Autism and the Narrative Process

April 25, 2024

"What can be explained is not poetry."  -W.B. Yeats

This post is about autism and how it affects our ability to narrate. Points made may not apply to other individuals on the spectrum and are NOT meant to imply that narration is problematic for all autistics. 

Narration or the Lack of it

In its most basic sense narration is the act of telling a story. But narration is more than storytelling. As autism researcher Matthew Belmonte points out, we move from chaos to meaning through narration:

A fear of death drives us to become narrators, to transform the disconnected chaos of our sensorium into representative mental texts whose distinct scenes contain recognisable characters that act in coherent plots. -Matthew Belmonte, More Than Human 

From this perspective, narration is what we do to make sense of our lives. 

Familiar narrative structures include the three acts structure (beginning, middle and end), primary literary categories (poem, novel, play), and specific fiction and nonfiction genres. Meaning is found in the overarching message these narratives convey. 

Even everyday stories are usually told in three acts and, while some people are better at storytelling than others, most can construct a narrative without giving it a whole lot of thought. The neurobiology of narration, however, isn't as straightforward as we might expect.

According to Belmonte, our ability to narrate depends on the "coordination of activity amongst widely separated brain regions." In autism, Belmonte writes, brain regions that are "more or less intact" may not be "coordinated or modulated in response to cognitive demands."

This is essentially a networking issue where "a disrupted neural organisation implies disrupted narrative organisation." (Belmonte)

This is not to say that the narratives of neurotypical people are necessarily better or more authentic than that of autistics. Only that, as a group, neurotypicals find the stories themselves easier to organize and construct.

Writers on the Spectrum

It is simple, to ache in the bone, or the rind — But gimlets — among the nerve — Mangle daintier — terribler — Like a panther in the glove -Emily Dickinson

In Writers on the Spectrum, Clatsop Community College professor Julie Brown focuses on eight important writers who showed signs of autism throughout their lives. They are Hans Christian Andersen, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Lewis Carroll, William Butler Yeats, Sherwood Anderson, and Opal Whiteley. 

All of these writers struggled socially. Emily Dickinson once pressed a flower into an editor's hand and awkwardly told him that "this may serve as my introduction." Yeats was asked to leave the Theosophical Society because he asked too many questions. Thoreau withdrew to his cabin by the pond and was happier alone than he had ever been in company. 

Brown explains that autistic writers may have trouble with various aspects of writing including writing for an audience, adhering to a genre, building a narrative structure, and developing characters.  She then analyzes the work of the writers featured for these specific issues.

According to Brown, all eight writers showed "a marked resistance against the writing of novels" because of the difficulty they experienced in creating a "sustained, organically whole fictional narrative." 

Brown—who is not autistic herself but has an autistic child and works with autistic writers in her role as an educator—says it is common for writers on the spectrum to struggle with plot / structure.

Dead Dreams and Do Overs

Irish poets learn your trade. Sing whatever is well made... -W.B. Yeats, Under Ben Bulben 

Writing a well plotted novel has always been challenging for me. And when I say challenging, I mean that I have tried to do it dozens, if not hundreds of times—without success. I abandoned most of those unsuccessful manuscripts without finishing them. Those I completed had serious structural defects.

The point of this blog post isn't that autistics can't write novels because some obviously can. The point is that long-form fiction is a difficult proposition for many—including me. I have proved this to myself over and over again. But I couldn't accept it as a possible limitation until I understood why it was happening. 

Writing a novel has been a dream of mine for a very long time and it's hard to just walk away from it. But change can serve a purpose, and I think the writers featured in Writers on the Spectrum prove that point.

Hans Christian Anderson switched from long-form fiction to fairy tales. Thoreau gave up on society and inspired a nation. Yeats left the Theosophical Society and embraced the mythology of Ireland. Sherwood Anderson stopped writing books and created a brand new genre. 

The genre Sherwood Anderson launched with the publication of his book Winesburg, Ohio is called the 'short story cycle.' I am going to try my own short story cycle at some point. But I'm going to publish the vampire story, which has just become a novella (or maybe even a novelette), first.

It is a little sad to think that I might not write a traditional novel. But it's exciting to imagine myself writing (and finishing) short stories and novellas and the occasional poem—and I am not just saying that.

My track record for finishing things isn't the best, but I have always been able to pull a new creative project out of the ashes. In the wake of my ASD diagnosis, I understand this ability to be one among the constellation of traits we call autism. 

According to psychologist Michael Fitzgerald autistics have "the ability to focus intensely on a topic...for very long periods..." as well as "a remarkable capacity for enormous capacity for curiosity and a compulsion to understand and make sense of the world."  

Fitzgerald goes on to say, "they do not give up when obstacles to their creativity are encountered," and I think that this is something we should remember.

'It was a curious dream, dear, certainly: but now run in to your tea; it’s getting late.' So Alice got up and ran off... But her sister sat still just as she left her, leaning her head on her hand, watching the setting sun, and thinking of little Alice and all her wonderful Adventures, till she too began dreaming after a fashion, and... the whole place around her became alive with the strange creatures of her little sister’s dream. -Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland



Writers on the Spectrum (affiliate link) by Julie Brown 

Human But More So by Matthew Belmonte

Autism and Creativity  (affiliate link) by Michael Fitzgerald

Please note: If you click on one of the Amazon affiliate links (above), I may receive a small commission  at no cost to you. 

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