I started my research on the representation of neurodiversity and autism in children’s and YA literatures a couple of years ago. Like many academics I know, I turned a personal interest into a subject I could explore through theory and close readings of literary texts; it was also a new way for me to study the construction of identity and alterity in literature, something I worked on for my doctoral dissertation. The first autistic characters I encountered in the children’s literature of the late 1990s and early 2000s were always secondary characters: the stories would revolve around the main, neurotypical character’s life, thoughts and reactions, and how in the end they accepted and supported the autistic child. The fact that these secondary characters were nonverbal (speaking few to no words) seemed to justify the silencing of their narrative voice: Lois Lowry’s novel was literally titled The Silent Boy (2003) after its autistic character. We had no direct access to their inner lives, and they were presented as inherently innocent, ‘pure at heart’ – this vision was reinforced by their young age, the authors usually stopping on the threshold of puberty.
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And then came Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003). Much has been said about this best-selling book, both praised and criticized for its portrayal of autism (even though the term is never mentioned in it). Its major contribution, in my eyes, was its format: a first-person narrative, that gave agency to its main character and narrator, Christopher, and a direct access to his inner life and experiences for the readers. Christopher was also fifteen. Finally, an autistic teenager! It was therefore only a matter of time before the themes of love and desire would start to make their way into autistic characters’ lives.
The first love stories featured heterosexual, autistic teenage boys. I know, shocker! In The Half-Life of Planets (2010), Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin present an autistic hero, Hank, who goes against the ableist tendency to desexualize autistic and disabled people in general. First, the desire Hank experiences for Liana, his love interest, is very much sexual. Bye-bye to the ‘pure’, desireless autistic archetype! Hello to an autistic character that has a “masturbation dilemma” (chap. 12). What’s more, the use of alternating narration between Hank and Liana also helps showcase how Liana, a neurotypical girl, finds Hank desirable: “His eyes are intensely beautiful, his mouth so ripe, his fingers chording on his thighs but reverberating on mine.” (chap. 15) We encounter a similar process in Julie Buxbaum’s What to Say Next (2017), when neurotypical Kat raves in her chapter about autistic David’s expertise in kissing, a skill he acquired through extensive research. Kat concludes that she could “kiss him forever” (chap. 30). YA novels have started featuring more autistic teenage girls (Tara Kelly’s Harmonic Feedback, 2010; Rachael Lucas’s The State of Grace, 2017), some of them dating disabled young men (A. J. Steiger’s When My Heart Joins the Thousand, 2018). There are still too few queer love stories: Heidi Cullinan’s Carry the Ocean (2015) and its sequel, Shelter the Sea (2017), feature one of the first gay romances between an autistic character (Emmet) and an allistic [non-autistic] character (Jeremey), and the graphic sex scenes make the books fall under the New Adult category (ages 18-25).
To build up sexual tension and attraction between the characters, YA literature makes the most of autistic traits such as sensory hypersensitivities, which can complicate or exalt the expression of desire for both the autistic protagonist and their (usually allistic) love interest. Sight and touch are the two senses on which authors tend to focus: eye contact can be difficult for autistic people, who find it overwhelming, and even intimate, while hand-holding, kissing and touching in general can be very sensory charged experiences – to the point of becoming painful. This is where another part of the YA authors’ agenda reveals itself: by integrating the autistic experience in these stories of sexual awakening (notably the autistic tendency to do thorough research on topics of interest and to be extra-prepared for social interactions), these authors are able to educate their readers about sex and desire, and help them better understand and communicate their needs and feelings.
There’s a lot of joy in the acts of shared intimacy experienced by the autistic characters and their partners in the YA novels I’ve encountered so far. There’s a sense of acceptance, of belonging, of slowly built trust, of pleasure. Intense-but-good pleasure.
Buxbaum, Julie. What to Say Next. Delacorte Press, 2017.
Cullinan, Heidi. Carry the Ocean. Samhain Publishing, 2015.
Cullinan, Heidi. Shelter the Sea. Self-published, 2017.
Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Jonathan Cape, 2003.
Kelly, Tara. Harmonic Feedback. Henry Holt and Co, 2010.
Lowry, Lois. The Silent Boy. Random House, 2003.
Lucas, Rachael. The State of Grace. Macmillan Children’s Books, 2017.
Franklin, Emily and Brendan Halpin. The Half-Life of Planets. Hyperion, 2010.
Steiger, A. J. When My Heart Joins the Thousand. HarperTeen, 2018.
Audrey Coussy is Assistant Professor at the Department of Francophone Literature, Translation and Creative Writing at McGill University (Canada). Her research and teaching focus on children’s and young adult literature, and on the theory and practice of literary translation; she’s especially interested in the translating subject, creativity in translation, and the construction of identity and alterity in literature. She is currently working on the representation of autism in English and French children’s and YA literatures, and on the translation of popular fiction. She has also been translating contemporary fiction (En-Fr) since 2009.