Autism and the Spectrum

My university’s one book program kicks off in the spring with Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. It’s narrator is on the spectrum, or at least, Haddon uses facets of autism and Asperger’s to craft the character. Haddon, himself, claims that Christopher is “‘a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties.” While Haddon read a handful of newspaper pieces and magazine articles on the topic, he didn’t deliberately set out to create a character on the spectrum. Rather, Haddon crafted a novel about an outsider; in our culture, we apparently need to label outsiders as disabled. In my cultural studies class, we’ve been looking at Sherlock Holmes all semester. One of the things that has struck me the most in looking at Holmes all semester is just how differently this character has been interpreted for our times. I adore Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s Sherlock, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Elementary. Yet, both of those incarnations of Holmes labels him deliberately as disabled–“high functioning sociopath” and possibly asexual or a recovering addict, with a recover companion. Tyler Cowen avers that “the most fully developed autistic character in the Western literary tradition.” Yet, Cowen, Moffat, Gatiss, and others grossly misread Doyle’s Holmes with such labels. Doyle’s Holmes is a quintessential aesthete, gentleman, and his obsessive reading of the world is merely the heightened way Victorians themselves had to read their world. Nothing about Holmes as constructed by Doyle puts him outside the pale, particularly when you consider the wide range of forms that late-Victorian masculinity could take. Moreover, the slightly obsessive, specialized scientist is a fixture of Victorian fiction crime and sensation fiction. It us, our modern culture, that seeks to label Holmes’s abilities as disability. Haddon, in his posting on the autism and his novel goes on to say this about labels:

labels say nothing about a person. they say only how the rest of us categorise that person. good literature is always about peeling labels off. and treating real people with dignity is always about peeling the labels off. a diagnosis may lead to practical help. but genuinely understanding another human being involves talking and listening to them and finding out what makes them an individual, not what makes them part of a group.

I think Haddon’s comments here about labels speaks to the ways our culture blithely labels anyone outside a carefully cultivated norm that I’m not sure in fact exists. I’m not in anyway discounting the relief and knowledge that comes from accurate diagnosis of autism and Asperger’s; these are real conditions and should be treated with respect and compassion. But as this excellent New York Magazine piece on the subject points out, there’s a vast difference between “Asperger’s, autism, or the spectrum—those very real afflictions that can bring untold hardship to the people who suffer from them and to their families” and the ways we “deploy” those words ” to describe some murky hybrid of egghead and aloof.” I think some of our need to label–and I’m as guilty of this as anyone else–is that we all feel our behaviors or interests are not normal. Labeling lets us explain away personality quirks that don’t seem to fit the accepted norms for a society in constant flux.

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