Young writers with autism are using fan fiction as a way to combat stereotypes about autism, according to a December 2018 report from Spectrum News. Harry Potter, the popular series of young adult fantasy novels, has been a particular favorite for fan fiction writers with autism, with one author imagining the character of Hermione Granger dealing with a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. Another story introduces the new character of Albus Potter, the son of series protagonist Harry Potter, who has been diagnosed with autism and initially struggles socially at Hogwarts, but ends up making friends.
The report was authored by Jonathan Alexander, a professor of English and gender and
sexuality studies at the University of California, Irvine, and Rebecca Black, an associate professor of informatics, also at the University of California. Black and Alexander say they have been analyzing fan fiction focusing on characters with autism, who are largely underrepresented in television, books, and movies, since 2016, with the help of University of California grad student Vicky Chen. Black and Alexander believe the prevalence of fan fiction featuring characters with autism is an attempt by writers to compensate for the lack of representation.
The authors pointed out that approximately 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with autism, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Autism Association has identified autism as “the fastest growing development disorder,” due to a significant increase in diagnoses over the past 20 years. Some academics, such as Sonya Freeman Loftis, an assistant professor of English at Morehouse College in Georgia, have advocated for “neurodiversity,” or the view that neurological differences are not disorders, but simply normal human variations. This inclusive approach has attracted its fair share of controversy from academics, who feel it could do more harm than good by potentially denying treatment for people with autism. Individuals with autism, such as blogger and author Jonathan Mitchell, feel that neurodiversity overlooks the more disabling aspects of low-functioning autism.
Explaining the allure of Harry Potter for young writers of fan fiction with autism, the authors of the Spectrum Report suggested the school setting of Hogwarts as a factor. They also noted the treatment of autism as an ability that would be viewed as special or magical at Hogwarts, in a way that “muggles” (non-magical people) couldn’t necessarily perceive. The authors also examined fan fiction by siblings, friends, and relatives of individuals with autism. Ultimately, they found that, while the autistic characters represented in these stories were occasionally stereotypical, “most of them affirm the ability of people with autism to confront bigotry and speak about their own conditions.”
Other stories conform with the neurodiversity approach by presenting autism as a “difference,” rather than an impairment or obstacle. The authors of the report, which was originally published on the news site The Conversation, wrote that they have coded and collected the autism-themed fan fiction, and intend to publish their findings in an essay to be published in The Journal of Literary Research.