Anna Purkiss is a first year PhD student at the Children’s Literature Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. Her empirical research looks at young readers’ responses to the representation of disability in contemporary children’s fiction.
On June 6, 2018, we were pleased to welcome Dr. Shalini Vohra (Sheffield Hallam University), who talked to us about her research on autism in children’s fiction. I was particularly looking forward to this as my own research has several overlaps with Vohra’s, and I was fortunate to have an excellent discussion with her beforehand.
Vohra’s seminar started by signalling that anyone was welcome to stand, lie down or walk around; an inclusive note, given that the such events usually involve long periods of sitting down, which can be problematic for people with various kinds of disabilities. After an introduction which demonstrated the importance of authentic representations of disability and tackled the misconception that autistic children do not like fiction, she argued that lots of different autistic characters are needed to be able to represent autism properly and encourage understanding (which is different to knowledge). In doing so, she raised the interesting point that Mark Haddon’s (2003) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is used as a teacher education text during teacher training and that it has created and perpetuated stereotypes about autism. As she put it, role models are important but not if this makes an autistic child think that, like Christopher Boone, they should be brilliant at mathematics. This relates to the common trope of the ‘supercrip’ found in many portrayals of disability, which can have negative consequences for identity and self-esteem in young disabled readers who cannot match such characters’ extraordinary achievements.
Much of Vohra’s talk focused on her project developing from a session she ran at the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences, where she brought together an author, illustrator, publisher, school teachers, academics, parents and children with autism to discuss the question, ‘how is autism portrayed in children’s fiction?’. One of her key recommendations from this was the importance of collaborative writing in enabling the autistic voice to be included. This requires inclusive approaches which recognise that young people with autism are ‘experts by experience’ (Satchwell & Davidge, 2018) and move the focus from research on participants to research with them.
Here, Vohra concentrated on the collaborative writing process behind M is for Autism (2015) and its sequel, M in the Middle (2016), both of which I would highly recommend. These were written and illustrated by 72 autistic girls at Limpsfield Grange School, a residential and day secondary school for girls with communication and interaction difficulties, with the help of their creative writing tutor, Vicky Martin and sponsored by Autism Accreditation. The writing process was facilitated through drama and creative writing workshops to elicit the experiences of an autistic girl in a mainstream school setting (which the co-authors had experience of prior to starting at Limpsfield Grange). Vohra highlighted the importance of Martin listening to the girls and believing them, which relates to the principles of inclusive research. The subsequent texts were heavily edited by the girls, with some sections often verbatim, and she emphasised that it was in these editing sessions that the books gained their authenticity.
Vohra then took us through twelve key qualities of autism found in the M books, ranging from anxiety to identity formation through books and TV. I was particularly interested in the aspect of being a human with emotions, as people with autism are often depicted as being aloof and disengaged, but M is shown as feeling guilt and not wanting to let others down. Vohra also argued autism is often portrayed as a deficit but some ‘undesirable’ traits are actually positives, such as honesty, which can be mistaken for rudeness, as is shown several times in M is for Autism. Relating to Vohra’s earlier assertion that many different characters with autism are needed for understanding, one of the final categories she explored was that every autistic individual is different. She explained that the girls didn’t want readers to think that every autistic girl is like M, which is why they introduced the character of Skye in M in the Middle.
We finished with a lively round of questions and discussions, ranging from the effect of collaborative writing on literary quality to whether genre is an important factor in representations of autism in literature. Vohra’s talk has certainly made me think about the role collaborative writing has to play in the representation of disability in children’s fiction, particularly when considering the #ownvoices movement. It has also left me considering the meaning of authenticity and its significance in portrayals of disability. These are important reflections for my own research and indeed, the many opportunities here at the Children’s Literature Research Centre to engage with scholars and peers whose research is related to my own to varying degrees constantly stimulates my thinking and helps me to develop my research project for the better.
For the article that led to Dr Vohra’s talk here at the Children’s Literature Research Centre, please see: https://theconversation.com/why-there-need-to-be-more-autistic-characters-in-childrens-books-90054
Haddon, M. (2003). The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. London: Jonathan Cape.
Satchwell, C., & Davidge, G. (2018). The Mismeasure of a Young Man: An Alternative Reading of Autism Through a Co-constructed Fictional Story. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 1-16.
The Students of Limpsfield Grange School., & Martin,V. (2015). M is for Autism. London: Jessica Kingsley.
The Students of Limpsfield Grange School., & Martin,V. (2016). M in the Middle. London: Jessica Kingsley.