The Autistic Writer: The Five Senses

Many with Autism Spectrum Disorder have a love/hate relationship with their five basic senses. It’s common for one or more of the senses to overwhelm an Autistic person. Other on the Spectrum are numb in more than one of the same. And of course combinations exist: an acute sense of smell and a blunted auditory experience can coexist in the same person. (With the obvious assumption that there are no anatomical deficits, such as deafness, to account for.)

Fully immersive fiction takes the sensory experience into account. This isn’t to suggest that in every scene the author should describe in detail everything the character sees, hears, smells, touches and tastes. That would get tedious in short order. Exploration of sensory inputs though are a highly effective means to enliven a story. So an awareness of the senses is helpful for the author, especially if they are writing characters that do not share their particular sensory input profile.

I am fortunate in this regard. I don’t suffer a near constant sensory overload as many of my fellow Autistics do. Hearing is probably my most sensitive sense, and even then, only in certain circumstances. Sustained loud noises, or simultaneous opposing sounds (think two TVs on at one time) can drive me up a wall.

Because I have a particular awareness of sound as a person, it usually enjoys a strong presence in my fiction. I include dialogue in this category. A common frustration of mine during revisions is finding a way to describe a speech on the page the way I hear it in my mind.

Music would play a larger role in my stories, if not for copyright issues. (Off topic tip to writers: never mention or include the lyrics of a modern song in your fiction. Enough red tape to choke a rhino.) In real life music is a huge part of my mood.

Vision is of equal significance in my writing.  I’m a visual storyteller in large degree. I don’t believe in intricate-to-purple prose to describe every sleeve of every shirt on every character in a scene. That is an excellent way to keep me away from a story. Still, despite being a character-first author, I need the reader to have a notion of setting early on.

Without having a specific test to confirm this, I suspect my sense of smell is above average. For all I know, far above. I often must limit my exposure to certain things that don’t bother other people simply because of the smells associated with it. It’s not crippling, but I have to bear it in mind.

I have made a specific effort to incorporate smell into my fiction. It is, after all the most immersive of all the senses, the one most connected to memory. All the same, earlier in my writing life I often neglected odor in my descriptions. I have wondered if this extra effort is required because I unconsciously “censor” what I smell so often in real life. Could my need to be selective about what I can smell have influenced how I leave smell out of my fiction by default?

Touch and taste are the final two of the “Big Five” and the two I call upon the least in my fiction. Between the two, I refer to tactile experience more often. Why? In this case, I don’t even have a theory. I suffer no disfunction in this regard. Like anyone I have certain textures I find unpleasant, but it’s not like they’re forced on me.

Pain is not exactly the same as the sense of touch, but as a sort of cousin to touch, I write about it more than any other true touch experience. (Even then, only as demanded by the plot.)

And taste? I won’t lie, I almost never include it in my stories. When there is eating at all, I rarely go beyond telling the reader if the food was good, bad, or neutral. To be honest with myself, I should include this sense more often than I do. Many books dedicate a large percentage of ink to the nature of meals, even if the meal ends up unrelated to the plot. Truth be told,  overkill in the description of food is one of the top reasons I DNF a book.

Like sex, (a tactile topic for a future post in this series) tasting food tends to distract from any story I want to tell, despite the taste of food being one of the most refreshing sensations of my real life.

In the end, the ratio of the senses isn’t vital to telling a good story. But as an Autistic writer I remind myself that my relationship to the senses is atypical, when that of my characters (and readers) in general is not.

Side note: I highly recommend the book A Natural History of the Senses, by Dianne Ackerman.

The Autistic Writer: Passage of Time

It’s human nature to feel nostalgic on occasion. Just about everyone misses a certain era in their lives. A whimsical longing to return to a former time, place and situation works falls upon every person from time to time.

To well-adjusted people, the desire is temporary; they know we can exist only in the present, and do what we can with same.

Others, though, have an unhealthy obsession with the past. They seek to extend, or recreate, or deny the conclusion of an era, to the detriment of living a productive life in the present day. Think of the “peaked in high school” stereotype, who wears their athletic letter jacket into their 40s.

Thankfully, this isn’t me. I do however have a relationship with the past unlike most people I know, and I believe my Autism accounts for it.

There have been studies suggesting that neurodiverse people can experience “time blindness” in the short term. One misjudges time, estimates it poorly, fails to notice its passage in a day, and so on. Fewer studies have been done on “long distance time blindness” as I call it. Yet I’m willing to suggest it springs from my Autism.

I tend not to perceive a “distant” past within my lifetime. If I reach as far back as I can into my acute memory, some moments may be obscured by the proverbial fog. By and large though, my mind floats or slogs through a nebulous “present” that incorporates everything from the moment I am literally typing these words, to the day I moved into my freshman dorm room in college. Not a photographic memory. More like improper photo storage, I suppose.

Unlike most people I know or hear about,  there is nothing intrinsic to the idea of, say, the passage of 15 years. I know what 15 years means. How many circuits around the sun, and what we call those circuits in the Western world. This is 2023 as I write this, and 15 years ago was 2008. I recognize events that have taken place in my life and in the world during that time frame. There are many neurodivergent types that do not perceive these things, I just happen to not be one of them.

Yet I do need to dig deep to firmly establish the baked in significance of 15 years on its face. 15 years is not incidental. It’s 15 years, and that amount of time has inevitable characteristics.

Inevitable to others, that is. But the very passage of 15, 20 or more years is not of automatic significance to me. I don’t begin by taking it into account, as most would.  No more than I would take into account what you had for lunch today vs yesterday. Who cares?

Plenty care, as it turns out. Most neurotypical people not only acknowledge 15 years, but they feel 15 years. I don’t feel it anywhere near as much as others do, and as a result, relationships, conversations, situations that I read as “in progress” are in fact no more. Over. No longer reachable or alterable.

The best fiction involves characters that learn and change, for the good or bad. The dents and badges a person gains, and the heroes and villains they become due to the unassailable pounding of time upon them is the heart of story. If I do not at least remain aware of a flux that I all too easily miss in my daily life, I run the risk of writing fiction that might thrill Chekov and his slices, but make for poor, stagnant novels.

Today is in fact a boat at dock for most people, that when untethered from the now floats off into the ocean, and recedes into the distance a little more all the time. On the other hand, a sliver of me stands on the bows of a multitude of docked ghost ships simultaneously as I await a captain and crew that is no longer there.

The most at home I ever felt with time in my fiction is perhaps my most recent novel, There Is Pain Here, a fantasy that takes place outside of the standard human perception of time. In fact, almost all of the plot unfolds in the afterlife.

See how far I have to go to match my relationship with time?

That, however, is an exception to the rule; and I remind myself of the passage of time, both in my fiction and in life.

The Autistic Writer: Choosing Point of View

Perspective is crucial to understanding life on the Autism Spectrum. Because Autistic people are not a monolith, it can’t be assumed every Autistic person’s perspective on daily life is identical. It isn’t. The concept of perspective, however, the nature of how any given person with ASD perceives and experiences the world around them is key.

Spoilers: It’s usually not the same as those that are neurotypical.

Authors deal with perspective all the time in their fiction. In fact, nine times out of ten it’s the very first choice they make before beginning a new work. Only in the writing world, we refer to it as the point of view. (POV for short, and because writers like slang.)

Literary point of view has evolved a bit over the generations. Nevertheless most sources will describe either three points of view with some subcategories, while others will declare five distinct possibilities.

Do any of them specifically appeal more to the Autistic writer? Let’s go over them one at a time.

First Person

Fiction narrated by a character directly. “I woke up.” (Every now and then, “we woke up,” but that’s another topic.) The main character is telling the reader the story themself. Ergo, only those things the character knows, experiences or thinks can be known by the reader.

My current work in progress is in first person. Only one previous novel of mine has been so. If you believe some of the stereotypes about Autistic people, this POV might seem the ideal choice. After all, some of us do enjoy talking about ourselves, at times to the detriment of those around us. Besides, isn’t everybody’s life lived in first person?

Yet the character isn’t the author in most cases. Unless it’s a memoir, the author is no more immersed in their own thoughts in first person than they are in any other POV.

It’s interesting to note that I tire more quickly when writing first person. As with real people, I have to accept a certain intimacy with my fictional character in first person that isn’t present in the other POVs. Extended intimacy with most real people drains me. I suspect this as a reason “pretending” to do someone else’s feeling for them in first person has a similar effect. It won’t prevent me from using the POV in the future, but it’s different.

Second Person

This is when the reader is the character. One is instructed how one feels and acts by the unseen godlike force of the author. A reader’s entire history and identity while reading is decided.

“You wake up in the middle of the night, sweating and afraid.”

I have written exactly one short story in second person in my entire career. It’s becoming more popular in some circles these days, but remains the least used POV for fiction with reason. As an Autistic person, I despise being controlled, or told what to do. I value my independence and my self-determination to what some may call a rabid degree. Most people do. But so intense is my need to make my own decisions I cannot even enjoy reading second-person fiction. Not that it can harm me, but I feel secondary resentment at the presumption of even being asked to accept some external force telling even a fake me what I am thinking.

It’s challenging for me to slip into this experience as a reader, and I try not to write the sort of fiction I can’t stand reading. I find Second Person invasive, not immersive.

Third Person Omniscient

This point of view features a narrator who is not part of the action in the story, but nonetheless is aware of all of it, everywhere, including the thoughts of every character. They share this with you, the reader. In many cases (not all) the narrator will also editorialize on what they are describing.

“Unlike his brother Lee, the sexiest man you would ever want to meet, poor pathetic Calvin lacked a six pack as well as charisma. Lee relished in this difference; Calvin lamented it daily.”

I have never used this point of view, and I don’t see myself ever doing so.

By nature, it’s chaotic. It’s all I can do in life to keep my own thoughts straight, let alone those of everyone else I interact with. One swirling pandemonium of a mind is enough for me. Thank heaven that is all I need to manage in life. I choose to keep it that way in fiction, in no small part due to the nature of my Autistic focus. (Or lack thereof if I am tired.)

Much like second-person, I don’t like reading it, so I don’t write it.

Third Person Limited

By a long shot the POV I both employ and read the most. Indeed, most of Western fiction up to this point in history engages in Third Person Limited point of view.

An unseen narrator sits on the “shoulder” of the character, and knows the thoughts and plans and experiences of that single character, and nobody else.

“John was sick and tired of dealing with this customer. So he chose to quit the job, right then and there. He walked out without saying a thing.”

For me, this is the ideal distance between narrator and character for the majority of stories. It allows just a tad bit more freedom to me as an author, and to some extent takes a gram of pressure off of the reader. A full story is being told in the way we live our lives—one at a time. But the story is being told to us, not lived BY us or THROUGH us. That arm’s length is the Autistic part of this POV to me.

Third Person Objective

In the fifth and final type of POV, we have the most clinical of them all—Third Person Objective.

In it, the narrator still perches unseen on the shoulder of a character. (At times more than one character), only without knowledge of anyone’s thoughts. Though the reader is privy to private moments of the characters, it’s completely observational. The reader alone must decide the meaning of what they are watching. Like a closed-circuit feed on every location in the character’s life.

“Henry walked into the room, book in hand. He held the book up toward his sister, who watched him in silence. He tossed the book on the coffee table. She started to speak, but he held up his hand and she stopped.”

What’s the plan here? The emotions? The thoughts? Your guess is as good as anyone’s, because the narrator doesn’t know in third person objective.

I’ve played with this POV in short fiction. I’ve have written an entire novel in it. I couldn’t, if I want my characters to stand out the most, as I have discussed in previous posts. Show, don’t tell, sure, but in this POV we run the risk of telling no story at all. It works for many readers who consider any other POV “spoonfeeding.” To me however, I am clinical enough in my everyday life, sometimes when I don’t intend to be. I want my fiction more expressive than my average day in my Autistic life.

So which point of view is the most Autistic? Answer: all of them. Just like everything else I have discussed, there is no one inviolable answer to “what is an Autistic writer?” I flatter myself to think I have pointed to some trends in this and other pieces, but another author just as Autistic as I am could very well feel differently about each of the POVs. If so, I’d love to hear their perspective.

The Autistic Writer: Show Don’t Tell?

If you have even rudimentary knowledge of the Autism Spectrum and the basics of writing, what follows should be no revelation to you. In fact, it borders on obvious, though I don’t like to assume.

So for the sake of completeness allow me to say that Autistic people tend to live a much more internal life than the rest of the world. This, as with everything else in the Autistic experience varies from person to person. There are those on The Spectrum that are so internal that they never speak. Others like me may not appear internal at all based on our behavior in a given setting. Trust me though, I am an inward personality, and so are nearly all Autistics.

Jez Timms

Now let’s move to the most frequent, and perhaps most hackneyed of all writing advice. I have mentioned it before: show, don’t tell.

If you’ve not encountered this in my previous posts or anywhere else, “show don’t tell” refers to characters revealing emotions, thoughts or realizations by means of body language, actions, dialogue or any number of other devices instead of having the author just say how everyone is feeling.

“John pounded his fist on the table and screamed ‘Get the hell out of my sight,’ so loud the entire building could hear him.”

You can deduce John isn’t happy even though at no point does he or the author mention how he is feeling. That is showing.

The following is telling, note the difference:

John looked at the man’s face as the anger built up inside him. He could barely speak. He anted nothing at all to do with this visitor, and he wanted to make sure everybody knew it. He had to make sure that there would be no confusion at all about his desire that this visitor was not welcome, and he was more than willing to be violent about it.

“Get the hell out of my sight,” he hollered. He pounded his fist on the table.

As the author, I informed you directly what John’s emotions were. I was telling you, and I’m not supposed to do that.

Truth be told, this guideline is falling somewhat out of power, if it ever truly held the throne to begin with. You needn’t look far to find a popular novel, or even an acclaimed novel that makes as much use of telling as showing. Literary fiction is famous for just telling you what characters think, and doing so with fancy language.

Be that as it may, the advice remains sound if you hope to write commercial fiction with well-placed plot.

In life, though I am far from a chatterbox, I would just as soon tell people what I am thinking instead of expecting them to infer it. And though my Autistic hyperfixations and special interests may not illicit as much monologuing as it does in others on the Spectrum, in comfortable circumstances I can go on a while on certain topics. In other words, I am prone to telling a hell of a lot when it feels safe to do so.

That includes my fiction. I don’t worship at the altar of Show Don’t Tell. I will allow my characters extended internal moments wherein they express precisely what they are thinking and feeling. If it doesn’t slam the brakes on the whole novel, I do in fact tell instead of show at times.

Yet I acknowledge that an entire book of people simply stating what they are thinking for chapters on end is unlikely to attract a readership, even though I probably could write such a book if I had nobody to please but me. My early drafts contain more telling than the final products, in fact.

However I hope to please at least some readers.  That’s why in the drafting process I make sure I am showing as least as much as I am telling, despite having a brain that tells by default.

The Autistic Writer: Number of Characters

I recently DNFed (“did not finish) a popular epic length novel. There were multiple reasons I gave up on it. One was the story had far too many characters.

There were about 20 named characters, and four or five main characters each with their own narrative. There was even a character chart at the front of the book. I respect the addition, but it shouldn’t have been required in the first place. Not only did I get weary of flipping to the chart, I didn’t enjoy “dealing” with that many people to begin with.

And to think there are novels with dozens of characters that don’t even provide a chart!

In life, I can’t enjoy meeting and interacting with a large number of strangers at one time. There are always exceptions, but as a rule my Autistic brain wants to engage with a modest amount of people to a deeper degree. It tunes or burns out if I have to actively converse with more than about five new people at once.

Reading new fiction is very much like meeting new people for me. It’s much more difficult to sympathize with or even enjoy the company of a legion of different characters. So I avoid writing entire armies.

I choose this not only in solidarity with my ideal reader, but because I want to spend quality time with the main characters I create. I want to get to know them better. If I had a cast of thousands in my next novel, I’d either have to spent extra time on each one, making for my own epic-length novel, or worse leave the characters flat  and unexamined in order to save time.

Thus far, only my very first novel goes so far as to offer multiple points of view. The time may come when I adopt that format again. What I won’t do is fill a stadium with characters that even I, the Autistic author, can’t keep track of.