Forgive me, I’m still bleating on about Asperger Syndrome. To change animal metaphors: I’m a terrier with a rat, reading up about the condition, its incidence and how Aspies cope or don’t cope with it.
And — as this is a literary-leaning blog — along with fascinating AS-related non-fiction titles I’m devouring (many from Jessica Kingsley Publishers) I’m also finding that the fiction that I’m reading concurrently is taking on an added perspective when AS is taken into account.
First of all, I’ve just read Sophie Divry’s The Library of Unrequited Love which is about a stereotypical single female librarian in a provincial French town. She rants and rails about anything and everything, blows hot and cold about pet topics and effectively holds a reader captive in the library building while she harangues him at length (well over 90 pages in the translation I’ve just finished). Now it’s not so much what she says — after all we all have strong views on what’s wrong with the system — but the way she says it that strikes a chord. She has a certain logic in her arguments but they can be rather scattergun, and her virtual monologue is how many of those with high-functioning autism often hold forth, letting no one, least of all neurotypicals (NTs), get a word in edgeways.
I’ve also recently finished — and hugely enjoyed — Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and have been struck with the obsessive AS ways of the two lead protagonists, both epitomes of the absentminded professor stereotype. I also recognise author Susanna Clarke’s mode of putting her book together: according to an interview in The Times, rather than writing the novel from beginning to end she wrote in fragments which she then attempted to stitch together. This is altogether familiar and similar to behaviours that read of many with AS in their attempts to make sense of the world, their world even, by codifying and systematising it. Clarke is reported to have admitted that the project was for herself and not for the reader, another approach that typifies many of those on the autism spectrum (though it must also apply to many NTs too).
Academics have searched many writers’ biographies and writings for clues as to whether they could be on the autistic spectrum, specifically those with Asperger Syndrome. You might not be surprised that they’ve come up with a diverse list that includes authors like Lewis Carroll, Herman Melville, W B Yeats and Hans Christian Andersen (all male) and Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen (as female representatives). Austen, for example, has aspects of several AS traits evident in her letters as well as fiction. These include attention to detail — her ability to analyse people’s strengths and weaknesses in what they say and do (less so their physical appearance, in which she has little interest); honesty — her ability to get to the heart of individual motivation, often with subtlety as well as wit; and logic over emotion in that she can appear to be emotionally detached from the people she is describing.
Whether or not the scholars are correct in these instances — and having not read the studies I’m in no position to judge — I’m starting to wonder whether the proportion of eminent or successful writers on the autistic spectrum is greater than the proportion estimated to be in the general population (currently estimated from under 1% to perhaps as high as 1 in 69).
But — I hear you cry — many of the traits assigned to Aspies could equally be laid at the door of many neurotypicals; and of course you are right. Those with AS have no monopoly over honesty, or attention to detail, or self-motivation or any of the other characteristics mentioned. I have no axe to grind, and don’t claim that Aspies are better at creating let’s-pretend worlds than NTs. But, given that those with AS are often said to be “in a world of their own”, they can’t be said to lack imagination — just a different kind of imagination from the perhaps more empathic NT population. It’s just that, when authors are able to delineate in great detail protagonists with AS characteristics, I have a niggling feeling that they may be able to do it with some degree of inherent understanding.
Now, am I pretending to myself when I suggest all this? And am I also being a bit pretentious with all this cod-psychology? Maybe. I’ll leave you to be the judge.
* This post’s title is a quote from celebrated porcine philosopher Miss Piggy, just to complete the animal references with which I began this post.