Susan Adrian on writing an autistic first person character in Forever Neverland
The characters in FOREVER NEVERLAND came to me nearly whole, even though they were originally in a very different setting. Fergus, an autistic 11-year-old boy, came first, followed immediately by his one-year-older sister, Clover…who is neurotypical but anxious. Their dynamic was what drew me. Fergus was always just trying to be himself, without judgment, and Clover always felt she needed to be taking care of him, even when he wanted independence. They had a single, working mother, so they relied on each other. Their relationship was loving but complicated. And on my first try, I only wrote from Clover's point of view.
I got to chapter 3 before I knew, absolutely, how wrong that was.
How could I tell an equal story while only narrating one side of it?
How could I tell an equal story while only narrating one side of it? Why shouldn't Fergus have his say? But I wasn't autistic, so how could I possibly tell Fergus's first-person POV the right way? I was terrified that I would get it wrong, that I would misrepresent, that I would do harm. The only way I would consider it was if I was sure that I had done my best to make sure Fergus was as accurate as he could be.
So I dove headlong into research, and I quickly discovered the dichotomy: there was the point of view of caregivers, parents, and therapists—and there was the point of view of autistic people themselves, and they often wildly diverged.
There was no question which I wanted to embrace
There was no question which I wanted to embrace. I watched many hours of YouTube videos made by autistic people (shout out to Amythest Schaber and her amazing Ask an Autistic series for answering So Many Questions). I read NEUROTRIBES, LOUD HANDS: AUTISTIC PEOPLE, SPEAKING, THE REASON I JUMP, and many more books by autistic authors. I read web posts, articles, and message boards, and followed a ton of wonderful #actuallyautistic people on social media.
And then I set out to write a story that was not about Fergus's autism, or Clover's perspective about it, or how it affected anyone else. Autism was just part of who Fergus IS, the same way anxiety was part of who Clover is. And then they had a wonderful adventure in Neverland. Their adventure is absolutely affected by the characters they are, but Neverland twists their dynamic in interesting ways. Suddenly Fergus is the one who "fits in"—Lost Boys and Lost Girls could care less if you flap your hands or associate colors with people or take a while to process words. Clover misses her rules and structure and adults far more than Fergus does. She fails, which she never does at home, and suddenly Fergus has to help her. She doesn't fit into Peter's idea of what a "Wendy" should be. The story alternates between Clover and Fergus's point of views, and it truly did become a very equal tale of a brother and sister growing together, in different ways. I did my absolute best to make sure they were both whole, rounded characters, never stereotypes.
In the course of my research, I also learned about how autism presents so differently in girls and women…and I found a great many aspects of it I identified with personally, especially when I was a kid. I do not classify myself as autistic, but boy did I find things about Fergus I could grab onto.
I do not classify myself as autistic, but boy did I find things about Fergus I could grab onto.
I too organize things into alphabetical "boxes" in my mind. I don't like high-pitched noises or people being too close for too long. I wish I had a recorder like Fergus so I could listen to conversations later, and decode what people meant, signals I missed the first time. But I'm also anxiety-ridden and rule-abiding and bossy like Clover. In the end I identify strongly with both of them, and writing Fergus was my favorite part.
I was terrified again when I asked autistic readers to give me their feedback, but so far I've been thrilled that the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. That still doesn't mean I got it "right" for every autistic reader, by a long shot—after all, if you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person. But at least I feel pretty confident that I got it as right as I could. I will also continue to support #actuallyautistic authors to tell their stories. We need more books out there about autistic kids just living their lives and having adventures, like it's a normal thing for protagonists to be neurodiverse. Because of course it IS. And should be.
Susan Adrian is a fourth-generation Californian who now lives in the beautiful Big Sky country of Montana. During college she spent a year abroad at the University of Sussex in England—which started a lifelong fascination with all things British, particularly British stories for kids. These days she splits her time as a writer, scientific editor, and mom. She is the author of the holiday fantasy NUTCRACKED and two thrilling books for teens.
She also keeps busy researching fun stuff, traveling, and writing more books. She's been to London many times, but hasn't yet been invited to Neverland. Follow her on Twitter at @susan_adrian, on Instagram at @suze_writer, and visit her website at http://susanadrian.net.
FOREVER NEVERLAND is the story of Fergus and Clover, who visit their estranged grandparents and discover they're descendants of Wendy Darling. Peter Pan whisks them to Neverland for an adventure with Lost Boys (and Girls), a mountain lion, mermaids, Greek goddesses, and a sea monster. Available from Random House Children's June 25, 2019.