Has autism been served well by children's fiction?
‘Siobhan said that the book should begin with something to grab people's attention. That is why I started with the dog. I also started with the dog because it happened to me and I find it hard to imagine things which did not happen to me.’ The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon
Today is World Autism Awareness day, an occasion that has been marked since 2007, when the United Nations officially recognised autism’s impact. The rise in public awareness of the condition has been mirrored by the increase in children’s fiction featuring autistic characters, which inevitably leads to debate about how well the condition has been portrayed by authors.
it’s thankfully rare to find a one-dimensional autistic character in children’s literature
There are huge challenges for any author in portraying autism. Fundamentally, an author has to bear in mind that every person with autism is unique and that their character is rounded and not just a stock portrayal of an archetype that doesn’t exist. But creating well-rounded characters is an author’s bread and butter, and it’s thankfully rare to find a one-dimensional autistic character in children’s literature.
The main challenge for authors seems to be breaking the mould of portraying intellectually gifted autistic characters. Mark Haddon’s book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was enlightening to many people who may otherwise have seen autism and learning difficulty as inextricably connected, but now a number of characters are extremely high functioning. Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery features such a character, as does Jodi Picoult’s House Rules, along with many other books. This usually makes the character a good fit for a mystery solving role, just like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and you can find many autistic characters in detective roles in contemporary fiction.
In teen fiction, there’s probably still space for more everyday depictions of autism. Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork is definitely a move away from sleuthing and more a representation of someone’s struggles, and Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon can be seen more as an attempt to celebrate difference rather than intellectual brilliance.
Most authors who create autistic characters are personally acquainted with the condition through a family member or friend who is autistic. The notable exception is Mark Haddon, who admits in this interview to not knowing all that much about Aspergers Syndrome and not doing a huge amount of research for his novel. That’s a potentially gasp-inducing statement until you hear his reasoning, founded on his determination to make his character a believable person, and his approach can’t be faulted: the book won praise from Oliver Sacks for its portrayal of the character and Haddon regularly receives mail from fans with autism who found it convincing and sensitive.
To mark World Autism Awareness Day, we’ve teamed up with Autism Network Scotland to gather together some of the best books featuring autistic characters. The lists are in two age categories, 8-11 and teen, and bring together a rich mixture of fiction and non-fiction which will allow children with autism to find themselves in print, and can help everyone else to better understand their classmates and friends on the spectrum.
As is so often the case, fiction is a fantastic vehicle for self-discovery, and these books can be a great boost to children trying to understand themselves a little better. We hope you find them enjoyable!
A note about Autism Network Scotland’s events programme
World Autism Awareness Week and even Month are now celebrated by organisations worldwide, with a host of events intended to raise awareness of autism in local communities.
A number of events will be held across Scotland in April to celebrate World Autism Awareness; one of them is a Giant Book Group in Edinburgh. On, Thursday 2 April, people will gather at the Central Library at 6.30pm to discuss The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time in small groups. Then, a panel of speakers will discuss the challenges of living on the spectrum. To find out more, please contact Wendy Pearson.
This is just one of many great events happening all over Scotland in April. To find World Autism Awareness events near you, visit Autism Network Scotland's website, which has listings and a map of events taking place!
Enjoyed these book lists? Find more recommendations for adults, teens and children of all ages here.