I was diagnosed with autism two years ago at the age of 22. It explained a lot of problems with social skills I’ve always had. My problem is that I really want to be a writer, and I’m scared being autistic will get in the way of that. I read and write literary fiction, and there seems to be an assumption that if autistic people are interested in reading at all, it’s science fiction. I don’t know of any famous writers who were autistic and a lot of their lives are described like ‘He was the life of the party and would go out drinking with his friends in Paris until dawn’. I couldn’t ever do that.
I’ve won one writing competition and been highly commended in another and published several short stories. Before I got the diagnosis, I never doubted that if I worked hard, I could write and publish a novel. I’m currently writing a contemporary literary novel that’s partially autobiographical, although the heroine isn’t autistic. I’m about two thirds through the first draft.
I enjoy constructing sentences, but I’m scared that my characterisation will seem shallow and unconvincing. I sometimes have a hard time telling what other people are thinking or what’s socially expected of me, and I worry that also means I’m not getting into the characters’ heads a lot. I don’t ‘see’ the world through their eyes. A lot of the advice I’ve read for writers says ‘Ask yourself what your character is thinking and feeling at this point’, and sometimes I just have to shrug and say ‘I don’t know’.
The heroine’s actions, such as not speaking much, hanging back in social situations she doesn’t understand and not advocating for herself, are meant to show that she’s introverted and she’s been socialised to believe that girls should be passive and people-pleasing. But I’m worried she’s so much based on me that it spills over into her ‘acting autistic’, or acting in ways that don’t make sense to neurotypical readers. (I don’t want to change it to a novel about an autistic heroine, because that wouldn’t suit the story I’m telling, although I’d love to include an autistic main character in the next thing I write.)
You seem like you know a lot about writing and disability/ intersectionality issues, so my questions are: Can I be a good writer if I’m autistic? And do you have any ideas for working around the problems autism can cause to understand my characters better? Thank you!
—Autistic Wannabe Novelist (she/her)
Dear Autistic Wannabe Novelist,
I’m really honored that you trusted me to answer these questions. But I don’t think I’m the right person to give you an answer in depth, so I brought in two guest contributors, Corey Alexander (they/them) and Rose Lemberg (they/them). Both of them are published authors, wise teachers, and autistic. Their responses are below. I’m grateful to them for contributing their kind, thoughtful words to Story Hospital.