M.E. Reid on putting autism in the spotlight

When 17-year-old Del starts a rock band in an attempt to deal with his parents' impending divorce, he follows in the footsteps of countless teens in both fiction and the real world. What sets Del and his bandmates apart: they all have Asperger's syndrome.

As the mother of two autistic boys, Autism Spectrum Disorder - including Asperger's - has been a part of author M.E. Reid's life for a long time. The Turing Machinists is her first book for teens. In her own words, Reid explains why she wanted to write a book from the perspective of an autistic teenager.

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A personal touch

I was newly single, and people were giving me advice about how to live my life. They were concerned about the boys, and were asking if I was going to put my son Max in a home. He's high-functioning, but he's very volatile and he had lots of anxiety. I would never even consider putting him in a respite home, but what I realized is that people don't really understand autism. I get asked about it, and I find that I have to tailor my explanations because people want things in sound bites. What's out there now is very medical, because people want to know the facts: it's a neurological disorder that affects behaviour, that affects processing of information.

But you say that, and then you see a glaze come over people's eyes. They'll nod, but they don't really get it. I'll explain to my family that Max can't go to the restaurant right now because he's had too much socialization, and they'll say, "Oh, he'll be okay." It's not that people don't want to understand, but I think they need to experience it, to observe an autistic person, and to know that it's developmental, it's a spectrum of disorders, it's a different way of thinking. It's hard to teach people something that's not visible, but that comes out in behaviour.

Memoir or fiction?

People asked me, "Why don't you just write a memoir?" I thought about it a lot, but the market is saturated with so many nonfiction books, medical books and memoirs about autism. Those memoirs are written by parents, and they're about their experience and from their point of view. I wanted to write something from my kids' point of view. The Turing Machinists is Max at 17.

Nonfiction will give you the facts, but do facts convey the truth? I'd like to have books written not just by autistic people, but for autistic people. Not just instruction booklets or nonfiction about how to fit in, because that's usually how nonfiction ends up going. I know we need them and they have value, but there are so many of them, and they always about telling autistic kids and their parents what to do so they'll fit in. They want to fit in, but they want to do it on their own terms.

Isolation and representation

With autism, there's a problem of isolation: "Nobody thinks like me. Nobody sees what I see." It's very difficult for autistic people to communicate about how they feel. As a society, we have a behaviour code, and if you do not follow the code, then you are isolated. Society has to evolve, because when we evolve, we become more accepting. It's a slow process, but if it's out there and it's constant, autistic people will feel more confident. If they feel more confident, they're more able to speak up and join in, but they'll also be more respected if they choose not to join in. Because one of their biggest problems is with socializing, there is that paradox: they want belong, but they don't want to join in, and how can you belong without joining the group?

In the character of James Comfort, the band manager, everything is flipped: he's the one who doesn't belong, and he's the one who has to conform to their code. I hope the book will appeal to other Asperger's teenagers, who will see that they are being represented. They're marginalized and they're a tight group. The wider that gets, the more accepted they'll be, but they also have to accept the rest of the world. "Autism" is still a whispered word, and I don't want it to have to be whispered. I'm not shy about it.

M.E. Reid's comments have been edited and condensed.

Terms you'll learn when you read The Turing Machinists:

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