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When was the subject of autism first dealt with in speculative fiction? Some clarification is needed as to the meaning of autism. The word itself dates to 1910, when psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler coined it, but the word was used for “morbid self-admiration” until Hans Asperger redefined it in its modern sense in 1938. The correct answer, then, would be a work that explored autism in its modern sense in science fiction or fantasy, whether or not the author used the term autism, but not one that merely used the word autism in Bleuler’s sense of “morbid self-admiration.” The Wikipedia definition of autism is “a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior.” (I am aware that there are some problems with this definition, but as a nonspecialist I will have to let it stand, as my main point is to avoid speculative fiction that uses the word in Bleuler’s sense, which is even farther off the mark.)

Autism has been gaining increasing attention in SF&F during recent years. Nicholas Whyte provides a list of SF&F stories that include autism as a plot element. In the ISFDB, only five stories had the tag “autism” when I searched for it on Feb. 17, 2020. At present, the oldest is “The Lost Language” by David H. Keller (1934) and it is available online. It does not use the word autism, but describes behavior that the tagger considered to be autistic. In it, a boy creates his own written language while rejecting all attempts to have him learn his parents’ tongue.

There was nothing wrong with the boy’s body. But he would not talk. That is the way they put it. He would not talk.

There did not seem to be much mental deficiency. He learned to take care of himself, to adjust himself to his environment, to dress, feed, and amuse himself. He was really a bright, adorable, loving child. Accepting life as he found it, he lived in the home and with his family without in any way being a burden. At five years he was a little man, but he did not talk.

Does this constitute autism? I doubt it, especially as the touted explanation ends up as “inherited memory” of a lost language, but evidently the tagger thought so. Presumably there are other stories that have a more definite description of autism.

Almost as old is a 1947 story by “Lewis Padgett” (pseudonym for Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore), “Margin for Error”, which does use the word autistically, but in the Bleulerian sense of being self-centered, so this example must be rejected.

“Humans think autistically; they will always be convinced you want to rule their world. Their egotism will never let them admit the truth.”

The best answer will be one that uses quotations from the story as evidence that autism in its modern sense is described. However, the story need not contain the word autism if the description is convincing.

  • Re: "I doubt it, especially as the touted explanation ends up as 'inherited memory' of a lost language": I haven't read the story, but I could well imagine a science fiction story attributing a character's autism to a science-fictional cause. That doesn't mean the character isn't "really" autistic, it just means that autism has a different cause in-universe than in real life. – ruakh Feb 19 at 0:32
  • @ruakh I agree with your point, but I actually have read the story -- the link is in the post above if you care to see for yourself -- and don't think that it necessarily describes an autistic child. The child is repeatedly said to be entirely normal and outgoing in every respect but the linguistic. – Invisible Trihedron Feb 19 at 0:42
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    Check our Asimow's "Stranger in paradise" (1973). – vonbrand Mar 9 at 16:51
  • On the strength of the Wikipedia page about "Stranger in Paradise", I've tagged it with "autism" in the ISFDB. – Invisible Trihedron Mar 9 at 18:51
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Charlie Gordon in Flowers for Algernon (at least the 1966 novel version—I am less sure about the original 1959 short story) clearly is on the autism spectrum, in addition to his serious mental disability. The focus in the story is on the protagonist's initial retardation—his low I.Q., for example. However, he sometimes demonstrates behaviors that are characteristically diagnostic for autism. For example, when the other employees at the bakery where he initially works are (subtly mockingly) showing him how to fold a pastry, he stares obsessively at what they are doing with their hands—very typical autistic behavior. He also exhibits serious deficits in understanding other characters' emotions.

It is not clear that the author, Daniel Keyes, was thinking of autism when he wrote the book. However, he was a keen observer of psychological conditions and tried to base the character of Charlie Gordon on when he had learned from real individuals with mental disabilities. (He later wrote the another award-winning nonfiction novel The Minds of Billy Milligan, about a famous case of multiple personality disorder.) So, whether or not Keyes specifically envisioned Charlie as autistic (in addition to mentally disabled), Keyes ended up writing him that way—presumably based on his experience interacting with actual disabled individuals.

As pointed out in this 2000 article from Current Opinion in Psychiatry, comorbidity for autism and mental retardation is very common. According to the abstract: "About three-quarters of people with autism also suffer from mental retardation of varying degree."* So it is not surprising that Daniel Keyes' depiction of a severely mentally disabled individual (based on what he had seen in real life) also ended up describing an individual with significant autistic tendencies. (At one point, Charlie's condition is attributed by Professor Namur to pediatric phenylketonuria, although the whole episode demonstrates how much Charlie's own understanding of his condition has advanced beyond that of Namur and the other scientists—so Namur's bloviation may not have been intended to be taken as authoritative. In any case, autism/retardation/phenylketonuria comorbidity is fairly commonplace.)

*That statistic is for people who have what wave been considered the "classical" form of autism, which may be symptomatically more severe than other autism spectrum diagnoses, such as Asperger's Syndrome.

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    Here is a nice link as to why you shouldn't talk about autistic people as "hight" or "low" fonctionning: instagram.com/p/B76_sY4hgK6/?igshid=167m41tlmbh4v – Ælis Feb 19 at 12:03
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    Hey Buzz, your answer as is, makes me feel for some reason quite uncomfortable. I am a autist myself. And I can tell you for us autists, it is a real struggle always having to justify the impact it has on us, or even being faced with disbelief when disclosing our condition. The point is, autism spectrum isn't a scale going from "less autistic" to "more autistic". And hence comparing different forms of autism in their severity is causing an (wrong) common understanding of autism, which leads to autists without visual indication, not being acknowledged to face challenges, we in fact are facing. – Zaibis Feb 19 at 12:05
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    People on the autism spectrum don't "suffer" from it. Phrasing it that way is rude and you should edit. – Ælis Feb 20 at 6:32
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    I've rolled back your post again. Multiple people have asked you to modify your phrasing about autism. While you may not have intended to be rude when you initially posted this, it is very rude to ignore the people who are asking you to modify your phrasing and simply roll back their edits. Do not roll it back again. – Null Feb 20 at 14:55
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    Hey Buzz, I just made a meta post regarding this answer. I would appreciate if you could stop by, when you got a moment of time. :) scifi.meta.stackexchange.com/q/12930/44517 – Zaibis Feb 26 at 8:01
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Martian Time Slip by Philip K. Dick (1964) has an autistic boy, Manfred Steiner, as an important character. There are some evocative passages that hint at Manfred's perspective, in which the normal human world is reduced to 'gubble'. For example, in Chapter 9:

Somberly, Jack returned to the job of piloting the 'copter. Leo looked out the window, contemplating the desert below. Manfred, with the taut, frightened expression on his face, continued to draw.

They gubbled and gubbled. He put his hands to his ears, but the product crept up through his nose. Then he saw the place. It was where he wore out. They threw him away there, and gubbish lay in heaps up to his waist; gubbish filled the air.

Later in the book there is the `The Gubbler', which I interpret as a personification of Manfred's incomprehension of society and his perception of the endless increase of entropy:

Like overripe puff balls, her boobies wheezed as they deflated into flatness, and from their dry interiors, through the web of cracks spreading across them, a cloud of spores arose and drifted up into his face, the smell of mold and age of the Gubbler, who had come and inhabited the inside long ago and was now working his way out to the surface.

The dead mouth twitched and then from deep inside at the bottom of the pipe which was the throat a voice muttered, "You weren't fast enough." And then the head fell off entirely, leaving the white pointed stick-like end of the neck projecting.

Jack released her and she folded up into a little dried-up heap of flat, almost transparent plates, like the discarded skin of a snake, almost without weight; he brushed them away from him with his hand. And at the same time, to his surprise, he heard her voice from the kitchen.

"Arnie, I think I'll go home. I really can't take much of Manfred; he never stops moving around, never sits still." Turning his head he saw her in there, with Arnie, standing very close to him. She kissed him on the ear. "Good night, dear," she said.

Manfred's experience of time and his apparent ability to predict the future are important to the plot.

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    As someone with Autism I have to say I find nothing in this even remotely relatable. This sounds like full blown hallucinations. – Parrotmaster Feb 19 at 13:58
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Not sure about "first", but the 1973 Asimov story "Stranger in Paradise" makes it pretty explicit that it's protagonist Randall is autistic, and that a rogue scientist, William Anti-Aut, is the only one interested in dealing with this condition.

I an't find my copy due to a recent move, but if the name is not clue enough, the Wikipedia entry for the story suggests that the story is indeed a story about autism. As pointed out in the comments the full text is available at archive.org.

I am not an expert on autism by any description, but as far as I can tell, the stories view on autism are a little dated. Randall is described as a sort of socially inhibited savant, who only finds happiness after removing himself from human company by remotely inhabiting the body of a robot that strolls through the desolate terrain of planet Mercury.

It's Randall who is in paradise [not the robot]" said William, "He's found the world for whose sake he autistically fled this one. He has a world his new body fits perfectly, in exchange for the world his old body did not fit at all".

FWIW, on re-reading (skimming,really) the story it seems Asimov was not very interested in autism per se, and just used it as a foil against which the family story of William Anti-Aut and his brother plays out.

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    Hmmpf. Even the Wikipedia page gets it wrong. No human operates the robot. It is automous. Its "brain" is, however, not actually in its body. The positronic brain is separate because of high radiation levels on Mercury which would destroy the positronic brain. The robot has normal electronics controlled by radio from the brain at a safe distance from the sun. – JRE Feb 18 at 11:41
  • @JRE: I think that Eike Pierstorff and Wikipedia have it right. The big reveal at the end of the story is that the "Mercury Computer" controlling the robot is [the brain of] the autistic kid we'd met earlier. The word "positronic" doesn't appear even once in the story. – ruakh Feb 19 at 0:44
  • While on Asimov, Mark Annuncio in Sucker Bait shows some autistic traits as well, even though he is never diagnosed as such in the novella. – SQB Feb 19 at 9:15
  • @JRE The main point I remember about why neurotypical human minds couldn't handle the environment was that the light-speed delay between where the controller could safely be located and where the robot was operating imposed an enormous time-lag in the sense/response loop, and Randall was uniquely not bothered by this. ISTR a more mundane VR-like setup, not consciousness-transfer to a positronic brain, but it's been years and I'm nowhere near my copy so I'm not disputing it. That detail is somewhat optional, though (assuming we believe in the concept of consciousness-transfer). – dgould Feb 19 at 18:57
  • Hmm, not entirely optional, come to think of it -- if it was a positronic brain, I'd think the time-lag could be handled by under-clocking. So it works better with a (fully immersive, Matrix/"brain-in-a-vat"-style) VR interface. May have to try and dig up my copy. – dgould Feb 19 at 19:05
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This depends on how broadly you interpret "dealt with". Autistic people were around long before the term was codified, and since authors often draw from RL people for inspiration, it's possible to find seemingly autistic characters going way back.

For example, the Professor Branestawm series by Norman Hunter, first book published in 1933, features an absent-minded professor who would almost certainly be considered autistic today. I don't have access to a copy so I can't provide quotes, but this blog post discusses Branestawm from a neurodivergence perspective:

Professor Theophilus Branestawm is a creator, an ingenious bringer of novelty into the world, who has seemingly no insight into the way his creations will be received: no notion, or at best a very erratically calibrated notion, of social utility. He invents because it is in his nature to invent: because that is what a professor does. Depicted in illustrations by Heath Robinson as a shambolic figure in haphazardly-selected clothes, his bald head covered in pairs of spectacles he has forgotten he is wearing, he is reclusive, scatterbrained, unworldly and scarcely capable of looking after himself: he depends on his housekeeper, Mrs Flittersnoop, to restore and maintain order around him. His unimaginative but stalwart friend Colonel Deadshott, a uniformed military man, is on hand to smooth over interactions with the wider world of authority and everyday social norms.

Branestawm has long been a model for children with neurodivergent traits—not of good conduct, but of self-acceptance and self-delight. He is arguably the autistic “little professor” writ large, valued, appreciated and indulged.

Some other points from my own memory of the books:

  • Hyperfocus: Branestawm is often oblivious to the world around him because he's lost in thought; at one point he's mistaken for a waxwork.
  • Communications deficit: he's so literal-minded that when he sees a sign saying "Pedestrians must cross the railway line via the footbridge", he interprets as a command to cross the bridge even though he didn't actually want to cross the railway line.

Caveat: The first two books appeared in the 1930s, the rest not until the 1970s, and I'm not sure exactly which points appeared in which book, but the overall characterisation was pretty consistent throughout.

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    Is the absent-minded professor, a stock character in short stories, TV, and film, often autistic? Well, apparently some people do think so. Of the real-life absent-minded scholars listed here, several may well have been on the autism spectrum: Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, Albert Einstein, Norbert Wiener, Pierre Curie, Nikola Tesla based on brief Web searches. We don't know enough about Archimedes' life to say one way or the other. Food for thought. – Invisible Trihedron Feb 19 at 0:38
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    @InvisibleTrihedron as an autistic person whose father is an absent-minded professor, I have my biases on that question! The point about changelings on your link also seems relevant here - it's really not that far from some of the modern "autism stole my baby" material. – Geoffrey Brent Feb 19 at 0:45
  • That's an interesting point, and I don't expect that the earliest story will be the most supportive of people on the autism spectrum. However, old stories that have scarcely any characterization, like the fairy tales of changelings, are unlikely to be convincing examples anyway. – Invisible Trihedron Feb 19 at 1:01
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    @InvisibleTrihedron I read those books as a child, more than 30 years ago, so it's hard to give you a definitive answer there. The stories were written as comedy for children, so the characters are exaggerated and not exactly complex. From what I recall it's probably fair to call them affectionate caricatures, and if I'd realised you didn't want caricatures, I probably wouldn't have nominated this one. But as a then-undiagnosed autistic kid, I did see enough of myself in that particular absent-minded professor to view him as a kindred spirit. – Geoffrey Brent Feb 19 at 13:26
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    It's a slippery slope, isn't it? The caricatures are part of history, in the same way that caricatures of black or gay people are part of history. And yet a caricature is a way of seeing people without really seeing them; the stereotype tends to drive the action, like the old trope of having gay characters commit suicide at the end of a novel. Maybe it would be better to address the question of absent-minded professors in another thread. Of course, this is not a chat group and we will be cut off if we discuss this much longer. But I must say I am learning a lot here. – Invisible Trihedron Feb 19 at 14:41
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Can I suggest Cavor, the eccentric inventor in Well's The First Men in the Moon, published in 1900?

Autism was of course not a diagnosis then, but people would have been familiar with individuals who would now be considered as autistic and writers will certainly have included them in character portraits. Probably the best example, though not from speculative fiction, is "Bartleby, the Scrivener" by Herman Melville.

Well's narrator (himself a wannabe writer) makes the same point:

[...] it had occurred to me that as a sentimental comic character he might serve a useful purpose in the development of my plot.

There is of course a tricky issue: we can note parallels between autism and the way that a writer describes the character, but this can only be a suspicion; we cannot make a definite diagnosis. That said, lets look at Cavor:

He was a short, round-bodied, thin-legged little man, with a jerky quality in his motions; he had seen fit to clothe his extraordinary mind in a cricket cap, an overcoat, and cycling knickerbockers and stockings. Why he did so I do not know, for he never cycled and he never played cricket. [...] He gesticulated with his hands and arms, and jerked his head about and buzzed. He buzzed like something electric. You never heard such buzzing. And ever and again he cleared his throat with a most extraordinary noise.

Cavor is a man of precise but absent-minded habits:

"Oh! to-night! Let me see. Ah! I just glanced at my watch, saw that I had already been out just three minutes over the precise half-hour, decided there was not time to go round, turned———"

"You always do."

He looked at me—reflected. "Perhaps I do, now I come to think of it.[...]"

Later on the narrator describes Cavor's unworldliness and monomania:

When he said it was "the most important" research the world had ever seen, he simply meant it squared up so many theories, settled so much that was in doubt; he had troubled no more about the application of the stuff he was going to turn out than if he had been a machine that makes guns. This was a possible substance, and he was going to make it! V'la tout, as the Frenchman says.

Beyond that, he was childish! If he made it, it would go down to posterity as Cavorite or Cavorine, and he would be made an F.R.S., and his portrait given away as a scientific worthy with Nature, and things like that. And that was all he saw!

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An SF movie with a possibly autistic character is War Games (1983). The protagonist seeks guidance from two fellow hackers in a big computer room. One seems neurotypical, the other shows significant autistic traits:

  • Unusual prosody; a lack of understanding of how to use tone of voice and other cues in verbal communicaton.

  • Inability to understand other people: at one point his colleague has to say (from memory) "You know you asked me to tell you when you were behaving in a rude and inconsiderate manner? You're doing it now!"

I know its later than pretty much all the literature mentioned here, but its the first SF movie which includes autism that I know of.

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