Of Austen and Autism

Of Austen and Autism

These days it seems like you hear about autism everywhere, and that includes in the world of Jane Austen. Some people say that Fitzwilliam Darcy, our aloof and haughty hero, typifies the isolation and lack of social graces that are the hallmarks of autism. In this, my first blog post on Austen Authors, I thought it would be interesting to take a deeper look at this question.

My own interest in the topic stems from having a child firmly on the autism spectrum, and from having several other close family members with Asperger’s syndrome (a milder form of autism). I live, eat and breathe autism every day. In fact, my writing career started in part as a response to the stress of having to deal with securing services for our daughter as she makes her transition from a school setting to an adult with autism. If it weren’t for autism and the therapeutic escape of writing Jane Austen fan fiction, I wouldn’t be posting on this blog today.

Darcy, we are told, is insensitive to the feelings of others, especially those who are his social inferiors. He’s haughty. He’s arrogant and more than a little proud of himself. He sits out dances if the mood takes him, rejecting the social requirements of the day. He feels free to meddle in the lives of others. More than that, he seems utterly oblivious to the effect he has on other people. Few men, for instance, would dream of insulting the woman they love even while they ask for their hand in marriage. In short, Darcy seems to live in his own insulated, hyper-rich, snobby world, unable to properly relate to those around him. In fact, he’s not all that different from the character of Sheldon (often described as autistic) on the Big Bang Theory.

sheldon

But take a closer look. Darcy’s actions are all about choices. He doesn’t sit out dances because he doesn’t understand the social rules; he sits them out because he does understand them, and he prefers not to interact with those he views as inferiors. He readily comprehends the various kinds of social gaffes committed by Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Bennet, the younger Bennet daughters, and even Caroline Bingley, and he has no problem using both verbal and non-verbal means to communicate his own feelings about them. His interactions with Elizabeth, on and off the dance floor, are both sophisticated and subtle. None of these are characteristics of somebody on the autism spectrum.

dance

This is not a person with a social or communication disorder.

Most importantly, Darcy is able to overcome his character flaws because of his love for Elizabeth, not because he suddenly overcomes a disability. He doesn’t need help to understand how badly he has treated those around him—he needs someone in his life who makes him want to try to do better, and that person is the one woman who will not accept him until he does. Elizabeth (and we readers) fall in love with Darcy not because he can’t help himself, but precisely because he can.

So no, I don’t think you can make a strong case for Darcy having autism.

But if you want to make a case for this guy having a social and communication disability

collins

I won’t argue with you.

Here are a couple of links in case you want to read more about the debate over Darcy being on the autism spectrum:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1547881/Why-Mr-Darcy-was-the-strong-but-silent-type.html

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2007/apr/04/dontdiagnosefictionalcharac

 

Now for a GIVEAWAY! To celebrate joining Austen Authors, I have three eBooks available to those who comment below, plus as an extra-special bonus, one FREE paperback copy, signed! You can specify which of my four books you would like. The giveaway will end at midnight EDST on June 30th. Good luck!

61 Responses to Of Austen and Autism

  1. Your observation is accurate; Darcy does recognize his behavior faults and works to correct them. In my experience with students who are on the spectrum, they have no self awareness that their behavior is lacking in any way. It simply is the way it is.

    • Thanks, Regina. My daughter and other family members are often mystified and sometimes horrified when their unusual behavior is pointed out to them. They just don’t get it. Oh, the stories I could tell! Fortunately, social skills training helps with those deficits quite a bit.

  2. Hi. I once heard the autism label put on Darcy, but I think your explanation negating that hits the mark. After all, in canon, Jane has the Colonel remark that Darcy is completely different when among family and friends. I myself have always been very shy and it is still hard for me to interact with new acquaintances till I get to know them. I think in the past, people have labeled me as proud or snobby when I was just too shy enter the group discussion.

    Enjoy your writing and would love to be entered in the drawing. Ebooks are better for me as I have some trouble reading print from a book.

    • Autistic people are often more comfortable around people they know and are able to open up more, but Darcy opens up just fine whenever he chooses to do so. I’m not even sure he qualifies as shy. True shyness, however, such as yours, can be a disability all on its own. It’s too bad it’s not more recognized as such.

  3. I find it fascinating how we apply current understandings of, for lack of a better term, mental disability to see how they match up or fail to do so. I often wonder if we try to read to much into the past or whether new interpretations make things interesting. Something to think about.

    • I have come to the conclusion that we very often do. That is, we try to look at the past and interpret it with the knowledge we have today. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not.

  4. I also have a son who is autistic. I totally agree with your conclusions. Darcy is to socially sophisticated. He knows what is acceptable and what is not. You are correct about the fact that he makes choices where a man with autism would be socially clueless.

  5. I suggest that everyone who’s interested in this topic read the book that was referenced in the articles that inspired this post: “So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in Pride and Prejudice.” It should be in many public libraries, or if you’re a member of JASNA, I believe they have a copy you can borrow.

    IIRC, Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer wrote it in tandem with her MSc thesis. She’s a recently retired executive member of JASNA as well. It’s a fun book, and refers to eight P&P characters. The author is educated on both autism spectrum disorders and Austen and she makes some interesting points. Darcy is just on the boundary from her perspective, but others are a bit more of a slam-dunk! In comparison, I know a teacher of autistic teens who is convinced Darcy is an Aspie.

    I find that P&P readers analyze Darcy very differently, as some suggest that characterizations in some novels are OOC when they’re easily supported by canon. Fanon and the adaptations form our stereotypes of Austen’s work as much as the originals. What we choose to believe are “essentials” have become personalized and subjective in many cases. That’s the core of the proud or shy argument, and how educated individuals can attribute modern diagnoses to Darcy when others strongly disagree.

    Fun choice of topic, Elaine! Thanks for bringing it to us!

    • I can possibly see Mr. Darcy being on boundary or very very high functioning end. We hate change but for the people we love we can try and sometimes succeed in changing for them, or at least in my experience. We never knew how certain clothes/fabrics felt to him or if he could only handle certain foods due to texture which is another big Aspie thing and would probably be the deciding factor in this case. Just think if he was an Aspie, no matter how high functioning one, that makes what he all did for Elizabeth more romantic.

      • Thank you for the resource, Suzan! I’ll have to look it up. No doubt lots of people have different opinions on this topic, and there’s certainly room in the tent for all of them. Amanda, I agree that the presence of sensory issues would probably change my opinion on this.

  6. While I can see their arguments, Darcy,if autistic, could never change his behaviour for the love of Elizabeth. In P&P he sees the error of his way and changes. Austen ‘s Darcy was a bit of a pompous jerk, my favourite Darcy is terribly shy and awkward, which is a sort of disability in itself.

    • You’re right! Being shy and awkward is a kind of disability all on its own, and one that people are slow to recognize sometimes, which can make it even worse!

  7. I never agreed that Darcy is autistic but I didn’t have enough knowledge to argue why. This article makes perfect sense.

  8. One of the many reasons I love reading JAFF fiction is for the insights authors are able to succinctly pen in their works. Not only can they be timelessly relevant, they can also transport our beloved characters into a more modern setting, and through the familiar eyes of Darcy and Elixabeth, we can see our own circumstances afresh. While I’ve not applied the autism filter to P & P, I do find the concept intriguing from the perspective of how differing abilities were perceived and “managed” at different times in society, as well as the potential touchstones this kind of application could render for those seeking out examples to help educate and encourage people in like circumstances. As with any “advice,” I share my comments with the caveat that many of us who write or read JAFF do not possess the scholarly or clinical credentials to pass our words off as the Gospel truth. However, the exploration of relevant and timely concepts and ideas not only provide us with a means to share and affirm common experiences, it brings us back to the essentials of the power of the written word-whether inspired by or the trusty original itself, writing helps us to grapple and gain something ephemeral yet tangible-a greater understanding of ourselves.

  9. I was a semi-late diagnosed Aspie at around 11-13 by my wonderful psychiatrist at the time. I’ve had multiple people over the years tell me that I don’t actual have it, including some people doing a Neuropsych ordered by my Neurologist (Lets just say I have a lot of medical problems and with the Neuropsychs I was alone in a room with an adult for over 5 hrs, I was going to talk her and be friendly.), but I’ve been one who doesn’t too much of a problem with people older and younger than me. Now I don’t know about Darcy but I wouldn’t completely rule out Jane just because she was the observer of the human nature as she was. Now, I don’t know what they all used for the traits and behaviors she displayed to diagnosis her but I know that women with Asperger’s including me learn how to “fit in” a social setting for at least a little bit by trial and error but also by observing and studying others. I’m not saying that we don’t have problems with social interaction, miss cues or have a hard time reading facial expression but we do better than our male counterparts and can fake it for a short amount of time in public. There’s one thing to remember too no one person on the Autism Spectrum is the same, some of us have harder times with socializing while others its more sensory problems.
    Enough with all that, I love the sound of One False Step and would like to be entered into the giveaway please.

    • I love hearing from someone on the spectrum! Yes, every case is different but I think a lot of people put Jane on the spectrum simply because she liked to be alone while she was writing. You and I both know how very wrong that is!

  10. Hi Elaine, thanks for your insight into the topic. I’ve heard people label Darcy as austic too and never agreed with them. Your article basically disproved the theory.
    Thanks for the giveaway too.

  11. Hi Elaine, Thank you for the insightful comments. I have heard of Darcy being in the Autism spectrum before, but have never quite believed it. I think today’s society is too quick to label individuals tather than accept people for who they are.

  12. Welcome, Elaine, and thank you for your post! I would never think that Darcy was autistic, and I loved your take on it! Cheers!

  13. Welcome Elaine. Thank you for this wonderful thought provoking post. Our society is so quick to put a label on someone.

  14. Totally agree! No way was Darcy autistic. Honestly, I’ve always thought he was just as Austen wrote “clever…haughty, reserved, and fastidious.” I’ve also always thought that Col. Fitzwilliam hit it perfectly about Darcy’s social failings: he just wouldn’t give himself the trouble to try to relate, leaving all the responsibility on others. I’ve also always thought that was one of the reasons Darcy and Bingley were already great friends at the beginning of the book. Bingley was just the sort of person to happily put forth the social effort for both of them, and not likely to take offense at having to do so.

    BTW, I think it would be fun if someone would write a variation where Darcy had a sibling with a mild form of autism (high-functioning Asperger’s perhaps?). Not severe enough to be locked away, but enough to cause embarrassment on occasion. Maybe he’d be a little more willing to accept those with eccentric relatives? After all, he doesn’t have a title to get people to overlook his social offenses (like Lady Catherine–I’ve always thought a case could be made for her as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder; she’s just so over the top about having things her way!).

    Thanks for the post!

    • Of course by the end of P&P, Darcy has realized that a) he’s not perfect himself and b) he has relatives just as eccentric as Lizzy’s. Therefore he makes an effort to be sociable even with Mr Collins.

  15. An interesting piece. Doctors and educators, and often parents, seem far too eager to paste a disability label on children who, in another time, were simply “being children* and needed more discipline (for anyone who thinks this means punishment, please look it up on dictionary.com). I have no doubt that autism and its variations exists; I am, however, not convinced that it exists in the numbers that doctors, educators, and parents would have us believe. Giving one’s child a label and the accompanying medications is certainly easier than disciplining the child. Having recently witnessed the horrifying results of medicating a child versus disciplining a child (a friend’s son tried to commit suicide), I am appalled when people apply these labels so casually. And when the label is applied casually to a fictional character such as Mr Darcy, it casts doubt on the accuracy and credibility of labeling any child. (I have never seen the referenced TV show so cannot comment on it.) Jane drew Darcy as a gentle man of his time and place. Please let us end the nonsense of explaining Jane’s description of his behaviour with an sadly trendy modern label.

    Welcome, Elaine Owen, and wishing you all success in your writing. (And do please enter my name in your giveaway; would prefer a signed paperback but am sure I will be happy with an e-book.)

    • There’s no doubt that a lot of what is called autism now went by different names in the past. Clearly this is an ongoing field of study. I’m just glad people like my daughter have resources now that they never had before. Thank you for your encouragement!

  16. Being a RN and working at a summer camp for autistic children, I have some knowledge of them. I also have a great niece and nephew with Aspergers. They are high functioning in some aspects and then they peak. They don’t have social skills and once they peak that is as high as they go.
    I don’t put Darcy in that classification. He was taught and with social classes as they were back in Regency times, they didn’t associate with the lower classes. Also, many were after him for his title, money or to take advantage of him. He was taught to be aware of his status. Also, being shy lead to his character.
    I also think back in that period, they put someone with a disability in an institution rather than keep them. Autism starts showing around 2 or 2 l/2 years of age.
    He also was smart, took care of his sister, managed an estate, counseled Bingley, married and had a family, had manners, managed finances. I think that was just his nature to be shy, reserved and stayed in his class until Lizzy came along!
    Thanks for your insight as it was interesting!

    • You’re absolutely right, Darcy showed many traits that have to do with executive functioning, such as managing finances and planning events ahead of time.

      As for the institution, the thought chills my blood. I’ve thought about writing a story where D&E have a child who is autistic, but the likelihood is that the child would be institutionalized, and I just can’t bring myself to write something so sad.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment!

    • I’ve always thought Darcy was judged by the first impression people got at that first assembly. He had just come from untangling his dear sister from Wickham and was hardly feeling like mingling with strangers. Of course he was distant and disdainful. If he’d come at almost any other time in his life, the people of Longbourn and Meryton might well have found him quite a different person and much more open to meeting them.

  17. First, welcome to Austen Authors! It’s great to have you here! Secondly, I think your insights were very well stated and respectful of differing opinions. I have seen people argue that Darcy was austistic. My son has recently got a diagnosis and there are some similarities, but the heart of Darcy’s actions are based on choice. Even his statement about not catching people’s tones shows an awareness of his social abilities that autistic people do not recognize. Some people are more socially gifted than others. Sometimes it’s hard work. And like most of us have had to learn, if you have a penchant for being misunderstood or giving the wrong impression, there are times when you are welcome to just be silent. As would have behoved Mr. Darcy to be at the Meryton Assembly. He instead chose to speak and took for granted that everyone would forgive him if not from knowing him then from his station in life. I rather think Elizabeth was the only person to have taken him to task in his adult life. It’s not so hard to believe.

    • Hi Rose! So sorry to hear about your diagnosis.The time immediately following a diagnosis is usually stressful and possibly a time of grief. I’m here to help you or anyone else who finds that they are walking that road. I’m sure we’ll be in touch.

  18. Great post Elaine! I am thrilled, soooo thrilled to have you with us on Austen Authors! This thought provoking post is wonderful, and an excellent sign of what is in store for our readers!

    As to your topic, I may be expressing an opinion not commonly shared these days, but I firmly believe far too many people (especially children) are labeled swiftly with some sort of -ism or syndrome rather than being appreciated for their unique personalities and characters, or simply given space to mature in their own time. That isn’t to say I don’t believe there IS such a thing as autism or ADD and so on. I just don’t believe it is nearly as rampant. And I speak from experience with my own son (as well as close friends’ children) who were labeled/diagnosed incorrectly.

    As for Mr. Darcy, I think it is ludicrous! Someone I once knew was adamant that Darcy had Aspergers, to the point of declaring loudly and arrogantly that one of the greatest, most renowned Austen scholars alive today was “absolutely wrong” when she gave a speech at an AGM (as the keynote speaker) on the logic behind every one of Mr. Darcy’s actions. Talk about hubris! Besides, if Darcy was afflicted with autism, even in a mild form, he wouldn’t have humbled himself to Elizabeth or ever seen the errors he had made.

    • You’re right about how Darcy would have acted if he truly did have autism. He definitely was not on the spectrum, IMHO. Now for the funny part: can you believe there are people who insist that Jane Austen herself had autism? Jane Austen, the keen, insightful observer of human nature? Somehow I can’t even justify that idea with a blog entry!

      Thrilled to be on board as an Austen Author! Thank you!

  19. Great read! It seems society is obsessed with labeling anyone who is not outgoing and bubbly as autistic. There is so much more to Aspergers than being shy and withdrawn.

    • Thanks Jenn! Yes, you are correct, there are a lot of people with Asperger’s who are more outgoing than anyone would expect, including my own daughter. Glad you stopped by and good luck in the drawing!

  20. Elaine, first I want to welcome you to the Austen Authors group. We are so excited to have you.

    Second, as a recently retired special education teacher, I have had firsthand experience with students with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. I agree completely with your conclusion that Mr. Darcy is not autistic. I would also question his having a social anxiety disorder as he has not shown manifestations or outward demonstrations associated with social anxieties [shortness of breath, sweating, anxiety attack, etc.].

    You nailed it when you said it was about choices. Yeah, Mr. Darcy chooses what he will and will not tolerate and how he will respond in social situations that he finds himself in or thrust in [by Bingley]. When you are at the pinnacle of the social circle in which you live, you can pretty much do whatever you choose and not worry too much about what others think. That was the life that Darcy existed in until he met a pair of fine eyes at an out of the way assembly. His life changed forever.

    Thank you for the chance to participate in the give-a-way. Add me to the list for an ebook. Again, welcome to our party. JWG

    • Thank you, J.W. I’m glad to be here! Isn’t it funny how everyone labels Darcy as autistic and overlooks Mr. Collins? Now there’s a man who has no idea how to function socially! LOL!

      • Yes, but Mr Collins tries hard. He thinks he knows the rules of society and follows what he thinks they are. He always does his best – he wants to marry a Bennet girl to make it up to them about the entail. He thinks it’s his job as a clergyman to counsel the Bennets to shun Lydia. He tries to dance. He thinks his proposal is generous. He is clueless, but in his own way conscientious. I think he is deserving of our understanding, amusing as Austen’s portrayal of him is.

  21. You had me worried when I first started reading this post. I completely agree with your conclusion and it bothers me that people try to put a label on everything. I always felt Darcy was a shy man that was uncomfortable relating to people that he didn’t know and to avoid interacting with them started behaving in certain ways in public and no one called him on it until Elizabeth. I agree they were all his choices and he even tries to explain several times why he is/was the way he is/was. I love a man who can learn from his mistakes. Thank you for the article and for the giveaway.

    • No worries! Other people might have a different opinion and I certainly would listen to their reasoning. But to me, to say that Darcy is autistic would violate one of the big points of the novel: love makes us better people. That’s an idea I really, really like.

  22. Hi, Elaine. I ran across a post that said Darcy was autistic recently and did a little research on my own. You explained it better than I would have, but I totally agree with you that he definitely is NOT autistic. With Darcy, it’s always about the choices he makes. And aren’t we glad that he chose to change because of his love for Elizabeth.

  23. Elaine, thanks so much for you post. We know so many throughout the JAFF community who have children with autism, in various degrees. It certainly is difficult and challenging. I never heard of the idea that Darcy may have had “autism” so I’ll have to take a look at your links. By the way, I love your stories, even though at the moment, Duty and Desire has me firmly behind the Blue Couch! Happy Writing! Jen Red

  24. I had never thought of Darcy on the aultism scale. Thank you for your insights, and I agree with you. It is precisely that he does know the social expectations that he acts as he does. I would like to read One False Step (I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Darcy’s Persistent Pursuit). Thank you for the giveaway and welcome to Austen Authors.

  25. I have never heard anyone say Darcy was autistic so I was taken aback by the beginning of your article. I’m glad your conclusion agrees with mine. Your Love’s Fool book sounds interesting…

    • Yes, it’s an idea whose popularity re-surfaces from time to time. I’m glad you took the time to read and comment. As for Love’s Fool, try it, you’ll like it!

  26. Nice, thought provoking piece and so timely Elaine. Autism is so many things but so many things aren’t Autism. Thanks for the insight.

    • Thanks, April! Autism is definitely many things, and it has certainly added to my life. Without autism I probably would not be writing JAFF! It’s funny how life works sometimes.

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