Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Socially awkward or autistic?

So, when I recently read Marie Brennan’s Turning Darkness into Light, I found a minor secondary character, Cora Fitzarthur, the most interesting character by a mile.

This books isn’t, probably, considered YA, but it could be. Certainly the protagonist, Audrey Camherst, has the typical virtues and faults of any generic female YA protagonist: good-hearted, brave, loyal, intelligent, insecure, impulsive, we could all probably write out a standard list. That’s all perfectly fine, but I don’t think she stood out particularly from the vast horde of young, kind, plucky, impulsive female protagonists.

Cora is a lot more interesting. Socially awkward, Cora handles ordinary social interactions very much as though she were an anthropologist taking notes on a foreign people. The four letters she wrote to an acquaintance, presented to the reader in the middle of the book, give her awkwardness true poignancy. Now, the milieu of this series is Regency-esque, so a young woman can certainly be raised apart from all society and wind up awkward for that reason, but Cora also shows (a) high intelligence, particularly (b) high degree of focus and (c) acute grasp of patterns. Is she autistic in some manner? I think she is.

This judgment is complicated by the insanely unhelpful decision to jam all kinds of obviously disparate syndromes and conditions under the “autism” umbrella and treat them as though they are related, when they plainly are not. Also by the concurrent tendency to force a grab-bag of things that aren’t any form of autism, such as lead poisoning, into the “autism” category because everything in creation is being jammed in that bag right now.

Nevertheless, I would say that Cora Fitzarthur shows the characteristics of one type of autism. This is handled subtly enough that it’s hard to be sure. But she is definitely interesting. She is the most intriguing and also the most sympathetic character in the story, and personally I would really like to see her brought front-and-center in a future novel of this series.

I have no intention of trying to compile a list of all the autistic and possibly autistic characters in SFF, because that’s a huge job and it’s not I’ve read widely enough to manage anything like a complete list. Probably someone else has already done this anyway. But I’d like to set Cora on a spectrum.

1) Socially awkward and/or extremely shy. I recall one review that pegged Kes, in Lord of the Changing Winds, as autistic.

I don’t think so. Kes is really shy and somewhat socially awkward, but I don’t believe she’s autistic. It’s okay with me if readers perceive her that way, but I don’t. Out of curiosity, did you? Let me know in the comments whether you did or didn’t perceive Kes as “on the spectrum.”

It actually strikes me as problematic and potentially quite harmful to define shyness, awkwardness, inexperience, and/or introversion as autistic traits or related to autism. Let us pause here to note that the child used to define the type for Ausburger’s syndrome turned out to be perfectly normal when he grew up and moved to a community to which he felt he belonged. He did not “have” anything. He was not “on the spectrum” of anything. Possibly this might provide a cautionary tale for anyone who is inclined to rush to define any shy, awkward, or introverted child as “on the spectrum.”

Moving on:

2) Appears to show genuinely autistic traits. Cora Fitzarthur is this kind of character.

Traits that go beyond shyness or social awkwardness: Being extraordinarily literal. Being extremely blunt in social contexts where that is not normal. Showing a real lack of understanding of social norms. High degree of focus and persistence. Extraordinary pattern recognition.

3) Definitely autistic, but “high-functioning.” Michael in Michelle Sagara’s Queen of the Dead trilogy is this kind of character.

 Lying to Michael was different. She could tell Allison – or Eric – that she had headaches all the time and they would pretend to believe her. Michael would call her on it and if she argued it would upset him because what he knew was true and what she was claiming as true weren’t the same. Michael is actually less socially awkward than Cora because his parents and friends help him cope. But he’s got the bluntness, the literalness, the lack of understanding of social norms – such as white lies and broken minor promises – all of that.

The difference between the Queen of the Dead series and a story with a Regency-esque setting like Turning Darkness into Light is that the former is contemporary and thus the term “autism” is available, along with its overgeneralized definition of characteristics. In the latter, no such term or concept is available, so no one around Cora is ever going to say “Oh yes, she’s autistic.” It’s up to the author to handle the character in a way consistent with a type of autism and to the reader to make the call. If you’ve read Turning Darkness into Light, do you agree or disagree with my assessment of Cora Fitzarthur?

I don’t want to move on from this category without mentioning Elizabeth Moon’s extraordinary Speed of Dark. If you haven’t read that, you should, full stop.

4) Definitely autistic, “low functioning.” There are very few characters of this kind in SFF. Probably more than one, but I can only think of one: Odelia in Sharon Shinn’s Elemental Blessings series.

You may recall that Mally was often swapped out for Princess Odelia, supposedly because of fear of assassination attempts; then it was discovered that Odelia was never seen in public; and finally it was revealed that Odelia could never be in the line of succession. She is absorbed in her internal world, she does not engage much with the external world or respond much to other people, she shows plenty of repetitious behaviors, she doesn’t speak – it’s altogether a classic presentation of profound autism, this time completely unmistakable even though there’s no such term or concept in the secondary world.

If you can think of a particularly well-drawn autistic character, or for that matter an ambiguous character like Cora, drop the title of the book in the comments, please.

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5 Comments Socially awkward or autistic?

  1. Megan

    There can be other reasons for someone being overly literal / blunt. I recently learned a friend of a friend who had a lot of those “social nonawareness” traits actually had a brain tumor, which was apparently suppressing his filter for appropriate behavior. So much so that after the surgery he was almost a completely different person. But it is difficult to find that in books. Most of the characters I can think of are only what I would call shy or not socially adjusted.

  2. Rachel

    Megan, that’s a great example of someone who might easily be harmed by the strong current tendency to shoehorn all kinds of conditions into a broad “autism” category and just call it good. Thankfully, this person was properly diagnosed and treated!

  3. mona

    There’s a character who has autism in Diane Duane’s Young Wizard series. “A Wizard Alone”, according to a quick search. I can’t say I recall much about the portrayal, just the impression it left.

    I don’t know enough about autism really, but I wouldn’t say Cora is autistic, just maladjusted. She seems to be learning in the course of her interactions with Audrey. Very interesting and sympathetic character in any case.

  4. SarahZ

    Have you read The Kiss Quotient? It’s a romance, not sff, but has a really interesting backstory wrt autism: the author’s research into autism for the book resulted in her getting diagnosed as autistic, herself.

  5. Rachel

    SarahZ, that’s a neat backstory, but from the reviews I gather there is a ton of explicit sex and perhaps not that much story — not my favorite structure for a novel.

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