Why I Wrote a Character with Autism
By Shaunta Grimes on June 02, 2011
(My kids, Adrienne and Nick.)
The easy answer, I guess, is that I have a son who has Asperger's Syndrome. I wanted Nick to have a book with a character in it that's like him.
For some of us, seeing ourselves in the media is so common that we forget it isn't that way for everyone. If you're white, of average size, of average intelligence and education, have no distinct physical characteristics or disabilities, come from a Christian background and are straight, you are everywhere. You're in every television show, every movie and in every book.
If you're not one or more of those things, then you're other.
I happen to think other is pretty awesome. And I wanted to celebrate that in Clover. I also have a lot of first hand experience as the caretaker of a highly functional autistic child and I felt like I was in a good position to explore that in the character of West. When you love someone who has autism, you learn to accept and even appreciate a relationship that is different from any other that you'll ever experience. You learn a kind of deep, essential patience. West has that, and I loved writing it.
I thought a lot about Nick's older sister when I was writing West, too. Having a sibling that draws so much attention is hard. But the experience has made Adrienne stronger and more accepting. She has the same sort of eternal patience that West does. She knows, deep down, that there is no 'normal,' and that kind of knowing comes from living with and loving someone who beats fists against the walls of socially-accepted normal on a daily basis.
My personal experience with autism is that it is both incredibly frustrating and fascinating. My son sees the world in a way that would never have occurred to me if I wasn't his mother. He processes information in a way that blows me away. There are times when I would give my kingdom for one moment when something with regard to Nick might possibly come easy. But in the end, being his mother has taught me to respect the fact that the kid has a whole percussion line that he marches to and the rest of us can't hear.
There's a scene in Freaks and the Revolution where Clover experiences her acceptance letter from the academy not only as straight forward information, but almost on a molecular level. She is taken in by the texture of the paper and the way it feels under her fingers--like a conversation happening between her skin and the envelope. The sound the pad of her finger makes when she rubs it along the edge, and the way the envelope looks lined up just right on the table--all of that is a part of her experience. And it's beautiful.
That's what I hope readers take away from Freaks and the Revolution, as far as autism is concerned. Not "those autistics, they're just like us," but "autism makes someone who is basically like me a little different, and that difference is pretty damned awesome. It's something I want to know."
Wanting to write a character that was like my son was the germ of the idea for Freaks and the Revolution. Nick is a great kid, who happens to be a highly functional autistic person. Autism informs every aspect of his life, but comparing him to neuro-typical kids isn't apples to oranges. It's more like green apples to red apples. There is far more in common than there is different.
Every once in a while someone asks me if I wish there was a cure for Asperger's Syndrome. While I do often wish there was a way to make the rest of the world understand it better, and appreciate it more, I hope reading Clover and West's story helps readers understand why my answer is no. I never waste a minute on that wish.
Come check out my self-publishing experiment at We Are the Freaks and read the prologue to Freaks and the Revolution. Sign up for the mailing list and get a free short story related to the novel.
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