“Granted, I have a strong suspicion that the representation of Aspergers Syndrom wasn’t at all accurate (and I feel like that is a term not used anymore). But I also don’t feel like it represented people with Aspergers in any sort of derogatory way. So I chose to accept that this is a fictional book with a fictional representative.”
I guess now is a good time to bring this up. Again. I just released the ninth book in my Lake Cliff series and there’s a lot of reflection in it about Aiden’s childhood and his life, in general, as an autistic man. Which is, in itself, an important but subtle point in the book. When I first wrote Aiden Sharp, he described himself as a man with Asperger’s Syndrome. Now, he describes himself as an autistic man because our understanding and the use of these terms has changed. Please don’t take this as me saying I am an expert or am using the most current and accurate terms. I’m merely saying that like our understanding of autism, Aiden’s is evolving as well. Just as mine, as the parent of a young autistic man, changes daily. More than books and medical journals, Alex is the source of most of what I know about autism. For better or for worse.
I do bristle at the criticism that Aiden isn’t “accurate” or that he’s not “autistic enough”. Do the dukes in regency romances act like “real” dukes? Are the cops in other romantic thrillers portrayed with more than a nod to accuracy? Of course not. Why the weird standards for a character with a spectrum disorder? If you’ve met one autistic person…you’ve met one autistic person. Whose standards are you judging this fictional character in a romance novel by? What kind of book are you looking for, if this character isn’t disabled enough?
I’m not arguing that the representation of disabled people shouldn’t be taken seriously. Not even a little. Please don’t write a disabled character if you haven’t done the research and you’re not writing them with a deep love and respect. Be VERY careful about the story you’re going to tell and make sure it’s your place to tell it. It was very important to me to portray Aiden as an autistic hero without exploiting his disability for book sales. I wrote him because I have an autistic son and while he’ll never learn to drive, go to college, fall in love or have a family of his own, I wanted to read stories about people like him doing those things. At the time, I couldn’t find books with heroes like Alex, so I wrote one myself and I gave Aiden many of Alex’s “ticks” and “isms” and made him say the sorts of things I’d think Alex would say, if he could. He’s a very dry and funny guy, my Alex.
But, the most important key to writing Aiden—the thing I put the most nuance into—was his agency. It’s not a haphazard thing at all, when writing his mental and emotional capabilities. He has to be aware and capable of complete consent. That’s the bottom line. And when I see criticism that Aiden isn’t “autistic enough” I cringe because I fear what the reader wanted, there. I didn’t want him to be childlike or overly naive because I hate that stereotype and it makes for a really icky situation when you pair that person with a neurotypical adult. Instead, I focused on how his sensory and communication issues affected him as a forensic psychologist and made falling in love a little trickier but also heartwarming. Because I wasn’t ready to turn Hide And Keep into a Swiss Army knife of a romance novel, I didn’t explore Aiden as deeply as I could have and I kept the other non romance elements of the book simple. But, I’ve used the series to grow—as a person and a writer—with Aiden, and he becomes more and more of a living, breathing autistic man with each book. Like me, he’s far from perfect and not intended to be a textbook representation. He’s a character in a romance novel, and a fine one at that.
If you haven’t read my Lake Cliff series and met Dr. Aiden Sharp yet, find him here: https://amzn.to/3fVsN4a