14 August 2009

The Mysteries of Asperger Fiction

Among the recent children's novels about autism and Asperger syndrome, some of the most notable are narrated by characters with a condition along that spectrum. The two best-known examples are The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, and The London Eye Mystery, by Siobhan Dowd. Both are, not coincidentally, mysteries.

Becker discussed the conjunction of Asperger fiction and the mystery genre last spring at Guys Lit Wire:

Some manifestations of autism/Asperger’s are portrayed as helping the characters in solving the mysteries--dependence on routine, obsession with numbers and puzzles, and having spent much of their lives trying to figure people out.

Another typical trait of autism/Asperger’s is the lack of understanding of others’ emotions--this shows up in the characters having trouble reading people’s faces and moods, being overwhelmed by sensory input, and sometimes seeming insensitive to others’ thoughts or feelings--not because they’re mean, but because they don’t have a shared understanding of emotion. The first person narration in all of these stories gives you a real sense of being in the character’s head and seeing the world through his eyes.
Readers of mysteries are trying to figure out what happened and what people's real intentions and emotions were. That reading experience thus parallels the major challenges of living with Asperger syndrome, making the genre a fine channel for exploring such a life.

In addition, the protagonists' focus on perceptible details rather than on characters' underlying emotions or intentions also makes an easy match with the modern fiction writer's fundamental rule: "show, don't tell."

And of course, the Asperger's mystery has a long and honored tradition: Sherlock Holmes is literature's most famous and beloved high-functioning "Aspie."

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