This week I’d like to take a look at autism in the popular BBC mystery/crime drama series ‘Sherlock‘ starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (I know, I’m a bit late to the party on this show, but I only recently binged it during the pandemic 😛 ).
So what’s Sherlock about?
The premise of Sherlock is fairly self explanatory- it’s a series based on the infamous Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set in modern day London. Holmes, a consulting detective, works closely with his friend Dr. Watson to solve mysteries and crimes across London by using Sherlock’s keen powers of observation and deduction in tandem with modern sleuthing technologies, giving Holmes’s story a contemporary edge.
Here’s a trailer of the series for those of you who have never seen it:
So how does autism tie into all of this?
There has been much debate as to whether or not the character of Sherlock has Asperger’s Syndrome. Many experts have theorized that he original character of Sherlock Holmes in the 19th century stories may have been displaying signs of autism decades before the condition was first characterized. Sherlock indeed displays many traits of Asperger’s- his powers of observation, his intellect and memory, obsession with his work, issues with sleep and drug addiction, mind blindness to social cues, his struggles with empathy, and moments of perceived sociopathy (some autists have been misdiagnosed as sociopaths) all tend to paint the picture of an autist. Moreover, the chief of police and Dr. Watson have even theorized that Sherlock may have Asperger’s.
You can find a video of some of Sherlock’s best bits in the show at the link below:
However, this depiction has not been without it’s critiques. It has been argued that this depiction of Sherlock as a superhuman intellect with sociopathic tendencies is damaging for the autistic community as this is a negative, somewhat romanticized and simplistic portrayal of the condition that can mislead the public in their perceptions of the condition (although let’s face it- 90% of autistic characters recycle the same traits and rarely give us an insight into the variety and complexity of the neurodivergent population 😛 ). The autistic community on the whole however, has mainly been supportive in claiming Sherlock as one of our own as many relate to Sherlock and feel seen in Cumberbatch’s portrayal.
This week I’d like to talk about another autistic female character in the book ‘Convenience Store Woman‘ by Japanese author Sayaka Murata.
So what’s the book about?
The book tells the story of convenience store (or konbini) worker Keiko Furukura, a 36 year old woman who has worked part time in her local store for the last 18 years. She is content with her life in the store, happily set in routine as a functional cog in the “machine of society”. But as content as Keiko may be, the world is not content with her life. Keiko is considered somewhat of an anomaly in Japanese society, as convenience store jobs are considered stop gaps for students, job seekers, housewives etc. As she approaches her late thirties, her family and friends become increasingly invasive in their questioning of her lifestyle- why has she never moved on from the store? Why hasn’t she married? Why won’t she try to be like everyone else? Everyone wants to “fix” Keiko so that she will become a “normal”, functioning member of society. Things become so bad that Keiko goes so far as to adopt an obnoxious former employee at the store as a room mate/ “pet” to get the world off of her back and to let them assume that she is in a relationship and finally acting “normal”.
So is Keiko autistic?
While autism is never mentioned in the book, many autistic women have felt a real connection with Keiko and her struggles. Keiko is socially awkward, and a constant worry to her family. She regularly says and does the wrong thing- like hitting a boy over the head with a shovel in school to break up a fight, or asking to eat a dead budgie in the park, struggling completely to understand why these things were unacceptable.
The book I felt contains one of the best descriptions of autistic masking that I have come across. When Keiko first joined the convenience store, it was like she finally felt like a real person, as the detailed employee trainee videos trained her on how to act in the store, how to speak, to smile, phrases to use- she remarked that it was the first time that anyone had ever shown her what normal speech and facial expressions looked like. She took to the organized monotony of store life like a duck to water, finally feeling like she had a purpose. Based on her experiences in the store, Keiko learned to mask the behaviours of others around her, studying them, taking on their facial expressions, turns of phrases, speech patterns, even looking up their clothes and buying them online so that she could pass for what she felt the world considered “normal.” Reading this I saw myself reflected in her actions- how often I mimic my friends speech patterns and phrases, discerned standard responses to common questions, to picking up their bad behaviours (I deliberately developed a bad habit of chewing pens when I started secondary school as I had gotten it into my head from watching those around me that I needed to exhibit a habit like this to fit in and be “normal”!)
The book is a nice short read (160 pages in the English translation) and whether intentional or not, paints a quirky portrait of an autistic woman at odds with the world, which so many of us can relate to, and I highly recommend it’s portrayal of masking 🙂
This week I’d like to discuss a book featuring an autistic protagonist ‘Big Girl, Small Town‘ by Michelle Gallen.
So what’s the book about?
The book details a week in the life of Majella O’ Neil, a 27 year old woman with undiagnosed autism living in Aghybogey, a border town in Northern Ireland in the post Troubles era. She lives a life of strict routine with her alcoholic mother- she eats the same dinner every day, wears the same clothes, and watches reruns of Dallas every night after she finishes work in the local chipper (for my international readers- a chipper is a fast food establishment that sells ‘chips’ or fries in addition to an array of other deep fried meats and products). You can check out an audio excerpt from the book here narrated by Nicola Coughlan of Derry Girls and Bridgerton fame:
So how did I find it’s depiction of autism?
As it transpires, the author Michelle Gallen is not neurotypical- she experienced a catastrophic brain injury in her twenties from auto-immune encephalitis which has left her with many deficits and sensory sensitivities that parallel with autistic symptoms. In interviews she appears to describe autistic people almost separate from herself so she doesn’t appear to identify as autistic, but her doctors reckon that she was always neurodiverse as she has had struggles with social situations and understanding her peers growing up.
With a neurodiverse voice at the helm of this book, we’re given a refreshing slant on the classic literary autist. In an interesting twist, each new scene is preceded by Majella’s numbered list items of likes and dislikes (mainly dislikes) relating to the events you are about to read about (e.g. ‘Item 4.1: Fluorescent lights’) which really gives us an insight into the array of bugbears that autists deal with on a day to day basis. The book details many classic signs of autism such as stimming (she’s really into finger flicking and sucking her fingers), sensory issues, impulsivity, OCD, mind blindness, the need for routine and resistance to change, but we also see a lot of the sides of autism that are often ignored such as masking. The book describes how Majella drinks in the people around her and has learned/auto responses to certain questions to navigate conversations- one of the most prominent traits for autistic women. Majella is also just a girl working in a chipper, content with her lot which is a nice deviation from the classic genius narrative 😛
One of the most striking things about the book is that the author tackles taboo issues such as sex, periods and puberty head on- issues that can be very challenging for autists. In fact, sex is one of Majella’s favourite things, something that is regularly shied away from when it comes to autism. As autists struggle so much on a social and sensory level, most people seem to think that we’re asexual robots, but like autism, autistic sexuality is a spectrum ranging from asexuality to hypersexuality, so it’s nice to see this stigma challenged.
On the other hand, once again we are presented with a book that is marketed as being about an autistic character, yet it does not tackle the issue head on or even mention the elephant in the room in passing (as in The Rosie Project). Much of the promotional material for the book describes Majella as autistic, but it appears that the author accidentally created the portrait of an autistic woman based on her own experiences of neurodiversity:
“I kept being asked this question, What’s wrong with Majella? I knew she was kind of unusual … I decided to read up a bit more on the female presentation of autism, and when I started even the most basic reading of it, I was like, Oh my God. OK. I realized that I created a portrait of an autistic woman, because these types of behaviors were incredibly familiar to me. What’s wrong with Majella? There’s nothing wrong with Majella. She’s an undiagnosed autistic woman. And she’s fascinating.”
On a personal level as a book lover, I was not a fan of the novel (I was very disappointed as the reviews were glowing). I really struggled to get into it and were it not for the benefit of this post for my loyal readers, I would have given up on it after the first 30 pages. I found it needlessly vulgar with a difficult to follow phonetic writing style (to convey the nuances of the Northern Irish accent). Indeed, post-Troubles Northern Ireland can be a very rough and vulgar place at times, but this could have been conveyed just as viscerally with a more traditional, non-profane style of writing. A lot of the sub-plots felt underdeveloped and unfinished at the books close, and the day to day monotony of Majella’s routine and work life wasn’t exactly a thrill a minute- there were times I felt like half the words in the book were food orders from her job in the chipper… Despite the fact that Majella thinks a lot like me, I found it really hard to like her and identify with her, and I just didn’t get that same sense of kinship as I did from reading about Allegra in Cecelia Ahern’s ‘Freckles‘.
All in all, this book provides a good insight into the thinkings of a neurodiverse mind, but it’s not a story that I would recommend.
This week I’d like to discuss a book I recently read while on holidays- ‘Freckles‘ by Cecelia Ahern.
So what exactly is ‘Freckles‘ about?
‘Freckles‘ tells the story of Allegra, a young traffic warden in Dublin city, nicknamed ‘Freckles’ due to the abundance of freckles on her body. One day, Allegra get’s into an altercation with the owner of a Lamborghini who tells her that she is the average of the five people that she spends most of her time with. This sends her into a spiral questioning the people in her life and how they have moulded her, sending her on a journey of friendship and self discovery.
You can catch a clip of Cecelia talking about the book here:
So how does ‘Freckles‘ relate to autism?
After reading ‘Freckles‘ (and being unable to put it down), I really feel that both Allegra and her father strongly come across as being on the autistic spectrum. I truly felt for the first time ever that I was reading about someone just like me, like I’d never identified with a literary character so much in my life (with the exception of Hermione Granger). Allegra is very rule and routine orientated. She loves being a traffic warden- the rules are all black and white and she has her set walking circuits and routines. If even one thing is different or she is a few minutes late, she becomes completely disorientated and her whole day get’s thrown off kilter. She remarks multiple times that she is often misunderstood by people, finding that she says the wrong thing in social scenarios. Allegra also stims and has shown some self injurious tendencies. As a child, she became obsessed with connecting her freckles with pen to trace the constellations, later using sharp implements to carve them which left scars that she would in later life run her hands over to trace the constellations in times of anxiety. Allegra can also be quite impulsive and a little bit of a loner, among a number of other quirks throughout the book.
Autism is never directly mentioned in the book, and it’s not clear either if Cecelia had an autistic perspective in mind when writing, but regardless of that, the book is a great insight into a female character who possesses a number of autistic traits 🙂
As we have just celebrated St. Patrick’s Day here in Ireland, this week I’d like to review a book by a young Irish author- Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty.
Dara is a 16 year old autistic naturalist and author who wrote ‘Diary of A Naturalist‘ to chronicle his fourteenth year on this planet. In the book, Dara gives us beautiful insight into his intense connection to nature and how it provides him with an escape to cope with his autism. The book has won numerous literary awards, making Dara the youngest recipient of the Wainwright prize for nature writing and the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) medal in the UK.
Here’s a video of Dara discussing his experience of how nature helps him manage his autism:
So what did I make of the book?
The book is beautifully written, powerfully evoking vivid imagery of the Northern Irish landscape and it’s local wildlife where Dara lives with his family. You really feel Dara’s intense passion for the natural world through his writing whilst giving us an insight into his everyday experiences of autism. Dara bravely tells us about his struggles with bullying, sensory overload and mental health showing a maturity way beyond his 16 years. Autists so often struggle to describe their emotions (as many of us have alexithymia), it’s a real privilege to have such an intimate insight into Dara’s mind.
Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of the book for me personally, although small, was Dara’s account of his struggles with change and his mental turmoil as his family moved to a different part of Northern Ireland. I experienced a similar situation when I was 11 after selling my childhood home. We only relocated a few miles down the road (to a new house that was designed in a near identical layout to our previous house), but the change was devastating to my mental health. I always felt ridiculous that something seemingly so small could have such an effect on me, but it’s comforting to know that I’m not alone in this experience.
All in all, this book is a must read for anyone who is passionate about the natural world and conservationism 🙂
This week I’d like to conclude my review of the Rosie trilogy by discussing autism in the book ‘The Rosie Result‘ by Graeme Simsion.
So what is the book about?
The third book in the series picks up with Don and Rosie several years after ‘The Rosie Effect‘ as they prepare to move back from New York to Australia with their son Hudson. Hudson naturally shares many of his fathers quirks, and following his enrollment at a new school, the teachers are quick to recommend him for an autism assessment. Determined that his son will not be disadvantaged or pigeonholed by such a diagnosis, Don takes a sabbatical from his career as a geneticist so that he can devote his time to Hudson and impart on him the many coping mechanisms that he himself has used to “fit in” (aka ‘The Hudson Project’).
Here’s a fun little trailer for the book:
So how did this book compare with the others in the series in it’s portrayal of autism?
I really enjoyed the book, however, many ranked this book as their least favourite, with some even criticizing it for portraying autistic characters as “caricatures” of autism. For the first time in the trilogy, the subject of autism is tackled head on, and to an extent I would have to agree with this summation of the books portrayal of autism. There are several autistic characters in the book, and indeed many of them are quite stereotypically nerdy, Sheldon-Cooper-esque types. Hudson is indeed cut from the same cloth as his father, and naturally has many of the same classic symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome, such as his aversion to change, fondness for routine, niche specialist interests, sensory sensitivities etc. Granted, as Don’s son you would expect similarities, but as autism is unique to the individual, it would have been nice to add a different twist to Hudson’s traits.
Regardless of this, it was a highly entertaining read and I would highly recommend it as a lockdown distraction. Yes, the character’s are stereotyped, but this book does challenge our perceptions of autists in a lighthearted humorous manner- a refreshing change from the doom and gloom that is often depicted around autism in popular culture 🙂
True to my word, this week I’m going to discuss the representation of autism in the sequel to ‘The Rosie Project‘, the 2014 novel ‘The Rosie Effect‘ by Graeme Simsion.
So what’s the sequel about?
‘The Rosie Effect‘ picks up where we left Rosie and Don, now a year into marital bliss, having moved to New York for Rosie’s studies. Having found love and marriage, Don now faces an impending new edition to his family. The story focuses in on Don on his journey towards fatherhood (lovingly referred to as “The Baby Project”) as he tries to come to terms with this massive change to his life in his own unique way.
You can check out an interview with Graeme talking about the about the sequel here:
So how does the sequel fare in it’s representation of autism?
Similar to it’s predecessor, the book continues to deliver in it’s portrayal of autism, focusing in the minutia of the condition through Don’s everyday life in his quirks, routines, mind blindness and blunt manner. Whilst again, Don does not identify as autistic/is not diagnosed as such in the book, there is a heavier, less subtle inference that Don has Asperger’s Syndrome from those around him.
This book is particularly interesting in that it focuses on the impact of married life and impending fatherhood for Don, aspects of life that are often overlooked when talking about autists. Too often in fictional accounts of autism (not to mention the real world) do we focus on the “disability” and not on the person, and so the world rarely sees that adult autists can live “normal” and happy lives.
What I enjoyed most about the book however, was that through the first person narrative, we really got an insight into the workings of Don’s mind, illustrating how often autists intentions are misconstrued, however noble. You get to see his complete thought process, showing us a character who is kind and compassionate, and watch in horror as those around him pick him up completely wrong. This really resonated with me, as like Don, all too often the world misunderstands my way of thinking, oftentimes with disastrous consequences 😞
Fun Fact– I’ve recently discovered that there’s an official Twitter account (see below) for Don tweeting out amusing Don-isms, so if you’ve read the books I’d highly recommend following him! 🙂
Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings- I highly recommend this book, it’s a great way to pass those second lockdown hours 🙂
This week I’d like to talk about a book that was recommended to me by several people around the time of my diagnosis (most notably by my grandmother, the name pressed into my hand on a folded piece of notepaper as if my diagnosis were a state secret!😂)- Graeme Simsion’s ‘The Rosie Project.’
‘The Rosie Project‘ tells the story of Don Tillman, a genetics professor that struggles with social interaction, who creates a questionnaire to determine the suitability of potential female romantic interests (something that he calls ‘The Wife Project’). In the process, he meets Rosie, a completely “unsuitable” candidate with whom he strikes up a friendship, helping her to track down her biological father (“The Father Project”), and falling in love along the way.
Fun fact about the book- a former colleague of the author did in fact create a “Wife Project” questionnaire just like Don (however, as far as he knows this worker was never diagnosed as autistic)!
You can find a trailer of sorts from the author here where he talks about the book and the challenges of translating it for other countries:
It’s an endearing, unconventional love story, but how does it’s depiction of autism fare?
Unlike ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time‘, the book was never explicitly linked to autism in the blurbs, however, many agree that Don is on the spectrum. His logical thinking, strict routines, social awkwardness, his intellect (here we go again 🙄) and struggles with emotions are highly indicative of Asperger’s syndrome, albeit somewhat stereotyped traits. Moreover, Asperger’s and it’s symptoms are directly discussed by Don multiple times throughout the book, but Don never explicitly reveals whether or not he has been diagnosed with it- a clever move by the author as it infers the diagnosis, without accountability for any potential misrepresentation.
Author Graeme Simsion in 2019
Nevertheless, the book delivers the highly positive message that autists are not just capable of love, but of also being loved in return- and by neurotypicals no less (shock, horror! 😛 ), and I would highly recommend a read of it 🙂 .
In preparation for this post, I recently discovered that this book is part of a trilogy, so I will definitely be checking these out and will write about them in the near future.
This week I’d like to talk about a book that I’ve been meaning to discuss for quite some time- ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time‘ by Mark Haddon.
If you haven’t read the book (or seen the stage adaptation), ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time‘ is a mystery novel, centering on a teenager named Christopher as he investigates the murder of his neighbours’ dog Wellington. Christopher describes himself as a “mathematician with some behavioural difficulties”. Whilst Christopher does not discuss a specific diagnosis, the book’s blurb refers to Asperger’s, Autism and savantism and is often considered one of the most popular novels featuring autism. Interestingly, Mark Haddon only did some cursory reading about Asperger’s in preparation for the novel as he did not want to put Christopher in any particular box given the broadness of the spectrum. He has even said in interviews that he now regrets that Asperger’s was mentioned on the cover of the book and subsequent editions as he regularly get’s calls from people who perceive him as an expert and would like him to give talks about Asperger’s.
With this in mind, how close to the mark is the books depiction of autism?
The book hits a lot of the common autistic traits dead on with literal thinking, mind blindness, sensory issues, struggles with social cues, colour sensitivities, and one of my personal favourites, Christopher’s tendency to separate foods on his plate. As I have discussed previously, I vividly recall reading about Christopher arranging his food so that it didn’t touch on his plate, and remarked to myself about how much that sounded like me, but laughed it off as it was the only trait I identified with in this book! Who would have known that 10 years after I first read that story, I would find myself getting an autism diagnosis! 😛
To this day, there is one thing that has always plagued me about this book (which is saying something given that it’s been about 15 or 16 years since I read it!), and that is the way that Christopher speaks/writes. His tone of writing was very simplistic, which from a literary and character point of view was a useful approach to take, however, Christopher’s use of language didn’t really add up from an Asperger’s perspective.
A line that I have never forgotten (as it irked me soooo much from a grammatical perspective), was Christopher’s reference to people as “doing sex” not “having sex” (and the phrase was used multiple times). This poor use of English wouldn’t generally be accurate for people with Asperger’s as one of the most common traits is an unusual tendency towards more formalized and sophisticated language, often from a really young age. This is why aspies were nicknamed “little professors” in early research. The vast majority of aspies are quite verbacious (you may have noticed my own proclivity towards the use of big words in many of my posts 😉 ), so Christopher’s self narrated exploits in the book don’t exactly equate to how a real life aspie might narrate their story.
I was further irritated by Christopher’s mathematical and savant like traits (so many autists out there just once would like to see someone that’s terrible at maths in a literary/film setting!), however, in light of the fact that Mark Haddon based this character on two people that he knew and had set out to make his character a mathematician without Asperger’s fully in mind, I suppose the book could be forgiven for taking artistic (or should I say “autistic”) licence.
Moreover, several medical professionals that have reviewed the book have praised it highly and deemed it an essential read for anyone with an interest in the autistic spectrum. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me!
All in all, the book is worth a read, and a surprisingly good depiction of autism given that this was not the author’s direct intention! It may not be what I would personally consider to be the most accurate of depictions of Asperger’s, but given that it’s one of the few popular fiction books to feature a main character with autism, it get’s brownie points for that 🙂