Might my MC have Asperger's?

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t0dd

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I'm writing a MG fantasy about an 11-year-old girl who encounters a Bogle (a mischievous, shape-shifting magical creature) and is out to stop it running wild in her new hometown, while dealing with the fact that the Bogle exists (she's very logical and firmly un-superstitious, so that the discovery that it's real is a major blow to her world-view). A friend of mine who beta-read the first chapter wondered if she had a mild case of Asperger's, and although I hadn't thought of that while writing her, I was interested enough in his remark that I thought I'd ask about it here.

The MC is a bright and serious girl, with a strong dedication to orderliness (one reason why she's clashing with the Bogle, who's keen on chaos and disorder) and extremely logical. Until she meets the Bogle, she has a firm "Ghosts and other mythical creatures don't exist" outlook (at one point, quoting Sherlock Holmes' remark from "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire", "No ghosts need apply" - she's a big Sherlock Holmes fan and would like to be a detective); indeed, when she first encounters signs of the Bogle's activity, she's certain that there's a mundane, non-magical reason for them (most likely a hoaxer inspired by the Bogle legend) - until she comes face to face with it and sees it in action.

She's solitary by nature - has no friends her age until she moves to the town where the story's set, never felt any need to seek out friends in her old home town (the closest she had to a friend there was the school librarian at her elementary school, whom she'd assist as a volunteer - she was particularly keen on shelving because every book has its exact place, determined by alphabetical order for the fiction books, the Dewey Decimal System for non-fiction books - and I suspect if she caught any of her classmates trying to stuff a book back in the wrong place, she'd treat them to a very disapproving epic-level stare). In her new town, she does make friends of a sort with two children her age - a boy whom she teams up with in trying to catch the Bogle and a girl whom the Bogle's singling out, playing most of its pranks on her, and who asks the MC for help in figuring out who's been tormenting her - but she thinks of them for nearly all the book as her partner and her client respectively, rather than as friends. (That changes by the end of the story.)

She's no time for small talk, preferring to immediately get to the subject she wants to discuss with whoever she's speaking with.

Her first name's Jennifer, and she always thinks of herself as "Jennifer" rather than any shortened versions like "Jenny". (She'll accept you calling her "Jenny", though, without "correcting" you, to avoid wasting time.)

She always (unless the situation mandates against it - say, if it's PE class) wears a buttoned and collared shirt and a sweater over it - the color of the sweater depending on which day of the week it is (that is, she always wears a red sweater on Tuesday, a blue sweater on Thursday, a green sweater on Friday, etc.); her family joke that you can tell which day of the week it is just by looking at her sweater, without needing to check the calendar. (The school in her new town has a school uniform which includes a green sweater every day - she feels a bit uncomfortable wearing green sweaters when it's not Friday, though since her first day there takes place after she's met the Bogle and has set herself the goal of catching it, she sees it as a minor matter.)
 
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Kat M

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As a teacher, if I had her in my class without a diagnosis, I might quietly give her some of the supports I give students on the spectrum, and I would mention it to the parents in case they wanted to get her checked out. That said, it seems like it's not greatly impacting her ability to lead a "typical" day-to-day life, so she's more neurotypical than other kids on the spectrum and may just be an orderly person.

My laywoman's opinion is, decide whether you want to go for representation and then do your due diligence and research—or just go for a character who is very specific about her sweaters. :)
 
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lizmonster

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Does it matter if you just let the readers decide?

This. Although I think it can be a judgement call whether or not to make such a thing explicit in the text.

I have a friend who belongs to a group of adult autistics, and they wanted to ask me whether a specific character in my second book was autistic. I asked what made them think she was, and they listed a fairly comprehensive list of personality traits, in particular behaviors from her childhood. I hadn't intentionally made the character autistic, but I had patterned her behaviors on members of my own family. And...it's not outside the realm of possibility.

So people found representation in her, although I hadn't explicitly been thinking "autistic" when I wrote her.

Whether you spell it out or not, be authentic.
 

t0dd

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Does it matter if you just let the readers decide?

Yes, that's been my inclination; I was simply curious in a "detached interest" way. I plan to just present this depiction of her in the book and let the readers make their own judgments.
 

Samsonet

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If you want her to be autistic, there's something to be gained by actually using the word "autistic" in the book. Especially with a middle grade book, where an autistic kid reading it will be able to take some satisfaction in having a character who is expressly said to be like them. If you're okay leaving it ambiguous, that's fine too; there's just something a bit frustrating when an author says a character is X but doesn't actually put that in the book. ("Dumbledore is gay," etc.)
 

aspirit

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I personally don't see how the label would help in this case. The character's traits could come across well to readers who are looking for characters like her, and that's without... and I'm not sure how to phrase this. Neurotypical people seem to latch on to examples for what autistics act like, and that creates arguments when real people don't act the same as characters. I think there should be value to labeling the character. (Note: I'm not sure I feel this way about all aspects of identity!)

From the sound of it, your character doesn't deal with IEPs, doctor visits, any associated physical limitations, or discriminatory actions from the people around her. She's not learning how to ask for help or how to support kids deeper in the spectrum than she is. I'd be expecting these elements of realism if I saw "autistic" in the character description. (I'd be wary of the story on seeing "Aspergers". That classification hasn't developed a good connotation for children in my experiences.) The Bogle would also take on a different meaning that might or might not work in your story's favor.

Autistic children have to deal with problems that the typical non-autistic child doesn't, and I don't feel comfortable with that being ignored when defining a contemporary child protagonist as autistic. That's reinforcing the stereotype that aspies are really only anti-social perfectionists.

Without the label, I'd appreciate the familiar character traits and not watch so closely for symbols and stereotypes.
 

t0dd

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Thanks for your comments. Again, I didn't see the MC as having Asperger's - just having traits that a friend thought suggested being on the spectrum - and I don't plan to use such terms for her. (aspirit raises a good point as well - assuming I read your comment correctly - that the Bogle might be seen as a hallucination, which it isn't.)
 

KoffieKat

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Doesn't necessarily have to be Asperger's. Autism is a very wide spectrum. She could be just on the highly functioning side. I do really like the way you've described the character. Whether you chose to aunounce it to readers or let the reader decide. I don't think it necessarily matters as long as youve done a good job in establishing the characters full personality.
 

frimble3

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If her behaviours are as mild as you indicate, she's a fussy kid. I'd be more inclined to let the readers read into that whatever they want, rather than suggest that any personal oddity is a 'disorder' requiring a label.
Think how nice it would be for a kid with no close friends, like me, to read a story that doesn't seem to require a whole gang of buddies to have fun.
 

t0dd

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Thanks for the comments. I should add (I have the suspicion I did a poor job of phrasing the question at the start) that I never intended to describe my MC as having Asperger's (and still don't) - and it never even occurred to me that anyone might see her that way until someone thought she came across that way to him. The question I was trying to ask was not "Should I describe her that way?" but "Does she seem that way to you?"
 

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It is my understanding that the term "Asperger's" isn't used clinically anymore, and it does indeed have some very bad historical associations. Terms like "high functioning" are also discouraged nowadays.

I do know people who only found out they were on the autistic spectrum later in life, so it is possible for a child (not to mention the adults in their life) to be unaware of it and for any traits they express or difficulties they experience to written off as personality quirks, (or more sadly as other conditions, or simply as poor behavior).

But if this is the case for your protagonist, it's not going to come up as a plot element in the story anyway. It's certainly true that there are plenty of quirky introverts who are not on the autistic spectrum.

I'd just write her as the person she is, and let the readers see what they want in it. Some kids will relate to aspects of this characters' personality, regardless, and others may learn to see things through the eyes of someone who has different personality traits than they do.
 

frimble3

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Thanks for the comments. I should add (I have the suspicion I did a poor job of phrasing the question at the start) that I never intended to describe my MC as having Asperger's (and still don't) - and it never even occurred to me that anyone might see her that way until someone thought she came across that way to him. The question I was trying to ask was not "Should I describe her that way?" but "Does she seem that way to you?"
Sometimes the way a person seen a character says more about the person than the character.
Heck, 3/4 of my family seems to be on the spectrum (my mother was 'just' depressed.)

You know that old saw about if your point a finger at another person, three point back at you? I was really a book about attention disorders, trying to find a description for my sister - turns out she and Dad are more on the hyperactive side, while I am inattentive.
It just happens that quiet bookish kids are praised while the really smart but not quiet and obedient are 'troublemakers'.
(None of us have been actually diagnosed, this is the pop-psych stuff that can be dangerous for a kid's development. I was 40 and my sister a year younger at the time.)
 

t0dd

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Sometimes the way a person seen a character says more about the person than the character.
Yes, you're probably right.

It's one of the two observations about my MC I've read so far that I found most memorable. The other was from one of the people who'd read the query, and thought from its description of Jennifer and her firm "no such thing as ghosts" outlook that she sounded like Velma from "Scooby-Doo". That definitely hadn't occurred to me when I was creating her (and I can definitely see a lot of differences - she's mostly on her own rather than part of a group, for example, and is definitely the MC - no getting overshadowed by a (semi-)talking dog), but I can certainly see now the same "anything that seems supernatural is a hoax" approach - except that in my MC's case, the fantastic creature turns out to be real....
 

neandermagnon

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I recently realised out that I very likely am* what used to be called "Asperger's" that is now called various other things that are also problematic such as "high functioning autistic". There is so much misunderstanding surrounding autism, both within and outside the medical profession, so any representation in books, especially children's books, needs to be done extremely carefully.

*it's something that you are, not something that you have. It's not a disease or disorder that can be cured. It's how a person is wired up.

I say recently realised... I've known since forever that I have "some Aspie traits" and I'm "probably a little bit on the spectrum" but due to prevalent myths about what those things mean, and other's like "everyone's a little bit autistic" and "only men can be autistic" it was never recognised and I didn't fully recognise it myself. As a result I've had various difficulties with a lot of things my whole life which have impacted my life in big ways, none of which I or anyone else around me understood. Both my kids appear also to be on the autistic spectrum (currently pursuing diagnosis for both of them) and even though this is recognised (their schools have good SENCos), there's still a hell of a lot of ableism and ignorance out there which has a negative impact on our lives. For one thing, teachers get nowhere near enough training on how to teach non-neurotypical kids (all types of non-neurotypical: ADHD, dyslexia, etc not just autistic spectrum - kids can have/be all of those and still be academically able - it's a myth that intelligence is linear but so many people, even teachers, think of it that way).

Unfortunately even some of the medical info out there is problematic, as a lot of it was done by doctors, researchers etc who are not autistic, based on observation of autistic people without much regard for the lived experience of autistic people. Many of the above-mentioned myths resulted from badly done research e.g. the reason why they thought it was far more common in men was because they only studied autistic men and based their data and diagnostic criteria on autistic men, all the while missing huge numbers of autistic women. Also there are autistic people who were and are classified as "low functioning" because they're unable to speak whose intelligence, sensitivity and creativity has been completely missed due to the frankly quite stupid assumption that inability to speak means you must have very low intelligence.

Obviously you already know about the importance of researching - in this case I'd strongly recommend using autistic led research/information sources. These will be more accurate and also from a lived experience perspective.

Accurate information:

https://neuroclastic.com/its-a-spectrum-doesnt-mean-what-you-think/ - excellent explanation by an autistic writer about what the autistic spectrum really means. If you only read one article, read this one. It's a very thorough overview and busts a lot of myths.

https://the-art-of-autism.com/understanding-the-spectrum-a-comic-strip-explanation/ - comic strip explanation of why high functioning/low functioning is misleading, and "spectrum" doesn't mean what people think it means. Also written by someone who's autistic.

Atypical autism traits: - this is a gender neutral version of an original version about women and girls. (I don't know who the original writer was, AFAIK it was written as a checklist for medical practitioners to spot signs of autism in girls/women.) These traits are commonly found in autistic cis women - including things that are often missed or assumed to be not the same as "classic" autistic traits in men. They are not exclusive to women and there's also been research lately showing that being LGBTQ+ is more common in autistic people, so presenting autism as a gender binary (women's autistic traits v men's autistic traits) is a massive oversimplification. Anyone of any gender can show any of the traits. Just that there are some traits that are more common in cis women and others that are more common in cis men.
 
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