Autism in Fiction: ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ by Mark Haddon and ‘Shtum’ by Jem Lester

There’s a big push these days to read a little more diversely in whatever way you can. Sometimes it’s about the author’s gender or race. Sometimes about the main character’s gender or race. And sometimes? Sometimes it’s about reading books that tackle mental illness.

I came across The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon by happy accident. I’d heard of it, been told it was good, and bought it on a whim without bothering to read the synopsis. To be honest, it sat on my shelf for a while before I finally got around to reading it.

It didn’t disappoint. Told from the point of view of an autistic boy, Christopher, the reader is drawn immediately into his investigation of the murder of his neighbour’s dog. From there, a much more complicated story about love, betrayal and family begins to unfold.

Does anyone remember sitting in English class at school being told to show, not tell? Trust me, English teachers everywhere will surely be fawning over this book. That’s not to say that Mark Haddon falls into the trap of purple prose. It’s simply that he’s very good at allowing the reader to see what’s happening without explicitly telling them what’s going on. This is so incredibly cleverly done, with the reader suddenly realising that while Christopher is seeing all that the reader is seeing, he’s not making the same connections.

The story is captivating in its own right. But the execution? The execution is phenomenal. There’s no question as to why it’s become such a staple in the literary world.

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A few months later, I happened across Shtum by Jem Lester in my local library. Scrawled across the front cover was this:

“A darker, sadder version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but just as moving.” – Observer

Instantly, I knew that I was going to be picking this up. While the latter didn’t exactly excite me, I still found it a beautifully written tale and consider it a must-read. Shtum approaches autism from the point of view of Ben, who cares for his autistic son.

A big issue that is immediately introduced is Ben’s desire for his son, Jonah, to go to a school that he believes will best suit his needs. Unfortunately, the school he has mind requires the court to agree that there are no other schools in the area that could care for Jonah just as well. Ben’s wife, a lawyer, tells Ben that their chances of getting Jonah into the preferred school are higher if Jonah is being cared for by a single parent. And so, she leaves.

Ben, struggling at work, asks his father for help, and together they try their hardest to care for Jonah the best they can. This story is absolutely heart-breaking. It’s so clear that both parents adore Jonah, but that they’re both just really gosh darn tired.

Jem Lester, at the back of the book, talks about his love for Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and how it inspired and motivated him to write about autism for fiction. Although I don’t know if this really is darker or sadder than The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, it was just as heart-breaking and just as thought provoking.

I would recommend them both in a heartbeat.

So tell me, what are some of your favourite ways to read diversely? Have you read many books that feature main characters who are on the spectrum? And if so, do you have any recommendations?

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