Saturday, October 31, 2015

Representation (2014)

Louise sent in this entry for ASDay 2014, from Tumblr blog MindTheLSpace


I’m currently reading some reviews for a book containing a character with Aspergers. I haven’t actually read this book, so I don’t know whether it’s any good, what the portrayal of the autistic character is like etc, but nonetheless, some of the patterns in the negative reviews are troubling me. 
One, that the main plot of the book centred around a divorcee looking for a new partner, with the ‘son with Aspergers’ plot being secondary. Some reviewers seem very surprised that this is the case, and several saw it as a negative. This is despite the fact that the author specialises in romance, and the blurb isn’t in any way misleading about what the central plot is. 
Two, that the book is written in a very light-hearted, jokey tone. Several people are claiming that this is 'inappropriate’ of otherwise 'weird’ for a book where one of the main characters is autistic. 
Three, a handful of reviewers complained that the book didn’t give enough 'insight’ into what it’s like to raise an autistic child. 
So basically, if a book contains a prominent character on the autistic spectrum, the book must be: 
1) Entirely about the ASD. More specifically, about the negative effects ASD has on both the individual and the individual’s family. 
2) Written in a serious tone, because autistic people can’t be written about in a light-hearted way. 
3) A substitute textbook with something to teach non-autistic readers. 
To strip that down:
1) Autistic characters can’t be incidentally autistic, or 'just there’. 
2) ASD is always sad, and serious, and difficult. There’s never anything to be light-hearted about. 
3) Autistic characters should serve an educational purpose. They can’t just be there in their own right. 
So, to extrapolate (some of you may say extrapolating a bit too far, which is fair enough.): 
1) Autistic characters can’t be standard characters. They’re the exception. A point has to be made of them. 
2) Autism is a tragedy. A perpetual tragedy for both the autistic person and everyone who spends more than five minutes around them. This puts us straight into the 'Disability as a tragedy’ narrative, which is a huge, huge issue, and one most disability campaigners want to get rid of. 
3) Disabled people exist only in relation to non-disabled people. Again, this is a very old and very fucked up narrative, which most campaigners would like to see consigned to history. 
I’m not for a single second suggesting that all these reviewers were actively thinking “How dare the author make jokes, disabled people are tragic and terrible!” as they wrote down their thoughts. What they were probably doing, however, was writing down the expectations and subconscious beliefs that the world around them had, in numerous subtle ways, encouraged them to have. Ideas about disabled people being 'other’ in a negative way. 
I find the ideas presented above very damaging. Because to ourselves, we’re notthe other, but that’s the only way we ever get to see ourselves portrayed in the public eye. Our lives, generally speaking, contain positive and neutral emotions as well as negative ones, so it’s strange for us to think of our entire beings as something that has to be written about in a death-bed tone. And thinking of ourselves as tokens or vehicles, existing purely to educate non-disabled people, is faintly disturbing. 
Disability discourse needs to change, and representation of people like us, as opposed to representation of Our Condition 101, is so, so important. 
(This is the book in question, along with the reviews I’m reading, if anyone’s curious) 

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