Writing About Emotional and Developmental Disabilities
Contributed to CBC Diversity by Lyn Miller-Lachmann
My Personal Connection
I am honored and grateful to be invited to contribute to the Diversity 101 blog, but as a person with Asperger’s syndrome (a mild form of autism) who can discuss at great length a topic of special interest, I find the blog’s word limit especially challenging. Hence, I will focus on what is one of my biggest issues among those who write about emotional and developmental disabilities such as Asperger’s—the exaggeration of difference at the expense of the feelings and desires we all have in common.
In classic literature for young readers, physical and emotional disabilities often occurred side-by-side and were used to teach lessons on proper attitudes and behavior. For instance, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox’s self-centeredness is made visible through her sickly appearance, and the angry, depressed Colin Craven cannot rise from his wheelchair until he develops a positive attitude. Persons with disabilities appear in classic stories as fundamentally different, less capable of living a full life and contributing to society. It is no wonder that Colin is hidden away in a back bedroom of the hundred-room house; in those days, persons with disabilities were isolated and marginalized, hidden in the back rooms of their own houses or locked away in institutions.
Unfortunately, some novels today continue to perpetuate stereotypes of persons with emotional and developmental disabilities as frightening and best kept from mainstream society lest they harm others. In fact, persons with schizophrenia, mood disorders such as manic-depression, and autism spectrum disorders are far more likely to be victims of violence than to perpetrate it.
Even when the stereotypes are more benign, they serve to set people apart. Because emotional and developmental disabilities are usually invisible, it is tempting to exaggerate behavioral differences so that readers know a character has a disability. Thus, a character with Asperger’s syndrome offers lengthy explanations, and the story grinds to a halt. Some writers overplay the tendency of persons with Asperger’s to take idiomatic expressions literally or not to understand sarcasm. It’s bad enough when this is used for instructional purposes—to show how we are so different from “neurotypicals”—but it’s even worse when the writer (especially a writer who does not have Asperger’s) does this to get a laugh from readers. It feels as if the writer and reader are laughing at us. I have a lot of experience getting laughed at because I don’t understand things as quickly as others do, and I don’t like it. Besides, people with Asperger’s do pick up idiomatic expressions and their meanings—perhaps more from studying them than intuitively—and constant misunderstandings of this type are more myth than reality.
Another stereotype portrays persons with emotional or developmental disabilities such as mental illness, autism, or intellectual disabilities as incapable of growth and change. In classic literature the characters with disabilities either had to be cured to live a full life, like Mary and Colin in The Secret Garden, or they had to be killed off, like Beth in Little Women. Yet while there are few miracle cures in real life, characters with disabilities want to live full and meaningful lives like everyone else and should be allowed to have desires, face disappointments, and grow in the course of the story.
Things I'd Like to See
If you choose to create a protagonist or major secondary character with an emotional or developmental disability—a disability that is not immediately visible to the reader—you should never start off with what is different about that character. (This advice, by the way, applies equally to characters with physical or sensory impairments.) Start off with what the character wants more than anything else, because ultimately we all want the same things—to be safe, to be loved, and to have a place in the world. Obviously, these desires take different forms for everyone, and all characters face specific challenges to getting what they want. Yet a person with a disability is a person first, and your story needs to make that universal connection right away to avoid the “trappings of difference”—the stereotyping and distancing that will weaken your story and possibly prove hurtful to readers.
I offer an example from my own writing: All through school, the thing I most wanted in the world was to have a friend. I had a tough time making friends, and when I did make one, I didn’t keep her for long. The protagonist of my novel Rogue, Kiara, is based on me, and I gave her the same intense desire for a friend. Kiara is in eighth grade, and the middle school years are filled with anxiety and confusion as to where one fits into the social hierarchy and who’s really a friend versus someone who’s just pretending to be one in order to get what she wants. Kiara is simply a little more confused and clueless than everyone else, and her struggle to figure out who’s her friend and how she can be a true friend to someone else shines light on the struggles almost every child faces in middle school.
Persons with disabilities are pretty much like everyone else in wanting to belong, to contribute, and to be appreciated and loved. This should be your starting point when you create characters with disabilities and set them loose in your story.
These are a few middle grade and YA titles that highlight commonalities more than differences in presenting characters with emotional and developmental disabilities:
- de la Pena, Matt. Ball Don’t Lie. New York: Delacorte, 2005.
- Lord, Cynthia. Rules. New York: Scholastic, 2006.
- McCormick, Patricia. Purple Heart. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
- Saenz, Benjamin Alire. Last Night I Sang to the Monster. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press, 2009.
- Stork, Francisco X. Marcelo in the Real World. New York: Scholastic, 2009.
And a useful article with a rubric for evaluating books featuring characters with developmental disabilities:
- Menchetti, B.; Plattos, G.; and Carroll, P. S. The impact of fiction on perceptions of disability. The ALAN Review 39 (1), Fall 2011: 56-66.