This year's Melbourne Writers Festival had a panel discussion about Asperger's Syndrome in literature. The panel was called
On the Spectrum, a reference to Autism spectrum disorders, of which Asperger's is one. The session involved Australian authors Graeme Simsion and Jo Case.
Graeme Simsion has written a romantic comedy called
The Rosie Project. He has sold the rights to the novel to 40 countries for nearly two million dollars. The main character in his novel has many Asperger's traits. Jo Case's book,
Boomer and Me, tells the story of her discovery that both she and her son, Leo, have Asperger's.
Two very different books
Boomer and Me, Jo Case writes that her son had a high reading level and a rich vocabulary by the age of six. She and her son's teacher thought Leo might be gifted, so she had him tested. But instead of learning her son was gifted, she was told he had Asperger's. Case immediately set out to find out everything she could about the syndrome; with her research leading her to the conclusion that she too had Asperger's.
Case first blogged about her son and then went on to write a newspaper article about his Asperger's, after which a publisher approached her to write a book. Case wanted to write a book about well-rounded people who happen to have Asperger's, but she said she was terrified about telling the world she had it.
Simsion, on the other hand, did not actually set out to write a novel about Asperger's. He had no intention of informing people about the syndrome. He just wanted to create a socially awkward character. His novel is about a socially challenged professor who sets out to scientifically find a wife. The character, Don, creates a 32 page questionnaire for perspective partners. Simsion read an excerpt from the novel that had the audience laughing.
Asperger's syndrome is diverse
The books show how diverse people with Asperger's can be. Simsion based Don on people he had met within the information technology sectors of the academic world. The character he came up with, Don, has a place for everything and everything in its place. In sharp contrast to this fictional person, Case and her son Leo are very messy and she is constantly losing things. Case stresses that if you have met one person with Asperger's, you have just met one person with Asperger's; every single one is different.
According to Autism Spectrum Australia, individuals with Asperger's
have difficulties with social interaction and social communication as well as restricted and repetitive interests, activities and behaviours. Case's son, Leo, could talk for hours about his Lego collection and Australian Rules Football whilst also displaying frequent and spectacular temper tantrums whilst playing on the field with others.
Importantly, both authors warn against the limitations of labelling people with Asperger's. Case doesn't want that label to define the expectations for Leo and other children like him. She stressed that social interaction can be a learnt skill and that she, herself, had changed from an introverted child to a more extroverted adult.
Positive Feedback from Asperger's Community
Graeme Simsion said the feedback from the Asperger's community on
The Rosie Project had so far been positive. He had people from the Asperger's community read the manuscript before it was published. He said he had written the book in first person, so we hear what Don is thinking, rather than just observe his behaviour. Simsion thinks this makes it much easier for readers to identify with Don. Case had given Simsion's novel to her father to read, and he loved it. She thinks, as does her father, that he might be on the spectrum too.