With a limited on-screen presence, autistic characters have emerged in another medium: fan fiction


Jonathan Alexander, University of California, Irvine and Rebecca Black, University of California, Irvine

In one Harry Potter fan fiction story, Hermione Granger anxiously awaits the results from a recent test.

It isn’t her performance on an exam in a potions course that she’s concerned about. Instead, the higher-ups at Hogwarts had ordered she undergo some psychological tests. They had noticed how quickly she talked, along with her nervous tics.

Hermione eventually sees the results: “I stared at my parents, blinking my eyes. I knew the results would be here today, but I didn’t think the outcome would be like this. Asperger, the paper said.”

In this piece of fan fiction, Hermione Granger has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

As scholars of fan fiction and young adult literature, we started noticing how some fan fiction authors were incorporating autism into their stories – sometimes through new characters and other times by rewriting existing ones.

Since then we’ve been collecting and analyzing fan fictions in which young writers have created characters with autism.

These amateur writers seem to be eager to create the kinds of characters they aren’t regularly seeing in the media. The Harry Potter universe, in particular, has emerged as a popular setting.

The importance of autistic characters

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with autism, a word that covers a spectrum of conditions that psychologists refer to as autism spectrum disorder.

How autism manifests can vary greatly from person to person. Some experience significant disability, while others experience milder forms of cognitive difference and social discomfort.

But one thing is clear: Diagnoses have increased in the past 20 years, with the National Autism Association identifying autism as the “fastest growing development disorder.”

At the same time – outside of a couple of notable examples, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Rain Man” and Julia from “Sesame Street” – there continues to be a dearth of autistic characters in books, television shows and films.

Yet these media portrayals are extremely important: Accurate portrayals of autism can help people understand the complexities of this condition. Nonexistent depictions – not to mention misleading ones – foster misinformation and bias.

In 2015, Sonya Freeman Loftis, an assistant professor of English at Morehouse College, published “Imagining Autism: Fiction and Stereotypes on the Spectrum,” one of the few academic studies to take up the representation of autism in fiction.

Loftis critiques stereotypical depictions of autism in a range of fictional narratives, such as the character of Lennie in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” a figure whose disability is linked to sexual violence.

But she also points out that positive representations of autism spectrum disorder can actually highlight some of the strengths that those with autism possess: attention to detail, high levels of concentration, forthrightness, dedication and strong memory skills.

Activists and scholars like Loftis have argued that people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder should be more justly and accurately understood as “neurodiverse”: If neurological faculties exist on a continuum, theirs could simply be thought of as “different” from the statistical norm.

Young writers take the lead

If major studios and publishing companies express little interest in telling stories about people with autism, who can fill the void?

Fan fictions and other forms of do-it-yourself media-making are an outlet for people to explore issues that are often missing from mass market and popular entertainment.

Some of the most famous examples from fan fiction take place in the Star Trek universe, particularly those that imagine a gay relationship between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. In doing so, fans were able to integrate queer plots and themes into Gene Roddenberry’s science fiction universe at a time when few gay relationships were appearing on TV.

Given the paucity of mass media representation of autism, we wondered if young people might be using fan fiction to explore this complex topic.

Beginning in 2016 – and working with University of California, Irvine graduate student Vicky Chen – we started analyzing the writings that have appeared on a hugely popular fan fiction clearinghouse.

After selecting for categories such as “neurodiverse” and “differabilities,” we noticed that a number of stories set in the Harry Potter universe seemed to have autistic or neurodiverse characters. We collected and coded these stories, and are set to publish our findings in a forthcoming essay in the Journal of Literacy Research.

Most of the stories were written by young people who have siblings, relatives or friends with autism spectrum disorder. We concluded that, while some of these characters occasionally slip into stereotypes, most of them affirm the ability of people with autism spectrum disorder to confront bigotry and speak about their own conditions.

By extension, the stories promote an understanding of autism as something that isn’t scary or horrific.

In one story, for instance, the writer creates a new character, Albus Potter, the son of Harry Potter, who is autistic and newly enrolled in Hogwarts. In the story, Albus initially has difficulty forming relationships. But he ultimately finds friends in houses as diverse as Gryffindor and Slytherin.

His overprotective mother tries to shield him from ridicule by students and even some biased faculty. But she’s challenged by others, including her husband, who suggests that “Albus can do a great many things that people have said he couldn’t.”

The ‘magic’ of autism

Why the Harry Potter universe?

We reasoned that many of these young writers are still in school and likely huge fans of Harry Potter, so the choice of Hogwarts as a common setting isn’t surprising.

But many of the young authors also linked autism to a kind of “magic” or ability that could be understood at Hogwarts as special – even advantageous – in ways that “muggles,” or normal people, wouldn’t see. In all of the stories we analyzed, everyone with autism also has magical abilities.

In other cases, autism isn’t depicted as an impairment or a challenge to overcome. Instead, it simply appears as a “difference” – a portrayal that’s aligned with the goals of those who argue that autism should be thought of as a form of neurodiversity, not as an illness or disability.

Perhaps most significantly, this research points to the ways in which young people can craft complex representations of autism that the media shies away from.

We can’t say when positive representations of autism will move from fandom to the mainstream.

But until then, these young writers are quietly doing the work to help dispel stereotypes and generate understanding – perhaps even appreciation.The Conversation

Jonathan Alexander, Chancellor’s Professor of English and Gender & Sexuality Studies, University of California, Irvine and Rebecca Black, Associate Professor of Education, University of California, Irvine

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Why there need to be more autistic characters in children’s books



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Autistic characters in children’s books are few and far between.
Shutterstock

Shalini Vohra, Sheffield Hallam University

The children’s writer Michael Morpurgo has written a new novel inspired by his autistic grandson, which is set to be published later this year. Flamingo Boy is set in the Camargue in the south of France during World War II and features a boy who “sees the world differently”.

Morpurgo explained how it didn’t occur to him to write a book about autism until his grandson was born, which isn’t totally surprising – as autistic characters in books are few and far between.

Fiction plays a significant role in shaping how people understand and respond to autism. And in this way, books are often used by both schools and parents to help children and young people understand more about autism.

But the limited and skewed portrayal of autism means it is often
misrepresented rather than represented in fiction. For an autistic child or young person this can be extremely isolating and they are often unable to find a version of “themselves” in a book.

There aren’t many autistic characters in children’s books.
Pexels.

The sad reality is many authors and publishers – perhaps from fear of causing offence – appear to steer clear of autistic characters in their narrative. As a consequence, books with autistic characters are either tucked away in the special section of bookshops and libraries, or absent altogether.

Writing together

My research looks at the role fiction plays in creating awareness and acceptance of autism among children, as well as how the portrayal of autism in children’s books shapes how autism is understood and responded to. As part of the research, I recently put on an interactive discussion at the Festival of Social Science around the topic of how autism is portrayed in children’s fiction.

The panel included Vicky Martin, writer of M is for autism and M in the middle, and Amanda Lillywhite, writer and illustrator of picture books including Friends, written for the Neuro Foundation which works to improve the lives of those affected by neurofibromatosis – a genetic condition caused by a mutation in one of their genes. On the panel was also Elaine Bousfield, founder of new publishing house Zuntold. And the audience consisted of autistic children, young people and adults. As well as parents of autistic children, secondary school teachers, academics and the general public.

One of the key topics discussed at the event was around the idea of “co-production”. This is where books are written in collaboration with autistic children and young people – much like the M in the Middle series, which was authored by Martin, but written jointly with girls of Limpsfield Grange, a school for autistic girls.

Making magic happen

The story of M has captured the hearts of readers and already resulted in a sequel to the first book. The girls of Limpsefield Grange have also featured in an ITV documentary Girls with autism. Why? Because M is the story of an autistic teenage girl who is interesting, endearing and real.

She’s written and created with a group of teenage autistic girls. Big chunks of the book is written verbatim, with their very words, and the rest is heavily edited by them. It doesn’t get more real than that. M is the one girl they all created together.

With younger children, drawing or comic workshops might be a more accessible way of getting them to think about characters.
Pexels.

Similarly, as a part of her book for the Neuro Foundation, Lillywhite spent time with children with neurofibromatosis. They spoke about themselves and their experiences of things that matter not just to them but also to many other children, such as bullying. And while all the characters in the book have the genetic disorder neurofibromatosis, the stories aren’t about that and are just as relevant for every child.

Getting heard

Autism is extremely diverse and perhaps the only way to have a good representation of it in fiction is by having lots of autistic characters – in comics, in picture books and in novels.

Publishers too have an important role to play in garnering collaborations and bringing work co-produced with autistic children and young people to market – much as in the M books. Publishing house Zuntold, for example, has an interactive novel writing project which encourages people to write the next piece.

Ultimately, every story – whether in life or fiction – has characters, and all characters are different. So given that autism affects more than one in 100 people, there needs to be more done to represent the outside world inside story books.

The ConversationMillions of people have a relative on the autism spectrum. And it is only by making autistic characters a part of mainstream books that we can hope for widespread understanding and acceptance of autism.

Shalini Vohra, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, Sheffield Hallam University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

50 of the Greatest Characters in Literature


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One of the things literature does better than almost any other medium is allow us to experience another person’s quality of mind, and sometimes even inhabit it. It follows, then, that every avid reader has a favorite literary character — whether they’re beloved for dastardly deeds, tough-girl antics, sex appeal, or a high snark quotient — and that there are many impossibly good ones out there. After the jump, you’ll find 50 of the best. To be clear: a great character isn’t always one you like (just ask Claire Messud), but one that is somehow extraordinary, or evokes some kind of delicious story-feeling in the reader. As always, this list reflects the personal tastes and proclivities of its creator, and many great characters didn’t make the cut (Jo March, Huck Finn, Merusault, Anne Shirley, looking at you), so if your favorite isn’t on here, and them on in the comments.

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Infographic: The Stephen King Universe Flow Chart


The link below is to an infographic on characters in Stephen king books and how they relate to one another.

For more visit:
http://tessiedesigncompany.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/stephen-king-universe-flow-chart.html

Book Review: Currently Reading – Print is Dead, by Jeff Gomez


I have been reading ‘Print is Dead – Books in our Digital Age,’ by Jeff Gomez and have now reached ‘Writers in a Digital Future.’ Here Gomez explores the possibilities for authors, possibilities that weren’t available in the past. Some attempts at interactive narrative have appeared prior to the digital world, but the opportunities for experimentation are now seemingly endless. As I have mentioned before, the possibilities now exist for the inclusion of various media, such as pictures, music, video, etc. Hyperlinks to other features can now be included in ebooks, allowing in-depth studies of characters for novel writers/readers, treatments of historical events at length and so on. There is just so much room for experimentation in the digital world for authors of all genres, even in ways perhaps not yet imagined.

There is however more opportunity for the digital author, for he/she is now able to interact with the reader via means other than the actual ebook being read. The opportunity exists for collaborative websites, forum and chat room interaction, live video interviews and so many other avenues to interact with fans and readers of his/her material. Of course social networks like Facebook and MySpace provide the means for setting up fan pages and the like also.

So the digital world offers many opportunites and the possibilities for a brave new world of literature are there waiting to be seized. Sooner, rather than later, the digital future will arrive in a big way and authors/publishers need to be ready to meet the online demand that will surely come.

See also:
http://www.dontcallhome.com/books.html (Website of Jeff Gomez)
Podcast (Excerpts from the Book)
Google Books
Amazon