Representation of Autism in Romance


R E V I E W – B O O K S


Tasmim Kheya


Autism Spectrum Disorder has been misrepresented in the media for a long time. The symptoms were either associated with comic relief or presented as hurdles to overcome. Pairing the traits generally associated with autistic people to a character whose sole existence revolves around being the butt of the joke, paints an absurd picture that the symptoms of autism are mere quirks of whimsical persons who throw tantrums at the slightest inconvenience.

On the other hand, when the signs of autism are portrayed as obstacles in the course of life, the people on the spectrum are reduced to their disorder, which makes the audience perceive them as less than human.

Moreover, most characters that were shown to have signs of autism were decidedly undiagnosed, making it harder for the people on the spectrum to come to terms with their own selves. In this regard, unambiguous representation is worse than having no representation at all, because the vagueness plays a part in enforcing the idea that the differences need to be packaged in a veil of normalcy, and giving a name to the syndrome will blow that thin veil away. Both ways, it paints an ableist picture that anyone different from the norm has to either conform or be a subject of pity.

Romance as a genre has been type casted as ‘guilty pleasure’, since it has been repeatedly thrown under the proverbial bus. As Sarah Rahman from the Book Riot puts it, bookish snobbery pairs this genre with a lack of intellect and substance, where in reality, romance can be a tool of sharp social commentary that tackles a lot of social issues. That’s where Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient comes in. Through this book, the author breaks the stereotypes by presenting the literary world with an autistic heroine whose identity does not revolve around her Asperger’s syndrome. The first book in this literary series is a spin on the famous 90’s rom-com movie Pretty Woman where the gender roles are reversed.

The plot progresses when the female protagonist hires a male escort to teach her the intricacies of a relationship since her past experiences have led her to believe that she is incapable of forming meaningful romantic relationships. Both the protagonists grow and bond while battling their own shares of trauma and insecurities. While some of the struggles faced by the female protagonist can be traced back to her autism, she is never reduced to her disorder. Stella as a protagonist is a fully formed character with her flaws and quirks and her character development is well-paced throughout the book. The humanising aspect is one of the many fields where Helen Hoang succeeds as an own-voices author. She paints Stella as a three-dimensional character including her symptoms of autism. She succeeds in informing the readers about autism without it feeling like an info-dump.

Act Your Age, Eve Brown by the British rom-com author Talia Hibbert carries on the legacy that Helen Hoang initiated and further explores the representation. It is the last installment in the Brown Sisters trilogy, following the youngest sister in the Brown family on her quest to gather her wits and finally “act her age”. The series has been a fan favourite for its set of diverse characters entangled in swoon-worthy romances and the wittiest banters. This time, it features more than one protagonist on the autistic spectrum. Although not an own-voices author, Hibbert builds the characters incorporating their symptoms of autism in a nuanced way that leaves room for growth while still making the readers root for them. Details about sensory overload and stimming are woven carefully into the story so that they come up naturally in the course of interaction between the protagonists. Avoiding info-dumping has been a commendable choice in storytelling for both Helen Hoang and Talia Hibbert. The books reinforce the idea that symptoms for autism are different for each person and “if you know one autistic person, you know one autistic person”.

Helen Hoang later released the second book in her Kiss Quotient series, titled The Bride Test that features an autistic male protagonist. Although the quality of autistic representation in the second book has not deteriorated from the first book, the romance aspect fell short. The reason might be the brevity of the book considering the number of issues the book had been trying to tackle. Had this book been fleshed out, it might have received the accolades its predecessor has gotten.

Although Helen Hoang’s second book in the series falls short on its literary merit, the autistic representation has not paused. Act Your Age, Eve Brown polishes the formula and takes the representation of the spectrum to another level. These books are paving the way for more accurate representation for people on the autistic spectrum and influencing writers from different genres to break boundaries. Here’s to hoping the inclusivity does not stop at just including different races, rather carries on to introduce neuro-diverse characters all the way.

 


Tasmim spends all her time listening to true crime podcasts. Send her killer ideas at [email protected]

 

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