Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon is a near future thriller. (If you read the Amazon reviews there is some debate over how much of a thriller it is – don’t expect high speed action).
I first read it years ago, before I had kids, and was a different person. Why would that make a difference? Because my empathy for Lou, the main character, has undergone an enormous upheaval since then.
I was more self-centred before I had kids. Being a parent forced me to become more sociable; I had to talk to people for my chiildren’s sake, arrange play dates with complete strangers and then fill the silence while the kids were off in the ball pit. It made me see that so many people have hidden talents and fears that are not apparent on the surface.
What does this have to do with Lou? Lou is autistic. When I first read this book, about 15 years ago, autism was something that happened to other people. How on earth, I wondered, did the author manage a writing career whilst bringing up an autistic son? Surely that was impossible! She must be superwoman!
Skip forward to present day. Both of my kids have Sensory Processing Disorder, and one is on the autistic spectrum. (oh – that‘s how you cope!) Life doesn’t stop because you have another set of parameters to deal with.
(With Sensory Processing Disorder, one’s senses are substantially more or less sensitive than for ‘normal’ or ‘neurotypical’ people. Certain smells can make you leave the room, sounds can be unbearably loud, concentration impossible when your chair is too prickly, the light is too bright, or the label in your shirt is really annoying. These aren’t things you’re taught to look out for as a parent, so it’s been an uphill learning process.)
But back to Lou. Lou is pretty amazing. He’s in his 30’s, so you see someone who has come out the other side of learning to ‘cope’ in a neurotypical world. He’s completely self-sufficient, with a job that his skills are perfectly suited to. You see how his autism makes him such a brilliant individual, and how his friends wouldn’t want him to be any different.
But you also see the drawbacks and frustrations. He has to work through his own specific logic processes (A->B->C->D). And while that’s what makes him able to come to the blinding conclusions that most others would miss, his brain wouldn’t be able to cope with leap-frogging from A->B->D, even if that were actually a more efficient process.
We see how Lou feels about this. How his friends accept it, his enemies won’t, and how ‘normal’ isn’t truly measurable. Or, at least, it’s only measurable according to some rather unfair parameters.