Speaking and Non-Speaking Characters

Today’s question is from Chordatesrock:

The reasons why someone writing a fictional autistic character would write the character as being able to speak or not being able to speak, and how that ends up forced into being a political decision in a way that the actual division of ability in real life is obviously not. Or… manifestations of disability in fiction, within specific diagnostic categories.

This is a good question! But I actually don’t see authors as being forced to make their characters’ speech abilities a political decision. (Except in the sense that the personal is political, everything is political, etc. You can’t avoid that one.) What I do see is that there are trends in how these decisions are made, and these trends have political implications.

The speaking / not speaking dichotomy is very strongly tied to the “high-functioning” / “low-functioning” binary. It’s more useful than functioning labels, because being able to speak or not speak is an actual thing that exists, not an artificial diagnostic category. Still, in practice, people often get diagnosed as “high” or “low” functioning based on whether or not they can speak. And so presenting someone as able or unable to speak often carries implicitly a lot of the same baggage as a functioning label.

As a result, what we see in most media is pretty predictable. Characters who can speak get written with all of the “high-functioning” stereotypes: clever, quirky, callous, annoying, and basically able to take care of themselves but failing comically in social situations. Characters who can’t speak are written as helpless, pitiable, disturbing, or at best the focus of inspiration porn.

Stories that break these stereotypes are often very explicitly political, as in “Difference of Opinion” by Meda Kahn, in which an autonomous but non-speaking character’s struggle against ableism is the whole point.

Writing a speaking or non-speaking character can be a political choice for other reasons too. In the worst case, non-speaking characters can be the focus of Autism Speaks-esque anti-autism propaganda. The character is portrayed as completely helpless, burdensome, and miserable in every possible area – which, of course, includes a lack of speech – and the message is, “See, this is what autism is REALLY like.”In cure decision stories, speech becomes kind of a big deal. A character can be portrayed as speaking in order to make it more credible that they’d be happy the way they are, or as non-speaking for the opposite reason – to make the message come across that much more strongly. (Both of these are pretty problematic, as are cure decision stories in general, but they are the actions of authors who are at least trying.)

Of course, in reality, there aren’t just two categories. Functional speech is made up of a number of receptive and expressive sub-skills. Many of us (including myself) appear to speak normally but have partial or intermittent problems with one or more of these sub-skills. And many are genuinely in the middle somewhere, having some speech ability but not enough to perform all the speech tasks that are routinely expected of us.

The stories I’ve seen that deal with these subtleties are usually by autistic people. “Meltdown in Freezer Three” by Luna Lindsey has a protagonist whose speech is extant, but visibly (audibly?) different. Draz from “Kea’s Flight” has specific speech differences including difficulties with word finding.

Here are some speech related things that I’d like to see more of in fiction:

  • Echolalia, scripting, and other specifically non-neurotypical forms of speech
  • Non-speaking protagonists who are cool and have agency
  • Characters who are minimally or moderately verbal
  • Use of AAC by both speaking and non-speaking characters
  • Characters who can both speak at a similar level of ability, but are wildly different from each other in some other area(s). Or, even better, a character who can speak articulately (by NT definitions of the term) but has more trouble in another important area than the non-speaking character. In other words, speech very blatantly NOT being used as a proxy for one’s level of ability in every other area, ever.

(You can still pick your own January blogging topic here!)