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Inspecting The Trend Of Autistic-Spectrum Characters

Tasha Robinson is the national associate editor for The A.V. Club.

The eponymous protagonist of Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz's young adult debut, Colin Fischer, is a 14-year-old boy who barks like a dog when upset or overwhelmed. Colin hates being touched. He has trouble reading other people's expressions. But he enjoys analytically recording his experiences and investigating things he doesn't understand. His dedication to observation and "cool, clear-headed logic" makes him a junior-grade Sherlock Holmes, which comes in handy when someone fires a gun in the school cafeteria and Colin realizes the wrong boy is accused.

Since Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time became a worldwide best-seller in 2003, there has been a rising wave of novels like Colin Fischer, written from autistic characters' perspectives or closely focused on their worldviews. Some of the boom can be attributed to increasing public curiosity about autism: As autism diagnoses have risen, more funding and research have been devoted to its causes, and public awareness of autism-spectrum conditions like Asperger's syndrome has increased dramatically. The mysteries behind autism make it an evocative topic — and ambiguity leaves room for writers to romanticize, theorize or appropriate at will.

Young adult writers are doing all of the above. While adult novels like Antoinette van Heugten's Saving Max, Ann Bauer's A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards and Jodi Picoult's House Rules usually focus on parents struggling with their kids' diagnoses and legal, educational or developmental issues, YA books tend to put autistic-spectrum characters at the center of the story. The plotlines embrace different forms and genres: Colin Fischer is a mystery, Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin's The Half-Life of Planets is a romance, Francisco X. Stork's Marcelo in the Real World is a coming-of-age novel about moral choice and family duty. But all of these books use Asperger's to underline typical teenage identity issues.

Colin Fischer co-authors Stentz and Miller—the screenwriting team behind X-Men: First Class and Thor — point out that characters like Colin Fischer face familiar problems in heightened ways. Stentz, who has two autistic children and describes himself as "on the Asperger's spectrum" himself, says Colin Fischer came out of "wanting to do a YA book that looked at the phenomenon of outsiderdom that's kind of the defining trait of being a teenager. And by using a non-neurotypical character as the hero, you get to turn the outsiderdom up to 11 and throw those issues we all grappled with into even starker relief."

And Miller says Colin's story is every teenager's story writ large. "When his emotions overwhelm him ... I think it's actually very easy to relate to that, especially when you're a teenager. I mean, my God, one of the hardest parts about being an adolescent is that you're not really in control of your own emotions. Everything is kind of a mystery. You're not quite sure how you fit in."

Autistic-spectrum characters are also frequently used to shine a cold light of analysis on society. Stentz describes Colin as offering an "intelligent outsider's view of humanity." He even compares him to his Star Trek idols, Mr. Spock and Commander Data — respectively, a half-alien and an android who regularly comment on human foibles. "The outsider's perspective is a very strong storytelling tool," he says.

Curious Incident, Colin Fischer and Marcelo give characters with Asperger's the authority to detect flaws in the status quo precisely because they're outsiders; logic and tenacity are built into their brain chemistry. But Miller believes their battle to understand interactions their peers take for granted makes them more relatable characters. "I think audiences respond to characters who come off as guileless and innocent and well-meaning," he says. "There's a natural tendency to embrace them and want to protect them, or even listen to them."

Not all YA autistic characters are metaphors for adolescent angst. In Cammie McGovern's Eye Contact or Michael Grant's best-selling Gone novels, autistic characters are plot devices, internalizing crucial information they can't easily express. As more information about autistic syndromes emerges, it will be interesting to see whether authors are less likely to associate autistic characters with mystery. Until then, there's ready drama in discovery, struggle and the unknown, for people on all points of the spectrum.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tasha Robinson