Something I haven’t talked much about is the autism perspective in my work. Back when I wrote Birdwatchers, I actually sat down with the explicit intent to write an autistic first-person protagonist. It was a mentally taxing exercise of putting myself in the shoes of someone who saw, understood and interacted with the world differently to how I did.
In my former field of work, we referred to this as creating “with empathy”. The idea is that what you’re creating is not about you, the creator, flexing your skills and showing off how well you can translate your ideas to the canvas.
It’s about the subject experiencing the environment you create for them. As a designer, my subject was the user of the system or website I was designing. As a writer, my subject is my fictional character.
To respectfully write an autistic protagonist in the driver’s seat of the story, it would be wholly inappropriate to project my simplified conclusions based on external observations onto the character. In fact, it’s pretty rude to do this in real life too. Real people are complex, often judged too quickly before enough data is known about their perceptions, feelings and motivations. Each individual, autistic or otherwise, has a rich complex inner world and subjective experience. (Sonder, anyone?)
So I tried to imagine more deeply what those external observations — like rigidity, staring, bluntness, and whatever else has come to be associated with autistic people — might suggest about what’s going on inside. Adults are so rarely a case of “point A to point B” because so much in our lives will have shaped the way we think and feel.
What if a person doesn’t cling to routine just because they’re fussy? What if they’re fussy as a form of self-preservation in a hostile and unpredictable environment? (In the world of schema therapy, this can be known as a “coping mode”.) What if bluntness isn’t a sign of low empathy and low awareness, but the laconic tip of a hyper-aware over-thinking iceberg?
It was hard, trying to imagine all this. Working against one’s own habit of lazy thinking is an exhausting endeavour. What I didn’t imagine was how close my imaginings would be.
Years after the story came out, I received an autism diagnosis of my own. To that end, Birdwatchers may well have been indirect shadow work, in that writing Robin’s character allowed me to understand and contextualise some of my own lived experience as an undiagnosed spectrum kid.
This ended up being very helpful, as it galvanised me against the common misconceptions people project onto autistic individuals. I could skip the part where I doubted myself, because I’d already stumbled upon the soul searching beforehand.
I was lucky. Not every autistic person is afforded the space and opportunity to think about this. Many have been conditioned to hate themselves because of certain stereotypes and misunderstandings, compounded over many years. And the lack of autism awareness in mainstream conversation means they’re more likely to encounter harmful judgements before any helpful context.
I don’t intentionally write autistic fiction, but my diagnosing clinician pointed out that the characters I write are all probably autistic because they came from my brain. Recently I learned the term for unlabelled autistic characters is “autistic coded”, which resonates nicely with me — you just are what you are, regardless of what people call you.
Excerpt from Birdwatchers
She looks at me and sits up. Her body is exposed now, breasts heaving as her breath comes back to her. She keeps her eyes on me while she re-does her hair and rests the sunglasses on her head. She smiles.
“Why didn’t you take a picture?” she asks. “That’s what you came here for, wasn’t it?”
“N… no,” I say. I hold up the camera, fighting the weight of the lens. “I came to watch the birds.”
She sits back and crosses her legs in front of her. She points her toes towards me, then at the sky, then back to me. She licks her lips.
“So…” Her smile deepens. “Watch the birds then.”
Read the rest of Birdwatchers on jlperidot.com