I had an idea for a novel, it was going to be called “Neuro” and was based in a world populated by a majority of people with Autism.
The title comes from the name Neuro-diverse which some people with Autism like to be called, as it is a Neurological condition and the diversity is a playful way of saying “Our brains are just different, that’s all, nothing to worry about” whereas non-autistic people would be referred to oppositely as Neuro-Typical, which I am. I’m not, I’m far from typical in the way I think but I’m certainly not Autistic and it would be insulting for me to claim some stake over being called Neuro-diverse. Which is one of the reasons I felt I wasn’t the person to write that story, it should come from someone with Autism.
I do believe my perspective is just as valid as anyone’s and I have spent much of my career teaching and training people about Autism and how to support people and have supported many people myself, I am something of an expert in the subject. It may be interesting for two stories to be written on the idea of a majority Autistic world by both Neuro-diverse and Typical individuals. This does raise a big question. Is it possible for a person without Autism to really understand what it’s like to have Autism?
That question can be applied to just about anything, being disabled, being a particular race, being a different gender, being taller or shorter, being born in a different country, being a firefighter… But we do have the ability to empathise, and good support is about being able to do that particularly well. I don’t know what it’s like to have Autism, but from my vast experience I have a very good idea and I think constantly about how to help people navigate their world and deal with the problems they may face based on their condition or otherwise.
There have been some great books written by people with Autism about their own experience which are incredibly valuable but my job in behaviour management has taught me something very fundamental, a fresh set of eyes will notice things others involved won’t. And, an outsider’s perspective is just as helpful as an insider.
My aim with the story was to show what that world may look like and how people with Autism would create their world and also what problems may arise from that. The story is set in the future and has some science fiction elements. Here’s the basic plot I came up with and some of the ideas I wanted to explore.
Set in a newly built city, much of the world is run down and dysfunctional (standard unknown post-apocalyptic sci-fi stuff) People with Autism began to develop communities many years before to give them environments to suit their sensory needs (sound, light and space are very important and controlled to suit needs) These communities grew as the population of people with Autism increased. The Neuro-typicals kept on damaging their environments and with less people with Autism among them things began to fall apart, they began to realise that many of the great thinkers were in fact people on the Autistic spectrum. I had read an article about a city in the Netherlands which had one of the highest Autistic populations in the world, this was due to the IT industry in that town attracting many people to work there, many of whom have Autism. Another cliché is that all people with Autism are good with computers and maths, this isn’t true but many are and the attraction of IT jobs is often that limited amounts of social interaction are required. The joke is that this particular city would be the cleanest and most efficient place on earth, but no one would socialise… that’s clearly not true but even people with Autism find the idea funny. This was another one of the triggers for the story, what if we took that to an extreme?
The city is divided into zones, each one designed for different sensory needs and different purposes. Zone 1 is for the smartest, the leaders, they are ones who can communicate the best. They have dispensed entirely with the need for pointless social interactions and focus all of their brainpower on purposeful development and improvement to help the society keep functioning.
Zone 2 is the low stimulation area, this is for people who want a controlled space to decrease sensory overload, and it’s often visited by others who wish to have a break.
Zone 3 is where the physical labour takes place, bus depots, rubbish disposal and recycling (they have developed many very efficient ways to run the city)
And finally Zone 4 is where the last few Neuro-Typicals live, it’s a poverty stricken area, rife with crime and substance abuse.
The story was where I had really fallen short on the idea and was another reason I decided not to continue to write it, basically I had no plot line. The story had evolved from a previous idea about a future city where the tallest buildings housed the rich who lived an entirely automated existence, full of hedonism but had actually lost use of their bodies and the ground level where mutants lived with the working class types in-between somewhere, the city begins to break down and the workers take over, long saga… Sounds great to me, but it’s been done many times and by better writers than me. The same rough idea began Neuro and some of the Autistic people had begun to oppress the non-Autistic, the drug and crime problem was partially due to themselves but also they were held back from leaving that life by the powers that be. Sound familiar? Yeah, like loads of plots but the idea is to explore why people behave the way they do.
There was one Neuro-typical character who would rebel against this and attempt to change things, and also a couple who are Neuro-diverse, the husband wanted to keep the neuro-typicals separate whereas the wife felt they should integrate, don’t forget the past where they helped us, he says don’t forget the past when they hospitalised us and dumped us in residential homes. If I’m being honest this guy was me, poor background, thinks differently to everyone around me, questions the systems of the world and understands what it’s like to be an outsider. This outsider perspective was meant to parallel the feelings of those with Autism, there are lots of ways a person can feel different and find getting by a challenge.
It was a comment on society, one in which people in power always lose some morality, a comment on the current and past understanding of Autism and the world of social care and generally to look at the positives of Autism and that generally we need diversity.
It could be an awesome book.
Another reason I decided to drop it was completely unrelated to the story I had devised and to others work. There has been a trend lately of having Autistic characters in films, TV and literature. This is not a bad thing inherently but has become a bit trendy.
The first was of course Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond Babbitt, he is an Autistic savant and the story is basically how he teaches his arsehole brother a lesson by being himself. Great and ground-breaking in its time (1988) but what it caused was for most people to think all Autistic people were like Raymond and although he was very like many people I have personally known (the way he speaks is quite common for example, the way he experiences stress also) But at least it did bring Autism into the public consciousness to an extent. Other famous examples are the book and play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time” which I thought was excellent, but it’s not those ones I’m referring to as much as the characters which are clearly on the Autistic Spectrum but they don’t admit it. The Big Bang Theory’s character Sheldon Cooper is quite clearly Autistic and they never say it, another recent one was another series called Mr Robot where the main character struggles socially, to make friends and understand people but is a computer hacking genius. There are many more examples like those.
The problem I have is that these characters keep popping up in films and they rarely say they have Autism. But it has become a convenient plot device to explain why a character is apparently anti-social but really, really good at something which is representative of part of the Autistic community. There’s a few fictional detectives who are “on the spectrum” and they don’t have interest in friends but their attention to detail or eidetic memory make them amazing at their jobs. And it also gives the reader or viewer sympathy for the character when they struggle with something.
I don’t want this to be normalised in a way, I don’t think it’s an accurate way to portray people with Autism and almost never do these stories go into the side of Autism where people need full 24 hour support to do everything, it’s always the charming oddball type character, different or quirky and even if they are rude it’s OK because… I’m sure you get it. I’m sure there are many people who think the exact opposite:
“Isn’t it great that there are so many Autistic characters in films now?”
I can’t really disagree with that fundamentally, there is a huge amount of people with Autism in the world so they should naturally be represented in cinema and literature and so on, but what I worry about is that it has become a new cliché, something that is true but only part of the truth.
I love characters who are outsiders, who are different and I think most people do. The hero who is perfectly well adjusted superman type is boring and old fashioned, we like our hero’s to be flawed and part of their heroic story is overcoming that. The main thing is anything that is overused in storytelling of any kind becomes boring.
Maybe one day I will write that book, maybe I should do it in collaboration with people with Autism, and it needs to tell all sides the strengths and weaknesses of both the neuro-typical and diverse. It should be controversial and will likely offend someone, but the truth always does as long as it’s honest. If a person wants to truly understand Autism there are plenty of ways to do that, maybe some of these characters will inspire that in some people, which is great. I guess I will hold off on my attempt to contribute to the fictional side of this and stick with my day job…
 I’m far from the best informed or knowledgeable but I certainly have vastly more understanding than your average person, and I have more direct experience than most people.
 Ability to remember all and very exact details, time place, sensory factors etc.