Fictional Aspergers

In an earlier post started to lay out some of my misgivings about deriving too much “insight” from reading fiction. My point at the time was that one could write an entirely plausible piece of fiction based on some awful societal prejudices. If the author is careful to not write too heavy handedly, s/he could persuade otherwise innocent readers to take on some ugly (and untrue) opinions.

Today my partner just finished reading The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. This work of fiction features the protagonist Don Tillman, a geneticist with Asperger syndrome. Asperger’s is “an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests” (Wikipedia). Tillman is high functioning – he has a job as a research professor and teaches university courses. The author allows us to see the world – and in particular other people – through the curious thought processes of Tillman.

The book is a hilarious read (I’m inferring from the frequent guffaws bursting from the bedroom). One might believe they are truly getting an “insider’s look” at what it’s like to live with Asperger’s. But toward the end of the story there are hints of some implausible twists. For one, the protagonist more or less is deciding he could learn to change and be less “odd” if he really wanted to. From my limited understanding of Asperger’s and other autism-spectrum disorders, one can learn to control certain behaviors and one’s social interface to the world, but the inner thoughts/feelings stay locked in their patterns.

Now, clearly this is a work of fiction – the author is not trying to deceive us in that regard. And (again, only hearing this second hand) I’m willing to bet the author gets a lot right about Aspergers… but I really have no way of knowing for sure. Yes, I could find books by Temple Grandin, a well-known autistic scientist and advocate, if I wanted to gain some insights from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

But my point is that a lot of people won’t follow up with non-fiction sources – they’ll read The Rosie Project and perhaps assume that Asperger’s sufferers could “snap out of it” if they only wanted to. This is the pernicious side of fiction I worry about. I don’t know what to recommend, other than to take things with a grain of salt, but it does call into question the value of the “insights” gained from fiction. Having cross-checks – trusted teachers, perhaps, who recommend particular works as illustrative, and advise against consulting others – might help. But the pull toward group think can be strong.

I should note, too, that I may be libeling Graeme Simsion a bit – I haven’t read The Rosie Project myself, and I am not in a position to judge the verisimilitude of his description. I am simply raising the possibility that he gets it wrong as a cautionary tale.


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