It’s April, and that means many things. It is, according to TS Eliot, “…the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” Perhaps not coincidentally, it is also the month when many in North America settle in to do their taxes for the previous year. It is often the month when Easter is celebrated and when spring really settles in. And, in many parts of the world, it is recognized as Autism Awareness Month.
Autism was only identified as a developmental phenomenon in the 20th century. The term was coined by Eugen Bleuler in 1908 and the characteristics we now associate with the autism spectrum were described more fully by Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger in the 1940s. But, as with so many such things, the reality of autism far predates that. When we look at historical and literary figures, we see characteristics now associated with the autism spectrum in so many places.
Depending on what traits one looks for, such luminaries as Sir Isaac Newton, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Emily Dickinson, and Nicola Tesla have been identified as possibly being autistic. When I look at Jane Austen’s writings, I am convinced she knew somebody on the spectrum, because for me, Mr. Darcy is almost a classic Aspie – someone with high functioning autism, formerly referred to as Asperger’s Syndrome.
Why do I think this? The evidence that speaks to me comes from the man himself. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy excuses his unsociable behaviour by telling Elizabeth,
“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”
Many, many years ago I did some work for a charity that helped kids on the autism spectrum, and I have a son who flirts with the edges of Asperger’s Syndrome (now classified as a type of “high-functioning” autism). Consequently, I’ve done a fair bit of reading and research, and Darcy’s words leapt out at me. These are exactly the things that someone with Asperger’s would find challenging: understanding tone of voice, figuring out facial expressions, reading between the lines, feigning interest where there is none. These are the subtle cues that are so much a part of “normal” interactions and which can be all but incomprehensible to someone whose brain works differently.
But there is something else I feel very strongly about. Just because someone has a neurological difference, that does not mean he or she is “lesser” in any way. My son, for example, might have trouble reading between the lines and have his particular obsessions (his latest one is making cocktails, so I’m not complaining), but he also has some gifts that are the other side of that coin. He does the most complicated maths in his head, has a phenomenal memory, and learns languages like they’re the easiest things in the world. It’s a difference, but I can’t call that a disability.
And so I began to think about Mr. Darcy in this light. I think Austen’s Darcy IS different, and he struggles with social conventions, but he is not a damaged character in any way. He has tremendous strengths, ones which Elizabeth learns to appreciate over time.
In my novel Through a Different Lens, I play with this idea. I nudged Darcy just a bit further along the spectrum and gave Lizzy some tools by which to understand him better, in the form of a young cousin with autism. These characters are romantic and intelligent and creative, and their differences allow them to be the heroes in a story that is really close to my heart.
In recognition of Autism Awareness Month, I have put Through a Different Lens on sale for 0.99.
Here is an excerpt from Through a Different Lens.
“I am,” stated the grave gentleman as he stood so awkwardly by the pianoforte, “ill qualified to recommend myself to strangers.”
Elizabeth heard these words somewhat distractedly, as she perused the selection of music being placed before her by the colonel, his friendly eyes matched by an engaging grin. Still, something in the more serious man’s demeanour caught her attention. She had never liked him, but she had always found herself fascinated by him. She sat up a little straighter and listened as Fitzwilliam Darcy continued to explain himself. He spoke, as always, formally, somewhat stiffly, as if acting the part of himself in the grand production of his life.
“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said he, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”
Suddenly, with these words, Elizabeth felt her world shift slightly. With every syllable that haughty man uttered, isolated facets to his perplexing character seemed to realign themselves and come into focus. She stared at him as if seeing him for the first time. He cleared his throat and stepped back an inch, standing quite still and averting his eyes from her curious gaze. A flood of recollections and half-formed ideas cascaded through her consciousness. She stared up again at the stiff and serious man half hiding in the shadows, wondering if her suppositions might be correct.
“Miss Bennet?” the genial colonel sounded concerned. “Are you well?”
Realising she had been distracted most grievously from her supposed task of selecting music, she uttered a rushed apology. “Indeed, very well, Colonel Fitzwilliam. Forgive my wandering mind, please. I have no excuse but that your cousin, Mr. Darcy, suddenly reminded me of somebody I know, and at that realisation, you might have knocked me down with a feather, it was so surprising.”
The man under discussion drew closer, edging towards the pianoforte where the two were conversing with such easy repartee. “Knocked you down with a feather?” he asked in some confusion, “How could that possibly be? While you are by no means a large woman, your weight most certainly surpasses that of a bird’s plumage, even that of an ostrich or a peacock. To knock you down would surely take something much more substantial than a mere feather!”
Exchanging an understanding smile with the colonel, Elizabeth replied evenly, “It is an expression, sir, meaning to surprise greatly. Is this, may I ask, but one example of why you feel discomfort joining others’ conversations?”
The man nodded. “Indeed it is so. I seem, always, to miss the meaning of what is being said. Not everybody is as compassionate as you, to explain the nuances I do not catch.”