I ask myself why using autism the way these books do feels wrong. As a child who was disappointed to find the only Asian characters in any book in the library to be the Japanese-American family in “Farewell to Manzanar,” I am acutely aware of the importance of feeling represented in literature. And yet, when it comes to autism appearing in literary fiction, I instinctively feel a need to protect my son from these portrayals. He’s not an Ojibwe curse, a savant or an alien. Nor is he an emotionless cipher with no inner life.
As a writer, I understand the absurdity of trying to place restrictions on what can and can’t be written about. Keats defined negative capability as an artist’s ability to transmute an experience or idea into art even if she hasn’t experienced it herself; without it, we’d have no historical fiction, no “Madame Bovary,” no “Martian Chronicles.”
The crux of the issue is that with autism there is often, not metaphorically but literally, a lack of voice, which renders the person a tabula rasa on which a writer can inscribe and project almost anything: Autism is a gift, a curse, super intelligence, mental retardation, mystical, repellent, morally edifying, a parent’s worst nightmare. As a writer, I say go ahead and write what you want. As a parent, I find this terrifying, given the way neurotypical people project false motives and feelings onto the actions of others every day.