(First published June 21, 2013. TW for sexual abuse/assault in this one.)
Today’s Book: “The Lark and the Wren” by Mercedes Lackey
The Plot: A young violinist named Rune runs away from home and has adventures.
Autistic Character(s): Maeve, a kitchen drudge at the inn where Rune lives and works at the beginning of the story.
Let me say one thing up front: I didn’t read this book for the autism. It wasn’t on my list of planned Autistic Book Party books. It was a book my partner lent me because he thought I’d like it. Maeve appears only peripherally and only in the first few chapters, before Rune runs away. She is so minor that, even if her character was handled wonderfully, I would hesitate to recommend the book just for the autism. It’s a very small part of what the book is.
Autistic Book Party isn’t just about recommending books, though. It’s also about “what not to do”. So here’s how not to write an autistic minor character:
Told to sweep out a room, she would do so. That room, and no more, leaving a huge pile of dirt on the threshold. Told to wash the dishes, she would wash the dishes all right, but not the pots, nor the silverware, and she wouldn’t rinse them afterwards. Of course, if anyone interrupted her in the middle of her task, she would drop what she was doing, follow the new instructions, and never return to the original job.
When Maeve follows instructions in this manner, instead of correcting Maeve and giving her better instructions next time, Stara (Rune’s mother) makes Rune pick up the slack. (Not that giving her better instructions occurs to Rune, either.)
Other characters describe Maeve various ways. “An innocent.” “A little simple.” “A great lump.” The word “autism” isn’t used because it would be anachronistic, but with the literalism, the inattention to others and apparent emotionlessness, the constant tuneless humming, and other stereotypes, autism is the best word I can think of. If she isn’t autistic, she has a related developmental disability, and the same “what not to do” arguments apply.
The point of Maeve existing, as far as I can see, is to add to a list of problems in Rune’s life before she runs away. She has to do chores all the time instead of playing her violin; people look down on her because she’s illegitimate; her mother bullies her; the local NT girls bully her; the local boys both bully her and try to sexually assault her; and her co-worker is a disabled girl who doesn’t pull her weight. Oh, noes. *eye roll*
How Maeve feels about her duties at the inn is never addressed. I don’t mean we never find out; I mean it never occurs to anyone that Maeve has feelings in the first place. She tends to be expressionless and not to speak (I’m not sure if she’s actually nonverbal, or just doesn’t talk much), so everyone assumes she doesn’t have any emotional reaction to anything. Including the following:
But no call came, only the sound of Stara scolding Maeve, and Maeve’s humming. Rune sighed with relief; Maeve never paid any attention to anything that wasn’t a direct order. Let Stara wear her tongue out on the girl; the scolding would roll right off the poor thing’s back – and maybe Stara would leave her own daughter alone, for once.
(Out of context, this can be read as Stara giving a relatively mild reprimand. But every time Stara criticizes Rune, she uses very harsh and unfriendly words and Rune whines in the narration about how mean Stara is, so I think we can assume that whatever she’s saying to Maeve is at least as bad.)
Two comments on that:
 You can’t be intelligent enough to understand specific instructions about household chores (even in a very literal way), yet not intelligent enough to notice when someone is chewing you out for doing your work wrong. Language understanding doesn’t work that way.
 Just because an autistic person has no clear facial expression doesn’t mean they’re not feeling anything. Our facial expressions and other nonverbal communication tend to be weird. In fact, NTs often have as much trouble reading autistic body language as autistic people do reading NTs.
 Most people feel bad when being chewed out for doing their work wrong. It doesn’t take a lot of psychological study to realize this. Knowing that you slacked off or misunderstood something and being called out for it feels bad. When you try your best, followed the instructions carefully, and still get yelled at for doing it wrong, even though you don’t understand what you did wrong? That feels even worse. Especially when it is something that happens again and again, and you can’t figure out how to fix it, and you clearly must be a bad and defective person because you can’t stop getting it wrong and being yelled at. Ask any autistic person about this feeling, seriously.
Lackey seems to assume, not only that Maeve’s lack of expression betrays a lack of thought, but also that she isn’t thinking or feeling anything even when she does what she is good at:
There wasn’t anyone in the common room but Maeve, who was sweeping the floor with a care that would have been meticulous in anyone but her.
But it gets worse.
Continue reading “Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 5: The Lark and the Wren”