Current Issue #488

Empowering neurodivergence in Australian fiction

Empowering neurodivergence in Australian fiction

If you are not one of the half a million or so Australian readers who have read Graeme Simsion’s Rosie trilogy, you need to discover Australian neurodivergence fiction.

University Professor Donald Tillman, a high-functioning 39-year-old genetics scholar always embarking on personal projects and sub-projects, is the quirky protagonist of the Rosie series. The fact that he has projects of his own makes him quite unexceptional by world standards, but his odd relabelling of mundane activities into dead serious “projects” (The Wife Project, the Father Project, the Don Project, the Rosie Project, etc.), which recieve his undivided attention turns him into a peculiar individual with special gifts. Don – “an innovative problem-solver” – possesses outstanding “innate logical skills”, has the ability to predict people’s body mass index, and is extremely reliable when it comes to providing “scientific rigour”.

The exploration of Autism Spectrum Disorder, more specifically high-functioning ASD (previously called Asperger’s syndrome), is no novelty in Australian fiction. The best-known example is perhaps The Secret Cure (2003), by Sydney-based creative writer Sue Woolfe, who has diligently fathomed the neuroscience of creative writing. Yet, Graeme Simsion’s trilogy is taking neurodivergence to an unprecedented humorous level, which expunges all the gravity and pathos from a highly entertaining yet sobering tale. Readers are therefore unlikely to experience compassion fatigue when binge-reading The Rosie Project (2013), The Rosie Effect (2014), and The Rosie Result, released last February.

A cross between the David Lodge campus novel and the romantic comedy, The Rosie Project sets a lively pace and comical tone. Expect no classical neurotypical life story. Don’s life is a zany rollercoaster. One day in Melbourne, he decided out of the blue that he would get married through an almost scientific protocol involving a thorough questionnaire. This clinical account, which at times reads like a scientific Powerpoint presentation with bullet points, is meant to convey Don’s technical outlook on life peppered with his haunting obsessions with timing and accuracy. Seeing himself as “socially inept”, he never misses an opportunity to acknowledge his marked difference, though it is fair to say that these narrative reminders have been drastically downplayed in both sequels.

The Rosie Project (Text Publishing)

In The Rosie Effect, Mrs Jarman, who expects “constant craziness” from Professor Tillman, is taking it to the next level by putting her partner’s fatherhood skills to the test. In the neuroscientist’s eyes, the brain is graced with the ability to adapt thanks to its amazing neuroplasticity. With room for improvement, Don sets out to become a conventional father in New York while honing his socioemotional skills to avoid his repeated pattern of getting into trouble. Although he is “a highly organised person who avoid[s] uncertainty and like[s] to plan in detail”, his bumpy ride climaxes with his marriage on the rocks and the birth of their new born son, Hudson. Back to Melbourne in The Rosie Result after overcoming his relationship crisis, Don is asked to entertain the possibility that he might be “a person with a disability” and that his 10-year-old son could be a chip off the old block.

Considering Graeme Simsion’s trilogy, Australian neurodivergence fiction could be defined as fictional narratives featuring a central or major character depicted with neurological differences. In a similar vein, Grace Lisa Vandenberg in Toni Jordan’s Addition (2008) and Howard Hughes in Luke Davies’s God of Speed (2008) are proto-examples of characters whose obsessive compulsive disorders set a precedent in the portrayal of cognitive disability in Australian fiction. Published in the wake of the Australian disability rights movement, which gained momentum in the 1980s, these narratives offer cultural representations that push back the entrenched stereotypes born of a neuronormative society, while subtly agitating for social inclusion.

In light of the neurodiversity paradigm, tables are turned so that the social image of neuro-atypicality finds itself suddenly enhanced through empowerment. Resourceful Don comments perceptively on his condition: “I accepted that I was wired differently from most people, or, more precisely, that my wiring was towards one end of a spectrum of different human configurations. My innate logical skills were significantly greater than my interpersonal skills. Without people like me, we would not have penicillin or computers.” Not only are these cultural representations instrumental in helping neurotypical readers come to a better understanding of, and even empathy with, cognitive difference, but they also contribute to a greater sense of social justice.

So take an aspie-ness pill and smile at the idea that it might just require a change of viewpoint to realise that – far from coming across as disabled in a normative society – “Aspies rule!”

Jean-François Vernay is the author of A Brief Take on the Australian Novel (Wakefield Press).

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