Inside the Mind of Autism
or, THE FICTIONAL CHARACTER I WASN’T EVEN SURE I SHOULD ATTEMPT
Recently an interviewer asked me if I ever wrote characters of the opposite sex, and, if so, how hard it was to understand their thinking. I admit the question made me laugh. While it’s absolutely true that men and women think differently, I found it interesting that he was more concerned about how I put myself into the mind of a man rather than how it was to find myself, as an author, in the mind of a psychopath. Or an assassin. Or, God forbid, the parent of a kidnapped child.
In the Eden Thrillers, my co-author, B.K. Sherer, and I write each chapter in third person limited. That means each chapter finds us inside the head of a specific character. The reader sees things only through the eyes of that person, and knows no more than he or she does. For that chapter, you view life (and the other characters) as that person does.
I do believe that, to be successful, actors and some writers need an extraordinary ability to put themselves into the shoes of others. In my recent post on extreme empathy, I talked about the emotional cost of doing just that. Each of the Eden Thrillers has posed a challenge as far as understanding at least one world view that was very different than mine.
In PLAGUES OF EDEN, we wanted to try something very different again. We wanted to present a character who not only thought about things differently–but thought differently. Period.
I, personally, wanted to honor two young men of my acquaintance who were on the severe end of the autism spectrum, and I wanted to honor all the families I know who have a child anywhere on the spectrum. As a linear and verbal thinker, I was both curious and frightened to wonder how far I could go into understanding a mind that wasn’t constricted by these parameters.
Like everyone else, I’d read books about autism, and I’d seen the tv movie about Temple Grandin. I’d hung with people all along the spectrum. But I didn’t have a way in to talking to them until I came upon THE REASON I JUMP by Naoki Higashida, a 13-year-old Japanese boy on the severe end of the spectrum who could not only communicate with his mother and teachers by merit of a chart with Japanese characters on it, but could put into words the reasons behind his actions and his thinking. It blew the lid off any preconceptions I had or anything I thought I understood.
The introduction to the English version is by David Mitchell, author of CLOUD ATLAS, who has a child on the spectrum.
“Imagine a daily life in which your faculty of speech is taken away,” Mitchell begins. “After you lose your ability to communicate, the editor-in-residence who orders your thoughts walks out…a dam-burst of ideas, memories, impulses and thoughts is cascading over you, unstoppably. Your editor controlled this flow, diverting the vast majority away, and recommending just a tiny number for your conscious consideration…now your mind is a room where twenty radios, all tuned to different stations, are blaring out voices. The radios have no off switches or volume controls.”
He goes on to explain that you don’t have balance, and you’re not certain how your body fits together. You never have full control of it. Worse, all language is now a foreign language, and meltdowns and panic attacks are viewed as tantrums.
But this was nothing compared to the world that Naoki himself introduced. In his world, time does not exist as a linear concept. Thoughts are also not related, and don’t stick together in any recognizable order. A minute and a day can be of equal length. Many behaviors–head banging and hand fluttering, for example–are ways of out-playing more painful internal radios.
Words and concepts can float as dots that can be accessed in random order. Here’s an example he gives of the usefulness of words: Us kids with autism, we never use enough words, and it’s those missing words that can cause all the trouble. For example, three friends are talking about a classmate with autism:
“Hey, she just said ‘all of us.'”
“So, that must mean she want to join with us, yeah?”
“Dunno. Maybe she wants to know if we’re all doing it.”
In fact, the autistic girl’s ‘all of us’ came from something the teacher had said earlier in the day: “Tomorrow, all of us are going to the park.” What the girl wanted to find out was when they were going. She tried to do this by repeating the only words she could use: “all of us.”
Naoki fills in much more about the way one would think without linear parameters, but two major points that brutally stuck with me were that, for him, the worst thing about having autism is realizing the stress and pain he causes others, but not being able to do anything about it…and the fact that, from the point of view of floating in this vast ether, filled with dots rather than lines, he can clearly see the strictures and straight jackets that bind the minds of those of us who are “normal.”
Holy cow! Could I possibly unmoor myself, even for a little while, to dwell in the mind of a character who thought spatially rather than in a linear fashion?
Here were the reasons not to, and the things that would make doing so a particular challenge:
+ First, everyone who has a child on the spectrum has a very specific child, and none of them would be like the character we’d create. He’d be specific, also. But I fully understand how parents and families have ownership of the knowledge and love of their specific child. He would not be them. He might even be at cross purposes to what they understood autism to be. I would want to honor rather than upset readers.
+ In thrillers, characters are larger than life. It’s not a normal situation happening to normal people. Everything is heightened. This character would need to be heightened in some ways, also.
+ In thrillers, also, characters and plots have to interlock. Leal himself, as well as his challenges, would need to do this.
+ Even if I, as a writer, could exist in a corner of Leal’s (the character would be named Leal. He is French.) headspace, it would be a difficult dance, in his chapters, to use words to help the reader understand someone who is a nonverbal thinker.
The children I’d hung out with had interesting abilities to do things like sing or recite even though putting sentences together was difficult. Many of them had a specific DVD or television program they watched (what seemed to their families) ad nauseam. They could often quote–and seemingly understand–whole swatches of these shows. (As a matter of fact, while I was working with this, Ron Suskind’s book about reaching his son through Disney movies came out.) They also had things they were unusually good at, sometimes called “splinter skills.”
The more I found out, and the more people I met, the more I really wanted to try to create a character who thought this way. It would never be perfect. It would never be completely realistic. I might upset people by my near miss. But I finally realized, even if I wasn’t able to pull it off the way I wanted to, I truly, truly wanted to start the conversation. I wanted people who’d never thought about spatial thinkers to realize there was a “real person” inside the person on the spectrum.
So I jumped in. For a whole week, I spent much of my time in an alternate reality. It was big and black, and as huge as space. It was overwhelming and freeing and horrifying and frightening, and emotionally devastating and occasionally exhilarating to be in the mind of this character, this little boy.
On Wednesday, I joined a group of my friends at a local pub, as I usually do, and as I sat down, I found myself still shaking. I had to explain to them “where” I’d been, and why it was such a vulnerable place.
So, this brings me to PLAGUES OF EDEN. Yes, it has a character on the autism spectrum. His father is on the extreme end of the non-compassionate spectrum. Things happen in the book that are indeed heightened reality.
Does it work?
Will it open a conversation?
When you read the book, I’d love to hear what you think.