Creative writer David Hartley reflects on the connections – productive and problematic – between autism and the fantastical.
Being a younger sibling to an autistic person is in itself something of curious experience. The first encounter autism can only be second-hand because the person comes first before any understanding of autism-as-a-concept is possible. It didn’t take long to learn that Jenny was notably different to most people her age, but I have no memory of when this happened, nor do I recall it being particularly significant at the time. Jenny was just Jenny; it was inconceivable that she could have been anyone else. Later, other thoughts crept in: who was the sister she could have been? – but these concerns never lingered as that first encounter with her-as-autistic firmly set down the bedrock of Jenny’s identity. Jenny as a person came first, but she was an autistic person and the autism was what filled her out and made her glow.
The weird became the normal in our household and we siblings made it the arena for our play. An army of teddies shifted between Jenny’s insistence on their particular locations and my puppeteering of their imagined lives. Toy cars would be driven on invisible roads or flipped into the air like runes. Jokes would be invented as words became playthings, alongside incantations of echoes and bizarre names for fingers. Somewhere in the intermingling of these different ways of imagining arose a collaboration of play across neurological difference, as well as an affection for estrangement and a pleasure in the powers of the weird.
Mix in a drama practitioner for a Dad and a Mum who loves fantasy novels and there was no real way of avoiding my fate as a nerd of the unreal. But it is from Jenny’s perpetual outlook of natural strangeness that I now draw creative energies as I try to forge my path towards a writing career. I have spent the last decade playing with the strange in my short fiction (some of which have landed in various purveyors of the literary weird), and I am currently in the depths of a Creative Writing PhD at The University of Manchester. I’m attempting, in this latter, to interrogate what takes place in the encounters between autism and the fantastical to better understand what is shared there and what, if anything, is lost.
Autistic people are no strangers to the use of fantastical tropes to describe their lives. Metaphors of being on the ‘wrong planet’ or of autistic brains as ‘wired differently’ use aliens and robots to imply a less-than-human existence. On the flip side, the excessive prevalence of Hollywood stories of the autistic savant (see The Accountant and The Predator for two recent examples) take things too far the other way by suggesting latent superhuman abilities in all autistic people. Autistic activist and academic Melanie Yergeau has recently shown how such narratives make it nigh on impossible to ‘construct an autism rhetoric’ when the starting position is an assumption of faulty wiring (Yergeau, Authoring Autism, Duke University Press, 2018).
And yet, despite it all, an autism rhetoric has emerged. It is there in the rallying cries of neurodiversity, in the insistence of participatory research, in the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag which rises against each lazy misstep in representation. We are currently in the middle of ‘Autism Awareness Month’ which is annually rebranded by activists as ‘Autism Acceptance Month’, in a move that seeks to divorce autism from some of its medical rhetoric in favour of a recognition of the condition as central to identity. These are contested grounds marked by complex conversations about disability, but what has been striking is the emergence of the autistic voice which has broken free from various arenas of nonautistic suppression. These voices ask questions of the stories told of autism and those questions run right to the core of the parameters of narrative, genre and character.
Julia Miele Rodas, in her recent text Autistic Disturbances (University of Michigan Press, 2018) has looked again at autistic language behaviours and rather than seeing defection in repetitions and outbursts, or concerns in silence and echoes, finds instead a framework for autistic poetics. This, she contends, is not new. It can be found in abundance in classic texts such as Villette, Frankenstein and Robinson Crusoe, while it continues to ricochet up in modernism and postmodernism. The question is; why should autism be separated from literary ‘mastery’ when the two share such fertile expression?
Despite the uneasy relationship with autism, the fantastical has not been ejected from the nearest airlock. On the contrary; science-fiction and fantasy continue to be arenas of refuge, community and deep joy for autistic people. These are, after all, the genres that most celebrate otherworldliness and regularly offer neurodiverse heroes such as Spock from Star Trek, The Doctor from Doctor Who, and Holtzmann from the Ghostbusters reboot. These are not characters labelled as autistic but, instead, are claimed as such in a powerful act of identity-shaping through fandom – an act which the fantastical genres have long been particularly open to.
And yet we can see something of a deadlock between the fantastic and the autistic. It haunts with harmful metaphors but entices with meaningful heroics; grabs hard with one hand, flaps happy with the other. The hope for me, as I battle on with my weird-fiction PhD novel, is that autism poetics might be the answer to the diffusion of this stand-off.
So, I return to Jenny for guidance, both in the memories of our weird play and in real-life when I visit her and her entourage of teddies (still going strong). What we exchange in those moments is a perpetual estrangement that can never be closed down but which instead, with adjusted thinking, becomes something more like enchantment. Playing with the weird, I’ve come to realise, is a way of playing with the other in order to recognise myself as other. And, almost without noticing, the world itself shimmers and changes; becomes something which is may be more challenging, but is also a heck of a lot more fantastic.
David Hartley is a writer and researcher currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at The University of Manchester. Keep up with his fictions and his musings at davidhartleywriter.com and @DHartleyWriter and follow his autism research at @Fantastic_Aut.