Like “The Brady Bunch” on the Spectrum: An Interview With Donna Levin

Donna Levin is the author of the novels There’s More Than One Way Home (2017) and the forthcoming He Could Be Another Bill Gates (2018), both of which features characters on the autism spectrum. Audere Magazine talked to her about her new novel.

Audere: In October of this year CPB will publish your latest novel, He Could Be Another Bill Gates. What’s it about?

Donna: You could say that it’s The Brady Bunch with teenage boys on the spectrum.

It stars single mom, Anna, and her autistic son, Jack, looking for love. Each of them has a romantic interest, but most of all they want to create a new family out of the ashes of the old one that broke apart five years before.

It is largely about the competing demands of children on parents and parents on children, as well as the different kind of love between partners — partners present and partners past.

Like Anna, you’re a mother who raised a son who is on the autism spectrum, and this is your second novel with this focus. What can you tell us about the autism community?

 First, that it is a community.  And when I speak of the autism community, I mean not only those on the spectrum, but their families, friends, and all those who are committed to creating full lives for everyone.

My son was mainstreamed (that is, he attended a regular classroom with supports) throughout elementary, middle, and high school.  The zeitgeist here in San Francisco is such that we had little trouble with bullying—although a little trouble goes a long way.

He also graduated from one of the Cal State Universities, although he definitely needed some help with that.

But it’s really now that he’s out of school that he has a wide circle of friends, mostly among the neuro-diverse.  Neuro-diverse is in contrast to neuro-typical (often shortened to “NT”), and includes everyone whose brains work a little differently, from autism to dyslexia to ADD to Tourette’s.

This is where living in a city like San Francisco is such a plus.  Almost every weekend, there’s a street fair, or a chocolate festival, or an event in Golden Gate Park.  My son and his friends keep very busy.  He’s relentlessly cheerful and outgoing—and a big Giants fan.

Community is the future of people on the spectrum: parents, siblings, children, and everyone helping each other, socially, legally, politically.

What does the title mean?

Believe it or not, there are rumors in the blogosphere that Bill Gates is autistic, and there are people who genuinely think it’s true. Once at a party I mentioned this rumor to another parent, so that we could both laugh about it together, but she protested, “He is! Have you seen how he fidgets during an interview?”

Fidgeting during an interview, or even fidgeting all day, does not make a person autistic. My theory is that some parents of autistic children would like to think that Bill Gates is autistic because it means that their own kid might grow up to change the world and be a billionaire.

A character in the novel says to Anna of Jack, “He could be another Bill Gates!” Anna finds it patronizing, as would I.

Why do you find it patronizing?

In the context of the novel, it’s patronizing, because it’s spoken by a woman ignorant about autism, and trying to break off the friendship between her daughter and Jack.  But it’s also patronizing because it’s putting a person with autism into a box: If he’s autistic, he can only dream of being another Bill Gates, or a computer whiz at the very least.  That people on the spectrum love working with computers and are talented at coding is a stereotype.

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Jack is referred to as having Asperger’s Syndrome, and at other times as being on the autism spectrum.  What’s the difference?

Leo Kanner, working at Johns Hopkins in the 1940s, first identified autism as a condition separate from, for example, childhood schizophrenia.  The children he worked with were pretty seriously impacted.  At the same time, Hans Asperger, working in Vienna, identified children with similar features, but higher-functioning.  He sometimes called them “Little Professors,” because of their extensive knowledge of arcane subjects.

Asperger’s work was lost for some decades, for various reasons, a major one being that he pursued it during Nazi-occupied Austria.  Then in 1981, British psychiatrist Lorna Wing discovered some of his writings, and she was the one who coined the term “Asperger Syndrome.”  It was first included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by clinicians in 1994.  However, the latest edition (the DSM-V, published in 2013) has removed the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” and replaced it with the all-encompassing term “autism spectrum disorder.”  That was a good move, because autism spectrum is more accurate.

There’s another good reason, too.  We’re just now learning that good ol’ Hansie collaborated with the Nazis in a horrifying way, sending a number of children to the Am Spiegelgrund clinic to be “euthanized,” that is, murdered.  There have been rumors about his Nazi sympathies for years but only this year did medical historian Herwig Czech uncover proof in the form of documents he signed.

This is literally breaking news that’s likely to be controversial.  I suspect the term “Aspie pride” will drop out of the vernacular.  But He Could Be Another Bill Gates takes place in 2009, when it was in common use.

We’re in the middle of an epidemic of autism spectrum disorders.  What’s the cause?

Some sources will say that as many as 1 in 69 children will be diagnosed.  That sounds high to me, but it could be half that, or one quarter of that, and it would still be a sobering statistic.

As for causes, I’m not a scientist, but I can give you an overview of the opinion of the scientific community: better diagnoses, and (far) wider diagnostic criteria, for starters.  It’s pretty clear that genetics plays a part, but what genes are involved remains unknown, as well as what environmental causes might play a part.

What I’m very sure of is it’s not vaccines: the British scientist who proposed that has not only been discredited, but he’s retracted his own conclusion.  Parents who don’t vaccinate their kids are putting other kids at risk, and that concerns me.

A big theme of the book revolves around family dynamics. How did it all work out with your family? How do your other kids get along with your son?

 My son has three younger sisters.  They were all born into a world where my son was a given, and I think that helped.

They all went through the same K-8 school, but again, you have to be pretty accepting of others’ differences here — or at least pretend you are.  Then my kids went to different high schools, or were in high school at different times, so none of them had to deal with being “that boy’s” sister.

Living with a kid on the spectrum can be stressful, but a lot of family life is stressful.  I think it’s made my daughters become more compassionate, and more understanding of diversity, neuro and otherwise, in the world.

In the book, Jack falls for a girl who is not autistic. Do you see this happening with kids, or even adults, who are on the spectrum?

Yes, absolutely.  There are many couples within the community.  Sometimes they’re both on the spectrum; otherwise not.  One of the more damaging myths is that people with autism don’t feel the need for human connection.

How do you feel about the various public figures – and private figures – who self-diagnose? Garrison Keillor, for example, classifies himself as on the spectrum.

 Garrison Keillor?  Where have I been?  I guess I’m not spending enough time on the internet.

I think that people who can reach adulthood, let alone middle-age, without either a diagnosis, or a reputation for some offbeat behavior, are not autistic.  We’re back to the rumors about Bill Gates: just because someone is socially awkward, or has trouble making eye contact, does not make that person autistic!

Granted, our understanding of the autism spectrum has expanded dramatically in recent years.  And probably some of these celebrities are on the autism spectrum.  But I also see them as jumping on the diagnosis of the week.  Then they, and private individuals, can try to use it as a way to justify inappropriate behavior.

Maybe most of us have a touch of autism, when we like to be alone, or hum to ourselves, or memorize our favorite poems.

In recent years there’s been a proliferation of characters on the spectrum in fiction.

My impression is that it’s especially big in YA novels.  I speculate that much of the audience for those books are the siblings of teens on the spectrum: they can see their brothers or sisters in the characters, and hopefully empathize with their struggles.

There’s been a proliferation on television, too — even network television. Here’s the one problem: a greatly disproportionate number of these characters, in fiction and on TV, are autistic savants, like the young man in the new TV show, The Good Doctor, who’s socially awkward but a brilliant surgeon. Savants are as rare in the autism community as they are in the general population, but I fear that readers and viewers are getting the idea that everyone on the spectrum has some rare and wonderful gift. Jack can memorize brilliantly and keep track of time, but those skills aren’t useful in the modern job market.

What’s your favorite book that features a character with autism (besids your own, of course)?

That would have to be M Is for Autism.  The book is a result of a collaboration of the students of Limpsfield Grange, which is a school for girls with autism.  As I said, I think many of the YA novels about teens on the spectrum are aimed at the siblings, with the authors wanting to say, “you’re not alone.”  But this book is clearly aimed at kids who are themselves on the spectrum.  This is my favorite passage (it’s spoken by a therapist to the protagonist): “The truth is, you will need some support and guidance with life’s inevitable ups and downs but you can have a glorious, fulfilled life, M, and this is the truth, too.’ “

How has the autism community how have they reacted to you, a woman who is not on the spectrum, writing about them?

I haven’t had negative feedback yet.  Previously, though, when I wrote about a child on the spectrum, it was solely from the point of view of his mother.  In He Could Be Another Bill Gates I’m writing from the point of view of a teenage boy with autism, and I can imagine someone saying that I got it wrong, but I’ve worked really hard to bring this perspective to the page in an accurate and compassionate way, and so far the reaction has been encouraging.

The response to There’s More Than One Way Home was very positive.

I was pretty thrilled with the impact it had on people. There were book groups discussing it and it had a starred review in Booklist and there were other accolades but I’ll stop there before I sound even more full of myself.

What’s next?

My next novel is set in Marin County. It’s about four women who come together in a support group, bringing all their problems with men (and women), money, jobs — and the biggest Marin problem of all: a place to live. Lots of drama and maybe some melodrama. But anything drawn from real life will be well-hidden. I can’t afford to lose any friends.