Autistic characters have become more common in recent years as the condition has risen to the forefront of national discussions, with depictions ranging from strikingly accurate to unfortunately reductive. Romance author Kari Lynn Dell’s new book, Tougher in Texas, became a space to exorcise her very personal fears about perceptions of autism.
In many ways the hero of my new book, Tougher in Texas, is my worst nightmare.
Cole Jacobs is high-functioning autistic, in the range of the spectrum labeled as Asperger’s. So is my son. They share a lot of character traits, the most pronounced being difficulty interacting with other humans. In other words, they suck at small talk.
The difference between them is timing.
Logan’s kindergarten teacher immediately recognized that he was not neurotypical, which triggered a series of observations and screenings. All aspects of his school experience have been guided by an Individual Education Plan, right down to aides that observe and guide him on the playground. Legally speaking, if there’s a problem, the school is obligated to adapt to him, not vice versa.
Cole wasn’t so lucky. He wasn’t diagnosed until the age of thirty and suffered through thirteen years of education as that weird kid who doesn’t listen.
When I sat down to write Cole, I imagined what might have happened if my son had been born a decade or two sooner, before his condition would have been identified. But I also projected my fears for a critical point in Logan’s life—when he suddenly grasps that he’s not like other kids.
Psychologists have warned us that this is most likely to coincide with his first crush. Our job is be sure he doesn’t get crushed, at least not permanently like in Cole’s case. As an adult, Cole is the epitome of the strong silent type, but he confesses it hasn’t always been the case:
He ran his thumb back and forth along the edge of the table, the repetitive, tactile sensation grounding him. “People assume because I don’t say much, I don’t want anyone else to talk. But I like to listen.”
“As long as you don’t have to answer?”
“Depends. Ask me about feed supplements, I can go on all day.”
She laughed in patent disbelief. “That I would have to hear.”
“I used to talk a lot.” He pressed the pad of his thumb harder into the edge of the table.
Shawnee turned, a plate in each hand. “And then?”
“I got old enough to figure out I was doing it wrong.”
Right now, we are focusing on Logan’s autistic gifts. Because yes, along with the negatives we hear so much about, being on the spectrum can endow amazing benefits. My son is the happiest kid I know. Luckily, he suffers from little of the anxiety that can be debilitating for many with autism. He loves hugs. He can memorize reams of cartoon dialogue, poems and songs and play them back, mimicking any accent spot on.
Best of all—he could truly care less if anyone thinks he’s cool. In the toxic world of adolescence, that is a superpower. If only it would last through high school. Or ever better, adulthood.
And as the psychologist pointed out, what is a detriment in the education system often becomes an advantage later in life. Cole’s autism makes him compulsive about schedules and routines, which can be annoying, but also helps his rodeos tick along like clockwork. His obsession with every tiny detail pertaining to the care and management of his bucking horses and bulls ensures their safety and optimum performance. When he’s forced to also look after the human herd that makes up the Jacobs Livestock crew he tends to them in the same way.
Is it his fault that some people—yeah, we’re looking at you, Shawnee—don’t respond well to being micro-managed?
My son has also given me the gift of understanding—and forgiveness. I can now look at my dad’s side of the family and see that several people, including myself, exist either in or just outside of that same range of the spectrum. (Yes, in our case autism is at least partially inherited. In general, autism has been proven over and over again to be genetic in nature and unrelated to childhood vaccinations). I get why my grandmother gave every one of us a copy of Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Good Behavior for Christmas (which is actually a very entertaining read, by the way, with the author often digressing into expertly applied snark). For a woman whose routines were so ingrained she was upset for days after I parked on the wrong side of her bank and forced her to walk in the opposite door from her usual, etiquette was a predictable set of rules to guide my grandmother through otherwise painful social interactions—her version of Cole’s precious schedules.
Discovering all of this has helped me accept what I have always considered to be personal shortcomings. Turns out I just wasn’t designed to be that woman who still has deep connections to her high school girlfriends. I don’t bond easily and maintaining relationships will always be a low priority—not because I’m cold or self-centered, as I assumed—but because I am neurologically wired in a way that I don’t crave those connections beyond a select few, mostly family.
I’m pretty good with casual friendships, I’m your girl if you need someone to jump in and impose order during a crisis, but I barely even remember my own anniversary, let alone your birthday. I can, however, keep most of a four-hundred-page book organized inside my head.
And you know what? That’s a trade-off I’m more than happy to make, and I pray that eventually my son will find his special niche, too.
Kari Lynn Dell is a third generation cowgirl, horse trainer and rodeo competitor as well as the 2013 Canadian Senior Pro Rodeo Association Breakaway Roping Champion. She is also a humor columnist for several regional newspapers and a national agricultural publication. You can follow her on Twitter @kidell or visit her website at www.karilynndell.com.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Tougher in Texas.