Autism, Representation, Success – Ada Hoffmann

I don’t remember when I started following Ada Hoffman’s blog. I know it was after my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. I believe I had come across some of her reviews of books & stories with autistic characters. Through Ada’s blog, I found a number of other autistic bloggers, and I’ve come away with a great deal to think about. My thanks to her for taking the time to write this guest post.

Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up the week with a post from Katie about gender in genre.

I get a lot of praise, from certain corners, for being a “successful” autistic person. It’s weird for me. I don’t think of myself as an overachiever – frankly, most days I look at myself and only see the things I haven’t done yet. But it is increasingly clear that overachieving is what I do.

I’m only recently starting to unpack how this relates to the way I read and write autism.

There is a curious duality to the way we think of autism and success. It’s always one extreme or the other. “Cure” stories, which show up all over speculative fiction, typify this in the worst way. Here’s a line from a fictional doctor in Nancy Fulda’s awful short story “Movement”:

Without treatment, some children like Hannah develop into extraordinary individuals. They become famous, change the world, learn to integrate their abilities into the structures of society. But only a very few are that lucky. The others never learn to make friends, hold a job, or live outside of institutions.

Be amazing, say the doctors. If you’re not amazing all the time, if you slip up and let yourself look or act disabled, if you have a problem that inconveniences other people in any way – you’ll be one of them. The people with no future. The people who are only ever a burden to others.

This is ableist talk, of course. Horrifically so. “Low-functioning” autistic people get the ableism thrown directly at them, like there’s no possibility they could ever be anything else. “High-functioning” autistic people get it brandished at us from a distance. It’s the stick that’s used to drive us forward. Stop moving, and this is what we will think of you; this is what we will say about you; this is what you will be.

And “forward”, of course, means whatever the doctors want it to mean. It has a lot more to do with pretending to be NT [neurotypical] than it does with real achievement.

This is why I sometimes respond well to stories that don’t show autistic people at our best.

Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory”, for instance, is a horrible character. He is one absurd stereotype piled on another. From an “objective” standpoint – from the standpoint of NTs evaluating the show in terms of things they can understand, like stereotypes and “depth”, and “realism”, and whether or not the characters are “sympathetic” – there is nothing good to say about him.

But Sheldon doesn’t have to pretend to be NT.

Sheldon is totally unapologetic about who he is. He follows his routines, pursues his own interests, and gives no fucks at all about whether his friends are annoyed. He behaves like this constantly. And the world doesn’t end. No matter how outrageous Sheldon is or how much his friends profess to hate him, at the end of the day, he’s still a part of the group. He has friends. He has a job doing something he loves and is good at. He has money. He has, in later seasons, an autistic girlfriend. He is utterly unsympathetic to the NT characters. Yet he has all the things that doctors tell us we will never have, unless we work constantly, and without fail, at being sympathetic.

To a certain kind of autistic viewer, this is powerful.

Of course, as authors, we can and should do better than Sheldon. We can create much more nuanced portrayals. We can do much more with intersectionality and with the diversity that exists within autism. We can do much more to show that there are midpoints on the spectrum of sucess: that there are, for example, autistic people who do ordinary jobs instead of being a famous physicist, or who rely on support people to a degree while retaining their autonomy, or who live on disability cheques because the job market hates them, but find fulfillment in other activities. That all of this is okay, too. That our worth as humans is not dependent on anyone’s definition of success.

We also need to remember that people who are labeled “high-functioning”, and who have this neurotic relationship with our own success, are not the only autistic people whose feelings matter. That the other end of the spectrum matters too, and that there is not really much of a divide between us at all, except in the way we are treated.

My instinct is an author is to show people like me being happy, and good, and successful – and never too weird, because that would be a stereotype, and never too unsympathetic. And, let’s be fair. I like it when I see autistic people portrayed this way. It makes me feel happy and confident. It’s a valuable thing, and I want to see more of it.

But if this kind of portrayal is where we stop, we are doing ourselves an incredible disservice.

Maybe we, as autistic people, need to be shown warts and all sometimes. Maybe what we need most desperately to see is that we can be visibly disabled, and unsuccessful, and fail to meet NT expectations in all kinds of ways, and be treated with all sorts of horrible ableism, and still be human. And still be lovable and worth something, even if no one else sees it.

I’m not sure I entirely know how to do this. Meda Kahn does it very powerfully with a non-speaking protagonist in her story “Difference of Opinion”. I’m not sure if anyone else has ever done it quite that way. I act like some sort of big autism expert online, and that’s such a lie. There is a ton of this I still haven’t figured out, and I’m still looking and learning, like anyone.

Ada Hoffmann is a Canadian author with Asperger syndrome who blogs about autism in speculative fiction.