These mystery novels are changing how we see autistic women

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Joined: 25 Aug 2013
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01 Apr 2024, 11:09 am

Washington Post
Zack Budryk is an autistic journalist who covers environmental and energy issues for The Hill. He also co-hosts Stim4Stim, a relationship podcast by and for autistic people

Neurodiversity has long been associated with mystery fiction, even for characters created before we had terms like “autism” and “the spectrum” at our disposal. Sherlock Holmes is noted for his social bluntness, his obsessive routines and his hyperfocus, traits that left readers speculating about his mind for decades. More modern examples make the neurodiversity more explicit — Adrian Monk, the investigator played by Tony Shalhoub for eight seasons of TV, is canonically obsessive-compulsive. In the NBC series “Hannibal,” FBI profiler Will Graham describes himself as probably on the spectrum in the show’s pilot and is guided by a sort of hyper-empathy.

However, like the popular image of autism itself, these examples are overwhelmingly male, and each character’s neurotype is not so much a part of who they are but a superpower. That approach has a fraught history in the autistic community, and some advocates express concerns that it overemphasizes an expectation of performance or achievement rather than inherent human dignity. In a 2014 episode of the meta-textual sitcom “Community,” Abed (Danny Pudi), a character heavily implied to be on the spectrum throughout the show, has a “vision” of “mildly autistic super-detectives” at a crime scene. “Painful writing … it hurts …” Abed winces.

But the gendering of these autistic investigators may be still more pertinent. For years, autism has been publicly associated predominantly with boys and men, and researchers like British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen have popularized the controversial idea that it is a manifestation of an “extreme male brain.”

A trio of recent examples in the mystery genre are helping to make up this gender gap and illustrating the range of the spectrum with very different but equally unforgettable female protagonists. In these stories, crucially, autism isn’t a superpower but a part of the protagonist’s personality that can frustrate their efforts as often as it can help point them to the truth.

“The Framed Women of Ardemore House,” by Brandy Schillace, introduces Jo Jones, an autistic American book editor who retreats to a crumbling, inherited British manor house in the wake of a divorce and soon finds herself in the middle of a murder mystery involving the estate’s shady caretaker.

Schillace, who was diagnosed as autistic as an adult, describes her experience in terms common among autistic women.

“Women, even at a very early age, are taught to subjugate their needs in favor of others. They are taught to ‘behave’ and to take up less space, to not be a burden but to help support others — the men and boys or other children in their lives,” Schillace said in an interview. “What this means for autistic girls is that they learn to mask early, to hide their true natures and to ‘not be a problem.’”

We meet Jo at a crossroads in her life, when she’s struggling to shake off this same conditioning, frequently referring to her difficulty with “peopling” and the ways her awful ex-husband undermined her progress. As a result, the book is more than just a mystery: It’s an autistic woman’s journey of self-discovery, a layer that we wouldn’t get without Jo’s — and Schillace’s — perspective.

In creating Jo, Schillace said she aimed to create a protagonist who “isn’t treated like a savant, and her autism — though present — does not become the most interesting thing about her. … Jo isn’t the mystery; she helps to solve one. Likewise, I (and other autistic women) are not enigmas. We are people, fellow human beings, with intrinsic value.”

Nita Prose’s “The Maid” and its follow-up, “The Mystery Guest,” feature a hotel maid named Molly Gray. Molly, as our limited first-person narrator, lacks either the language or the inclination to specifically describe herself as autistic, but it’s made obvious by the comfort she takes in things like her rituals, her uniform and her quaint little rhyming mantras. It’s also an engine of conflict in the novels, as Molly tends to assume everyone is as well-intentioned as she is. In the first book, this puts her in a wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time scenario, a classic of the genre, that leads to her being wrongly accused of murder.

As her confidence improves, however, Molly’s autistic traits and her gender make her an ideal amateur sleuth: Not only does she know her hotel better than anyone, she’s seen by others as just part of the scenery, which allows her to witness things others can’t. Her fierce sense of justice and egalitarianism, a common autistic trait, makes her both a sympathetic character and a great mystery protagonist. When Molly says, “I don’t believe that some people are more important than other people. We’re all very important in our own way,” it’s a moral conviction but it’s also the perspective of someone who can succeed where the police fail.

In Brendan Slocumb’s “Symphony of Secrets,” an autistic woman is a central character, but she isn’t in the role of sleuth this time. The novel is divided between the story of Bern Hendricks, a modern music scholar analyzing what appears to be a lost opera written by a (fictional) legendary composer, and flashbacks to the 1930s, where we learn the truth: The opera, and all of the composer’s music, was ghostwritten by Josephine Reed, an autistic Black woman.

Slocumb confirmed in an interview that Josephine is intended to be autistic, but her story takes place before she would ever be recognized as such, and her race and gender make it easy for the racist and sexist society of her time to dismiss her as unintelligent or insane. Like Schillace, Slocumb said he wanted to write an autistic character who was “so much more than their behavior.”

Josephine’s personality “totally fit with the theme of the story I wanted to tell, which was about people not getting credit for their work and [others] taking advantage of their situations,” he said.

Unlike Jo and Molly, Josephine is, herself, the mystery in Slocumb’s book — her communication difficulties, the effort of those around her to erase her from history, and the dubious record-keeping of her era have combined to suppress the credit she deserves. Unlike most mysteries, the central question is not whether a killer will be brought to justice or a missing person found, but whether a woman robbed of her voice will get it back.

The paradox of representation in fiction is that progress often turns into a sort of stasis: While a community’s representation may improve, it’s often exclusively under the sign of inspirational figures who function more as avatars of their entire community than as three-dimensional characters, and who are often written by people from outside of those communities. That’s what makes characters like Jo, Molly and Josephine particularly refreshing. Their stories and arcs aren’t about autism — they’re about specific autistic women and their hopes, fears and quirks. And as real autistic women work to become more visible, those stories feel more vital than ever.

Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman

Yellow-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Woodpecker

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01 Apr 2024, 5:50 pm

Thanks for sharing!

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01 Apr 2024, 6:52 pm

I think that's very good news. It's time that we start to see autistic women in a more positive light.

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