people around them.

Another possible attraction of fantasy series is their sprawling level of detail: books, characters, locales, fictional histories, and adaptations into other media--all for a highly detail-oriented person to enjoy mastering. If those universes weren't so sprawling, they might be less appealing.

As much as fantasy novels can appeal to people with Asperger syndrome, I haven't been pleased with how the ones I've read actually portray the condition. We don't fully understand Asperger's, and fantasy lets authors explore such mysteries by connecting them to otherworldly forces and dimensions. Unfortunately, that approach risks obscuring the fact that autism/Asperger's is a way of being human in this world.

Diane Duane's A Wizard Alone brings on a new "young wizard" named Darryl McAllister, who's been diagnosed as autistic. Kit, one of the protagonists from So You Want to Be a Wizard, sets out to help him.

However, Darryl's autism is atypical: he suddenly developed the condition at age eight. And the resolution of his story is (***SPOILER***) even more atypical. Magical events allow Darryl simply to "ditch" his autism and recover fully, to the surprise of his parents and teachers. Plus, he gets to stay magical.

Thor Wignutt in Summerland has no formal diagnosis, but I immediately thought of "Aspie" kids when I read Michael Chabon's description of the character. Thor first appears speaking and acting like an android, a sign of how out of place he feels. He's one of the three children who travel to a fantasy dimension, but we never get into his head the way we do with the other two.

Eventually it turns out (***SPOILER***) that Thor is a changeling, which both explains his condition and leads to him making his home in that other place. (It's actually occurred to a number of people that autism might be the root of myths about changelings.)

One last possible example: some parents of children with Asperger's have interpreted Charles Wallace Murray in A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels, and perhaps even Meg Murray herself, as fitting along the autism spectrum. Again, Madeleine L'Engle portrayed Charles Wallace's unusual behavior as connected to larger forces in the universe.

The first two of these fantasy novels treat the autistic characters' conditions--whether explicitly stated as on the spectrum or not--as problems to be solved rather than as conditions of life for some people. All hint that the root of the characters' difficulties, and any remedies, come from out of this world. Does modern fantasy literature treat other chronic conditions the same way?


Monica Edinger said...

The fairy changeling in Delia Sherman's The Changeling seemed Asperger-ish to me. On the other hand, Nancy Farmer's in her Troll saga doesn't seem like that at all.

Elizabeth said...

This is a very interesting and thought-provoking post. I wonder, though, if the idea that autism's "strange behavior" is otherworldly is actually so unique to autism.

Isn't it a common fantasy of much children's lit that whatever it is that makes things hard for the protagonist is actually a sign of their specialness? (I'm thinking mostly of Charles Murray here because I skipped over your spoilers for the others, not yet having read them.)

J. L. Bell said...

I agree, Elizabeth, that what "makes things hard for the protagonist is actually a sign of their specialness?" Being able to dissolve windows and speak to snakes, for example.

Usually, however, the special characters keep what's special about themselves as they (and often the people around them) realize how special they are. The model is the Ugly Duckling story in a way.

The two examples you skipped don't follow that model, though they end in different ways. In other words, I don't know of a fantasy story in which a young character with autistic traits turns out to be a wizard who happens to have autistic traits, or a kid with autistic traits who happens to get caught up in magic.

Elizabeth said...

Okay, I understand your point better now. (I should read those two books to really get it!)

Thanks for your recent series of posts about books with autistic characters. There's a lot of autism in my (extended) family and I'm very glad to know about these books. I had no idea there were so many these days, although in retrospect it is not surprising given the media attention to autism and, especially, Asperger's.

J. L. Bell said...

Yeah, I think the comment Suzanne Crowley quoted in her School Library Journal piece is accurate: autism/Asperger's is a "hot" condition to write about now. That's probably because we have a much better understanding of it, yet it's new. But of course many people who write about it do so from a deep personal understanding and desire; indeed, it would be hard to get it right otherwise.

Libby said...

doesn't Percy Jackson in that series have a diagnosis of dyslexia and ADHD, which are both actually symptoms of his half-Greek-god nature? Is this the same kind of thing you're talking about?

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Percy Jackson has been diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia, both of which turn out to be signs that he's Really Special. I think that's part of the first novel's overall reassurance to American readers that we're really great and none of our problems are our fault.

One commenter has actually tried to interpret that series as about Asperger's, which I don't think makes literary or psychiatric sense.

J. L. Bell said...

Echoing Monica Edinger, here's the Fuse #8 review of Delia Sherman's The Changeling and its use of Asperger syndrome in a fantasy story.

Charlotte said...

The Demon's Lexicon, by Sarah Rees Brennan, also features a main character who, in his complete lack of normal emotional behviour, could be called "autistic." I won't say more, because it's a new book, and I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't read it yet.