One Book’s choice of ‘Curious Incident’ spreads incurious view of autism

The 2003 novel

The 2003 novel "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" is the 2017 selection for One Book

When I heard that One Book One Philadelphia had chosen Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” for their 2017 program, I died a little inside. Describing that book without resorting to expletives would be like screaming without vowels, but I’ll try my best.

“Curious Incident” tells the story of Christopher Boone, a teenager whose father, Ed, convinces him that his mother is dead before killing the neighbor’s dog. He learns the truth about his parents during an investigation of the murder, but the only consequences are a family reunion and a puppy for Christmas. The key to the novel’s popularity is that the protagonist is autistic. Like me.

Or is he?

Six years after his book was published, Haddon stated that “‘Curious incident’ is not a book about asperger’s [sic].” He admits that he did more research on train stations than autism, arguing that “imagination always trumps research.” I doubt Haddon would be so blasé about his low standards of accuracy were they applied to him.

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Simon Stephens, who wrote a play based on the book, also admits that “I did no research for [Christopher] at all. I just imagined him from Mark’s book.” National Theatre, whose production is playing in London’s West End, says that since Christopher never specifies his diagnosis beyond the phrase “behavioral problems,” all the possible interpretations the audience can have of the character are valid. (Judging by the reviews, most interpretations, including the director’s, invoke autism.) This position allows the company to profit from the public’s interest in autism without taking responsibility for how they represent the condition.

Haddon and National Theatre deny their character’s popular diagnosis because both the book and the play have been severely criticised by autistics for perpetuating harmful stereotypes. The casting of the theatrical version has been particularly controversial. There’s a problem when a play most famous for its autistic protagonist has more rats on stage than autistics.

One of these harmful stereotypes is that autistics are violent. Christopher assaults a policeman, threatens commuters with his knife, and contemplates stabbing a vicar. Disturbingly, his favorite fantasy features the extinction of mankind. Perhaps if Haddon did any research, he’d be aware that autistics suffer more violence than they inflict. Though it was only recently that the media stopped diagnosing every mass shooter with Aspergers, it’s still a terrible idea for a city to endorse a book that presents its autistic protagonist as a knife-wielding misanthrope.

Christopher also embodies the myth that autistics lack empathy, that wondrous ability to understand the minds of others. This lack underpins the character’s violence and callous comments like “All the other children at my school are stupid.” At the start of Chapter 163, he fails the infamous Sally-Anne test, designed to test the empathy of autistics, when his teacher opens a candy tube, shows him a pencil inside, and asks him what his mother would think was in it if she just entered the room without seeing the tube’s contents. He answers, “A pencil.” As real-life stories from the blog Autism and Empathy show, autistics express their empathy differently from the general population and simply do not have the privilege of assuming they think like those around them.

Christopher’s mother leaves her family because she can’t cope with her son’s condition, supporting the notion that autism increases the likelihood of divorce. A little research shows that this isn’t actually true. This focus on parental stress, which encourages the reader to excuse Ed for killing the dog, lying to Christopher and knocking him out in Chapter 127, is extremely disturbing. This is the attitude that would have us sympathise with, or at least try to understand, parents who kill their autistic children.

You need to think about “Curious Incident” like this: A man writes an execrable bestseller about a woman who becomes violently emotional on a monthly basis, hordes shoes, and cannot comprehend STEM subjects. She becomes the archetype of women in popular fiction. When men want to read about women, they overlook the brilliant autobiographies written by female authors in favor of the bestseller. To gain employment a woman must either combat the stereotypes spread by the bestseller, or pass for a man. Six years after his bestseller was published, the man admits that he knows nothing about women, and claims that his book isn’t about women, it’s about men. This doesn’t stop most media outlets from implying his bestseller is the definitive representation of what it’s like to be a woman. The author gets rich while employment discrimination renders most women unacceptably poor. If this scenario sickens you, perhaps you’ll be able to empathize with why so many autistics hate “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

To understand autism, you don’t need to waste your money on a mediocre novel with gimmicky chapter headings and irrelevant diagrams, or an overproduced melodrama with trained animals and expensive special effects that have driven autistics into meltdown. Philadelphians wishing to read about autism in 2017 should read autistic writers, starting with this brilliant essay by Melanie Yergeau, a few posts from Autistics Speaking Day, and any blog on this list. Perhaps the most curious thing about this whole situation is that these talented writers are taken less seriously than a man who thinks “imagination always trumps research.”

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