Thursday, 12 January 2017

Autism and Pride and Prejudice

Yesterday, someone commented that it had been awhile since anyone did a remake of Pride and Prejudice and was asking for suggestions for actors to play Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.  I couldn't think of any, but it got me thinking about the plot.

The Bennett sisters are considered unsuitable marriage material, in part because of their poverty, but mainly because their family doesn't conform to social expectations.  All five daughters are out in society at once (rather than one at a time per the Victorian norm), they don't stick to appropriate topics of conversation, they speak their minds frankly, they flirt and don't guard their reputations.

As readers we root for the social rebel.  But in real life, society reacts the exact same way that it does in Pride and Prejudice, with a withdrawal and third party condemnation.  (By which I mean that everyone talks to each other about what a horrible situation the Bennetts are in but it's considered inappropriate to speak to them directly about it.)

It got me thinking about autism (as so many things do).  There's a parallel there, trying to navigate a world with arbitrary and unspoken rules that are unevenly applied.  In the Victorian age, the more wealth or status a family has, the more eccentricities are permitted.  Because the Bennetts are relatively poor, they must be above reproach.  In modern times, social rules are just as difficult to figure out.  They aren't logical, or consistent, which makes them baffling to all of us, but particularly to those with autism.

But it doesn't matter whether or not a person understands the rules.  They are penalized for  breaking them regardless of being aware of them.  Elizabeth Bennett realizes that her parents' decision not to curb their daughters has severely penalized their chance at a future (not realizing that it also made them interesting).  The daughters are punished for the failures of the parent.  Those with autism may be equally unaware of having violated a social norm, but they still face society's punishment for having done so.  And they often recognize that people are upset and withdrawing, but they can't figure out why.

In a way, this underscores the challenge that parents of autistic children face.  Where is the balancing line between having them conform to society's expectations and allowing the child's own personality and interests to dictate their actions?  As much as people can thunder that society should accept the non-neurotypical, the reality is that people will only accept so much deviance in a given situation.  But that point will vary from person to person and situation to situation, leaving no easy answers.  If the parent doesn't curb, the child's future happiness is at risk.  Too much curb, and the uniqueness of that child is sacrificed.  

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