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The Importance of Stories with Authentic Autistic Characters

By Alexandra Constable, Brittany Holness, Maisie Clarke and Bianca Scasserra

In this issue we are celebrating World Autism Month by highlighting novels that discuss authentic autistic experiences and have neurodivergent characters. World Autism Month begins on 2 April and encourages members of the United Nations to raise awareness about autism across the globe. There are many things you can do to show your support this month, including lighting up your home or business blue to raise awareness, taking part in various fundraising activities or maybe supporting some neurodivergent writers with their upcoming releases. Within this article we will look at recent bestsellers that have taken the publishing industry by storm, as well as some exciting new releases set to hit shelves this year.

Recently, the book market has been blessed with positive representations of autism. This is seen most popularly in Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow which follows two childhood friends, Sam and Sadie, as they discover fame and tragedy through their creative endeavour of game-making. This New York Times bestseller is perfect for both gamers and readers alike. However, what this book does really well is explore major themes of identity. Most importantly, the autistic behaviours displayed by Zevin’s main characters. Although not explicitly stated in the novel, it appears that Sam has autism and many reviewers have praised Zevin for this positive representation. Despite not making autism the central focus of the novel, Zevin is able to present her characters in a way that neither demonises nor glorifies the disability. Another recent release that does this successfully is If Only You by Chloe Liese. Packed with all the best romance tropes such as slow burn and fake relationships, this sixth book in Liese’s series has received high praise. This is not only because it's the perfect friends-to-lovers storyline, but because Ziggy, the female lead, is autistic. If Only You is a great example of refreshing positive representations and sheds light on especially uncommonly seen experiences in literature, such as women with autism. It is clear that Liese excels here in her mission to demonstrate that “everyone deserves a love story.”

The surge of autistic portrayals within novels is set to permeate even further on the bookshelves this year. The retelling of autistic experiences doesn’t have to be exclusive to the month of April alone; irrespective of genre or style, writers are pledging their support by populating novels with autistic and neurodivergent characters. This includes Jackie Khalilieh’s Something More, which is a romance novel that follows a protagonist attempting to conceal her autism diagnosis in high school. Khalilieh does well at shining a positive light on autism and offers the chance to cultivate a multi-faceted relationship with her readership as someone with an authentic experience of autism. Another impending release similar to Khalilieh’s novel is Melissa See’s Love Letters which is an LGBTQIA+ romance novel centred on neurodivergent protagonists. This book illustrates the themes of identity and love to great effect and is an enjoyable read for young adults: readers are treated to a classic love story riddled with mystery and uncommon romances. See exhibits the groundbreaking nature of her story by casting the first disabled valedictorian in a triumphant depiction. Both novels are primed for release in June 2023.

Representations of autistic experiences in ways that are meaningful and authentic are crucial. There have been some instances in books, movies or tv shows in which neurodivergent individuals are not portrayed favourably, presenting blatant stereotypes of the more extreme types of neurodivergence. As more of these experiences have been appearing in books, regardless of the genre, they have been akin to a push for readers to see that their reading lists need to include more diverse reads that supplement their understanding of the experiences of others. Since each neurodivergent individual is different, they will react to situations differently. More diverse reading material accurately representing their experiences will provide autistic readers with more representation whilst also educating neurotypical individuals about these experiences and providing a greater understanding of a group that is typically represented in society in harmful ways. Accurate representation, while essential for those who are neurodivergent, also plays a large role in the public’s perception of autism. By having more authors introduce autistic characters in different yet authentic ways, audiences will diversify their reading while gaining a better understanding of the neurodivergent community.

As the awareness of autism and the neurodivergent community continues to be widely felt, it is an auspicious movement that we hope will live long after the conclusion of World Autism Month. The rise of titles that feature authentic autistic experiences will not only serve as a compelling read to a diverse audience but act as an educational component for a society that is greatly underrepresented. Many authors have excelled in utilising novels as a tool for positive reinforcement. Thus, with the advancing release of autistic and neurodivergent novels on the publishing horizon, it’s clear to see that this will remain a topic burgeoning novelists will be itching to write about.


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