So I’m a writer. And an artist. And I’m autistic, or rather I am “on the autism disorder spectrum,” but spectrum-squatter is not really a useful self-identification tag so most of us autistics who use the term just call ourselves autistics. It’s not, contrary to what you might think, a dirty word. It’s a medical condition that likely has multiple causes (none of which have to do with vaccines or child-rearing or any other crazy theory), and is likely mostly neurological and either, depending on what research you’re reading, the manifestation of 1) overconnectivity in the brain, 2) underconnectivity in the brain, or most likely 3) a complex combination of the two.
I’m bluntly tagging myself here because I’ve met many new people in the past year as a pre-med student and a converting Jew who say, “You’re autistic? You can’t be autistic.” This is because, in 2014, cultural shorthand imagery for people with autism involves something like a glassy-eyed kid sitting in a corner rocking back and forth, or else old standby Rain Man. People who are a little more on the ball still get snagged on the “writer” part, as in: “You’re a writer? I thought autistics were all computer programmers or math professors.”
The above-named hassle is rarely more than that, a hassle, but I’m “out” as an autistic the way I’m “out” as a “you don’t look/act like a gay man” variety of gay man. So, sure: plenty of us probably veer toward adulthoods that keep socializing to a minimum, but we’re also writers and artists and pre-med students and scholars and cooks and public officials etc. and you can find us among both genders, every sexuality, and every culture/ethnicity around the world. If you’ve ever thought about a person, “That person seems a little autistic, but he/she’s too normal to be autistic,” your autism hunch is probably right. There are quite a few of us, and even though autism gets pegged as a kids’ disease, it’s important to note that autism is not fatal, so all those kids become adults and generally we range, contrary to public perception, from average to above average intelligence though we are not, most of us, savants.
As for why you might be at all interested in me hammering away at medical identity politics here, I am slowly working my way toward something resembling a thesis: namely, while autism doesn’t impose solemn and/or dire restrictions on what I can do with my life, it does affect the way that I write and how I view writing, and I’m thinking it’s plausible you’ll find my literary hiccups illuminating.
First, as a reader, I’m not all that interested in plot. Plot is everywhere on the page and in the world; autistic or not, you are constantly in the process of making up stories you’re simultaneously either writing down or living out, usually unsure of the ending. Stories are sort of an ordinary thing, and while the presence of plot in what I read isn’t a bother, instead I’m interested almost entirely in character. (Or formal experiment, but no room for addressing that here.) This is because of the simple fact that, since I’m autistic, I’m engaged in a lifelong daily research project of trying to figure out why people act they way they do and what kind of tensions exist between how people behave, how they think they ought to behave, and how it comes across to other people.
This is key for me as a writer to because as a more-than-ordinarily awkward human being I’m aware that there’s often a radical disconnect with me re: the three ways of looking at behavior, and knowing that there is a disconnect is different from being able to suss out what it is, and I’ve been writing long enough to realize that what drives characters and story in my writing is this same disconnect, the (often comic) ugliness that can result from a person failing to neatly overlap “intended,” “ought/ideal,” and “apparent” selves in anything resembling coherence, and how that in turn feeds into the permanently steep uphill march of any given character trying to interact even in the most basic of ways with another irreconcilable character. It wasn’t intentional, but from the very beginning what drove and still drives my fiction is the story of what goes wrong because of failures in self-reconciliation, communication with others, or both. My fiction, if I could sum it up in one word, is about one thing: disconnection. Or, more broadly, miscommunication and misinterpretation.
What that means is my fiction sits at sort of a slightly weird angle to both the customary and even to what I might aim at. When I write dialogue, for example, it’s nowhere near any kind of Mamet naturalism; because every speech act is really a juggling act, my dialogue ends up more like a stylized His Girl Friday deal in which everyone involved has a huge vocabulary, curses like a truck driver, and yet nearly always fails to get her or his point across. Same goes for character itself; the protagonist(s) of one of my stories people tend to like the most is, no lie, “Millions of Americans.” Because every new encounter is often startlingly new, familiar communication, like that between close friends, spouses or family members, rarely shows up in my work. Instead, it’s often a matter of strangers meeting strangers, or people discovering (and often trying to contravene) their own strangeness, because strangeness is just how my model of interpersonal communication happens to be built.
That doesn’t mean, though, that I can’t pass as a “Neurotypical” or “Typical” as we like to call you folks; I am, much to my surprise and occasional bewilderment, apparently able to pull it off more often than not in both my fiction and my everyday encounters with people, and I guess that’s possibly the bigger takeaway; I’m autistic, and I’m a writer, and while given the above and some basic knowledge of autism you could go fishing for autistic tendencies in my writing and make easy work of it, I’m still both autistic and a writer, and while the one may influence the other, the two don’t preclude each other at all, and there’s no real reason, medical or otherwise, why they should.