That autism explodes the conventional American nuclear family narrative makes it irresistible as a metaphor for the stresses of life under late-stage capitalism. In Helen Schulman’s “A Day at the Beach” (2007), a wealthy Manhattan couple navigate the worst day of their lives: the 9/11 disaster, which causes them to flee their swank downtown home (to the Hamptons) and strains their marriage — already at the breaking point owing to a son who shows clear signs of autism. In Gary Shteyngart’s “Lake Success” (2018), a son’s autism diagnosis similarly destroys an elite Manhattan family’s dreams. The high-living protagonist leaves the scene of an altercation with his wife and nanny over his son and heads straight to the Greyhound station to start a picaresque journey to the other end of the country — a journey in search of an old girlfriend and, one surmises, an autism-less American dream.
Like TB and cancer before it, autism can accumulate moral weight. In Louise Erdrich’s “Four Souls” (2004), a white settler who has despoiled the Minnesota pine forests and cheated its Ojibwe inhabitants subsequently endures the immolation of his business empire as well as the birth of a son with “vacant” eyes, “the very picture of idiocy,” who makes “hideous” sounds and cannot be “soothed out of his gross repetition.” Here is the transfiguration of a neurobiological disease into one that lays waste to the mind, taking along with it all the qualities that make us human. In “Lake Success,” the protagonist eventually returns home to his son, and — just as Little Eva’s beautiful tubercular fade in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” spurs her father to promise to free his slaves — in Shteyngart’s novel, autism becomes a vehicle for the father’s spiritual growth.
I ask myself why using autism the way these books do feels wrong. As a child who was disappointed to find the only Asian characters in any book in the library to be the Japanese-American family in “Farewell to Manzanar,” I am acutely aware of the importance of feeling represented in literature. And yet, when it comes to autism appearing in literary fiction, I instinctively feel a need to protect my son from these portrayals. He’s not an Ojibwe curse, a savant or an alien. Nor is he an emotionless cipher with no inner life.
As a writer, I understand the absurdity of trying to place restrictions on what can and can’t be written about. Keats defined negative capability as an artist’s ability to transmute an experience or idea into art even if she hasn’t experienced it herself; without it, we’d have no historical fiction, no “Madame Bovary,” no “Martian Chronicles.”
The crux of the issue is that with autism there is often, not metaphorically but literally, a lack of voice, which renders the person a tabula rasa on which a writer can inscribe and project almost anything: Autism is a gift, a curse, super intelligence, mental retardation, mystical, repellent, morally edifying, a parent’s worst nightmare. As a writer, I say go ahead and write what you want. As a parent, I find this terrifying, given the way neurotypical people project false motives and feelings onto the actions of others every day.
With this divided consciousness, I am endlessly appreciative of “The Reason I Jump” (2013), a book by Naoki Higashida, a Japanese man with autism who is nonverbal and beset by behaviors that would, by conventional standards, cause him to be labeled, like my son, “low-functioning.”
Higashida’s mother created a special alphabet grid that eventually allowed her son to communicate by pointing. While still a teenager, he wrote “The Reason I Jump,” describing what it feels like to have autism.