Monday, April 20, 2015

Different Wiring

While ambling through Facebook the other day I learned that April is Autism Awareness Month. For some reason it made me think of a comment made by author Susanna Kearsley when she appeared at The Poisoned Pen: "Autism-- particularly Asperger's-- seems to be flavor of the month at the moment." Nothing like a graphic and a comment to make my mind wander, and I thought I'd share some of the waypoints with you.

The first time I recall becoming aware of autism was when I watched one of my favorite films: 1988's Rain Man starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. I remember sitting in the theater and being completely absorbed in the story and with observing how Raymond Babbitt's mind worked. I did a little reading on the subject, but not that much. At least autism was on my radar, and it blipped again when I watched a 2010 TV biopic of autistic scientist Temple Grandin.

But Kearsley's comment really made me think about fiction, and since you know me pretty well by this point, you know my focus zeroed in on crime fiction. Some of autism's characteristics include a lack of social interests, remarkable concentration and eye for detail, and singlemindedness. How many fictional detectives with autism could I think of in the crime fiction I've read? Two sprang immediately to mind.

Christopher Boone is the main character of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This young man knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He has no understanding of human emotion, and he can't stand to be touched. However, he does relate well to animals, and this is why he sets out to investigate the suspicious death of a neighborhood dog.

This book may not be your typical crime fiction investigation, but I loved it. It's a wondrous look into an incredible mind.

The second character to jump fully formed into my mind is Sherlock Holmes. For many years spent watching Jeremy Brett portraying the detective and reading Conan Doyle's books, I just thought that Sherlock was weird. Brilliant people are supposed to be a little weird, aren't they? It's only when my reading pursuits turned to a steady diet of crime fiction that I came across more than one article stating that the world's greatest detective was a high-functioning autistic. With the list of characteristics I've already given, I can certainly see that the diagnosis fits.

And it's with Sherlock Holmes that I think I begin to understand Kearsley's comment. Sherlock is very popular right now, and his mode of thinking ties in perfectly with our current passion for forensics, DNA testing, and CSI-type crime programs. Holmes' thinking is all about the facts, objects that can be seen, touched and tested. There's not even a whiff of intuition in the way he solves crimes. And that's just the way we like our crime solvers right now.

There are other detectives, other characters in crime fiction, who have some form of autism, but it's not my intention to name them all. What I'd like to do now is tell you about two new characters with Asperger's in books that I want to read very soon. That's me-- talk a bit about what's already happened and then look forward to the future.

Jeff Cohen, the father of a son with Asperger's has written several books that I've enjoyed, and I'm looking forward to reading his The Question of the Missing Head

The main character, Samuel Hoenig, answers questions for a living. As a man with Asperger’s Syndrome, his unique personality helps him ferret out almost any answer there is. But his latest question is a rather odd one—who stole a preserved head from the Garden State Cryonics Institute? 

I have a feeling that Cohen's personal experience will really make Samuel an interesting character, don't you? When I met him at The Poisoned Pen last year and heard him talk about this book, I could tell that Cohen's perspective was going to put a whole different spin on the story.

The other book that I'm really looking forward to reading is Susanna Kearsley's own A Desperate Fortune. In it, amateur codebreaker Sara Thomas has Asperger's, and her attempt at cracking a 300-year-old code in a diary is going to take her completely out of her comfort zone. 

Kearsley, too, has personal experience. Several people very close to her are "Aspys," so her characterization of Sara Thomas should also be very interesting.

I did a bit more reading about the subject before I began writing this post, and one of the things that struck me was that authors of the articles I read were very quick to say that many terms used to describe people with autism can be seen as pejorative-- and it's a sly sort of negativity, a kind that I particularly loathe.

I've always thought of people with autism as having their brains wired differently. Nothing more and nothing less. I've also never thought being different was a bad thing, only something that could cause pain for the person who's been labeled as such. We all have something to learn from each other. Wouldn't it be lovely if we had the patience and the understanding to do so?

You've had to know it was coming. I only mentioned two books I'd read that featured characters with some form of autism. Didn't you feel as though I might be setting you up? Well... I was!

One thing that I am puzzling over is this. Have any of you read Carol O'Connell's Kathleen Mallory mysteries? If so, would you consider Mallory to be autistic?

Have you read books that have characters with autism? They don't have to be crime fiction. Please share some titles with us. Pretty please? You know all of us bookaholics are always on the lookout for recommendations! 



  1. I have not read the Carol O'Connell books, but I have heard the main character described as autistic. And let's see - one of Jodi Picoult's books features a character with autism - House Rules. This young man is fond of crime scenes and as there is a murder in town, he is suspected. And Lincoln Barclay has a character in Trust Your Eyes that spends most of his time watching a sort of Google map program and observes a murder, but I think he is schizophrenic, which, of course, is completely different. It is an interesting book though. There are a couple of YA books that I've heard about, but not read. That's all I've got right now. :-)

    1. And a fine list it is, too! I loved Barclay's TRUST YOUR EYES, but you're right, the character is schizophrenic, not autistic.

      I came very close to listing Kathleen Mallory in my post, but decided not to at the last second.

  2. Oh, this is fascinating, Cathy! It is interesting how Asperger's, autism and other spectrum disorders have gotten so much attention. The post made me think of Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander and of Belinda Bauer's Rubbernecker. Great food for thought, for which thanks.

    1. I did some very interesting reading for this post, and Salander was mentioned in several, but all of the authors agreed that she was not autistic. She wasn't born the way she is; her life made her that way. Therein lies the difference.

      I just find it fascinating how detectives-- both real and imagined-- use different parts of their brains to solve crime.

  3. How about the Rosie Project by Graeme Samson?

    1. I've been hearing good things about this book. Thanks for the tip!

  4. Yes, The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect feature a protagonist who had Asperger's and OCD. The books are a lot of fun.

    Agree about Lizbeth Salander whose brutal childhood and adolescence shaped her personality and her protective mechanisms.

    Interesting subject. I have become more attuned to autism as I have friends with a child who has autism. He is very smart, but it's his social and behavioral traits that exhibit his disability, not his intellect. And another friend has a grand-daughter who has autism.

    I think there are great concerns about these children coping as adults when their parents aren't around to support them.

    I never thought that the Great Detective had autism. It never dawned on me. His being a stickler for detail just struck me as part of his personality. My father steered me in Holmes' direction when I was a teenager, and I think it was to help me learn to think scientifically and logically.

    1. I've never known anyone with any form of autism. All that I know is from what I've seen on film and read. If I'd had a child with autism, that would be a great worry of mine-- what happens to my child when I'm no longer around?

  5. I think that my friends who have a child with autism, probably Asperger's, worry about this, but he has a sibling.

    And another friend whose granddaughter has autism I don't know about. I'm sure her mother worries about her future.

    One thing I am aware of is that all these parents and grandparents are incredibly patient and explain everything calmly.


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