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Writers on the Spectrum: How Autism and Asperger Syndrome Have Influenced Literary Writing

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From Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale characters to Lewis Carroll's Wonderland and Emily Dickinson's poetic imagery, the writings and lives of some of the world's most celebrated authors indicate signs of autism and Asperger's Syndrome. Through analysis of biographies, autobiographies, letters and diaries, Professor Julie Brown identifies literary talents who display characteristics of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and uncovers the similarities in their writing that suggest atypical, autistic brains. Providing close readings of authors' works, Brown explores writing processes, content, theme, structure and writing style to reveal the underlying autistic traits that have influenced their writing. The book provides an overview of ASD and common threads in autistic writing followed by an illuminating exploration of how these threads are evident in the literature of both well-known and lesser known authors. This groundbreaking study of autism in literature will be of interest to anyone with a professional or personal interest in literature or the autistic mind.

236 pages, Paperback

First published November 15, 2009

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Julie Brown

145 books6 followers

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Displaying 1 - 9 of 9 reviews
Profile Image for Laurie.
970 reviews39 followers
February 23, 2010
Lewis Carroll. Hans Christian Andersen. Emily Dickinson. What do these writers have in common? They almost certainly had Asperger’s Syndrome. So did Melville, Yeats and Sherwood Anderson. Other research has identified these writers as being on the autism spectrum; Brown analyzes their writing to find common traits in style.

Brown found that writers with Asperger’s had the ability to stay focused on the writing task for long periods of time; that they frequently had a hard time physically getting the words onto paper- the authors examined all wrote before the advent of computers- because writing is a linear process and many people with autism excel in the visual/spatial realm rather than linear processes; that a lot of them used a collage process to write- rather than starting at the beginning and writing straight through til the end, they wrote bits and pieces of different scenes and then arranged them later; that they sometimes wrote by borrowing phrases and making allusions to other works; they sometimes had gaps and leaps that are understandable to them, but not to a neurotypical reader; they are better at description and detail than they are at character development; they make heavy use of symbolism; they break rules of established writing to good effect. The writers she analyzes, one per chapter, all have these characteristics. Some of them have changed the look of literature- Andersen’s fairy tales can have some very unhappy endings, Dickinson’s poems didn’t fit the established ‘ABAB’ patterns, Carroll played with words like they were shiny toys, Sherwood Anderson was the first to use the form of linked short stories to create a novel.

But, do all authors on the spectrum write this way? Well, no. Most may, but not all. I know of writers who have had an Asperger’s diagnosis who excel at character and have no problem writing about emotion fluently. Perhaps these authors are not as far along the spectrum as Brown’s examples are; perhaps there is just as much variation between people on the spectrum as there is between neurotypicals.

A fascinating book that may change how you look at books and the people who write them.
Profile Image for Andreea.
203 reviews54 followers
August 10, 2016
There is a reason why this lady teaches writing classes at a community college not literature or disabilities studies at a bigger college or a university and that reason (well, I guess it's two reasons?) is that she has no idea how literary texts actually work (she says, for example, that the use of symbolism in literature is a sign of the author having AS... *gasp* IKR? use of symbolism is one of the [few] things that help us tell the difference between literary and non-literary texts) and, what's more, her attitude towards autism spectrum disorders is extremely condescending and stereotypical (btw, anybody who says that they love hanging out with AS people because they're "quirky" should suffer severe physical trauma).

This book is so... infantile. There are some compelling bits and pieces and interesting points that could be taken much further, but they're not. There are next to no references to the texts discussed themselves and autism spectrum disorders are discussed only in a very simplistic, generalized way. This is clearly not aimed at somebody with a serious interest academic interest in literary or disabilities studies, it's more of a feelgood book somebody with AS or, more probably, somebody who knows somebody with AS or who would want to have AS? (I was profoundly puzzled by the section on autobiographies at the end where the process of being diagnosed with AS is described as individuals looking up symptoms of AS online and then going to their doctor and demanding that they be diagnosed with AS) would want to read. Inferring that this or that famous dead person had this or that disability or was gay or was a Francmason is simply childish. We can't really know and we don't need to know in order to read their works through a queer theory/disabilities studies/new historicism/what have you perspective. All we have to do is look at the text itself and the text will tell us.
Profile Image for Dale Muckerman.
209 reviews1 follower
November 23, 2014
Very interesting way to understand both the autism spectrum and literature. Too often literary critics see writers as super-human beings fashioning literature out of an infinitude of choices, but it's possible they are just people struggling to communicate with what they have got. I especially enjoyed some of the biographical information about Hans Christian Anderson, WB Yeats, and Herman Melville.
Author 1 book56 followers
September 3, 2020
I know, it's preposterous to diagnose people after they've died. Still, I decided to believe the premises of this book, out of curiosity, with a touch of egocentrism. It's been an enriching read. It's given me interesting perspectives into my own writing process: I do, and I have troubles with, many of the things listed here. Plus, who wouldn't be flattered, if brought to think they have something in common with, say, Emily Dickinson? At worst, it's a list of 'autistic models of famous authors'.
Still, it's a bit sad that autistic thought patterns are considered somewhat lesser, imperfect forms. For example, as a reader, I personally find repetition (as in Andersen's"The emperor's new clothes") quite charming, if compared to the 3 act structure. Just because it's a supposedly autistic way of building a story, it doesn't mean that it comes from failure to build a 3 act plot.
Overall, this book offers interesting insights, but the unscientific premise, and the biased view of the autistic spectrum as a disability with quirks, leave me doubtful as to whom this book is targeting.
Profile Image for Boze Herrington.
76 reviews522 followers
October 23, 2018
Some valuable insights on the writing process of Andersen, Dickinson and Lewis Carroll! The author could have discussed their lives in more detail - there's no mention, for example, of Carroll's effeminate nature or the fact that Andersen invited himself to stay at Dickens' house for over a month, driving the family nearly mad in the process.
86 reviews1 follower
July 4, 2019
"Only a person with Asperger's Syndrome would treat a professional colleague this way." If Julie Brown was black or facially disfigured, she would know first hand professional colleagues will be extremely awkward or uncooperative. Talk about being oblivious to other people's experiences. This is just one example of the generalizations Brown makes, but it is one of the more insulting.
44 reviews
October 5, 2022
I dearly wish I'd found this when it first came out in 2010. I was finishing up high school at the time, and I'd been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome about five years before. Now it would just be autism.

Traditionally, autistic people haven't been thought capable of contributing to the understanding of our own disability. (Which I find offensive, almost as though I were human!) Naturally, this resulted in a problematic situation for a writer: it's completely normal to disparage a person by saying they might have autism; there's no general understanding of the difference between our difficulties with cognitive empathy (inferring what someone thinks or feels) and our abilities in affective empathy (feeling for them once we understand); and autistics are thought to be unimaginative, when actually most of us have rich fantasy lives.

Until the recent change in the tenor of the conversation, I was essentially being told I had no empathy, feelings, or imagination. Nothing to do but mask hard and try to make myself a neurotypical writer. Because magic is real. ✨

It took a decade of disappointment and self-loathing to realize this wasn't working. This book helped me break through. To say, We're real, we're here, and we've been here a long time. Always. You probably wouldn't have your favorite literature without us; certainly the literary landscape of the twentieth century would be unimaginable without the influence of autistic writers. We have a culture to call our own.
75 reviews15 followers
September 23, 2010
A very good book that explores writing techniques used by writers suspected to be on the autistic spectrum such as problems with character depth, character emotions, difficulties developing phot and theme, and authors' skill using detail and working from detail outward, rather than from outlines. Very useful. I would read this again.
Displaying 1 - 9 of 9 reviews

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