How do you make a fictional autistic character sympathetic?
It’s likely that the first character you think of is the boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Child characters are usually, by their nature, sympathetic. Even if they are very different, if they cause a lot of problems for those around them, they are still a child, and we excuse those behaviours. But what about an adult? Is a thirty-five year old man having a meltdown sympathetic? What about a forty year old woman hitting her head against a wall? Is a woman who needs three days to recover from a social outing anything more than an acopic attention-seeker?
Personal experience tells most autistic people that those around them are unable to empathise with their experience of the world. To neurotypicals it sounds impossible, implausible that anyone would have to navigate such a barrage of sensation, be unable to process so many things that they take for granted.
Of course, on the other side most autistics probably find it difficult to imagine what it’s like to navigate the world without all that noise and confusion.
Lyssa is autistic. She has made concessions to the areas she needs in order to function, choosing a job that is short bursts of intense activity interspersed with long recovery periods. She works in a small group of people, many of whom are not sympathetic, but they are a known quantity. They view her as odd, and some of them deliberately trigger her anxieties, but she elects to stay put with better the devil you know realism.
While I was reading over the latest draft, it struck me that to a NT, she is probably very passive. Though she does change and grow as a person, it is because she finally has someone who accepts her, who tackles on her behalf the barriers she has no hope of overcoming.
This, for me, is one of the tensions of writing about disability. I deeply dislike the heroic overcoming all odds narrative of the genre, and at the same time I dislike the passive ableist narrative of the disabled or differently abled always needing assistance from someone able-bodied (read: normal). Giving Jack his own, newly-acquired disability offered a perspective that a ‘normal’ person might find easier to understand. Though many on the spectrum might feel frustrated that so much of the story is told from his point of view, showing that it is possible to accept, and make accommodation with, autism without it being a radical concept is centray to the book.
I should admit here that making the ‘bad’ character overtly disabled was another deliberate decision. I’ve never felt that there was nobility in disability; apart from the concept being far too close to that sickening statement suffering brings you closer to Jesus, I also feel that disabled/differently-abled people should have the right to be all the varieties of awkward and angry and wrong and even cruel, that the rest of the world has.
So these characters orbit one another, by turns angry and despairing, bewildered and happy, caring and cruel. Not everyone gets a happy ending; not everyone deserves one. Are they sympathetic characters? To be honest, I no longer know. They are who they are, and in a few more months I will send them out into the world and let you decide.