In the years since Ross started teaching special ed, he had seen a yearly rise in the number of kids diagnosed with autism and Asperger's syndrome (now redefined as autism spectrum disorder.) Ross had been attending continuing education classes on the subject and doing lots and lots of reading on the side. His experience influenced my third novel, where the mother of an autistic son refuses to have her younger child vaccinated.
Meanwhile, Jeff and his wife were raising their son Josh, who has Asperger's syndrome. (Autism spectrum disorder. Thanks a lot, DSM-5.) Not finding much out there in the early 2000s, Jeff wrote two well-regarded non-fiction books for Asperger parents and included an Asperger's kid in his Aaron Tucker comedic mystery series. Which Ross read for one of his classes, which he then passed on to me, which meant when I first met Jeff at the 2003Malice Domestic, I could tell him honestly that I had read his book and liked it. When Ross finally met him the next year, the two immediately began a conversation about autism. (NOT baseball, as the Yankees had beaten the Red Sox out of the World Series spot at the end of the previous season.)
When Jeff and Ross get together nowadays, they don't spend as much time talking shop - the autism spectrum kids in Ross's school are well-integrated into the programs, and Josh is a graduate of Drexel University's film and video program, looking for a full-time job like approximately 800,000 other twenty-five-year-olds.
But Jeff hasn't stopped writing about autism. He and the pseudonymous E.J. Copperman, author of the Haunted Guesthouse series, started the Asperger's Mystery series last year with The Question of the Missing Head, which Publisher's Weekly called "delightful and clever" and which contains the line “Who stole one of our frozen heads?” In his latest mystery, The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband, Samuel Hoening, proprietor of Questions Answered ("nothing like a detective agency") is called upon to answer the question, "Who is the man in my bed who calls himself my husband?”
The numbers are staggering. Now it’s estimated that one in every 44 children born in America has behaviors that would identify somewhere on the autism spectrum. That’s a huge statistic. And the behaviors range from some mild social anxieties to an inability to communicate and beyond. There are so many shades of color on the autism spectrum that a rainbow is far too inadequate a metaphor.
But I/we write books I’m hoping will make people laugh, and in the Asperger’s mystery series (astonishingly about to continue with The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband), the narrator and central character has a form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome. Although he doesn’t have that at all because the American Psychological Association has decided there is no such thing as Asperger’s syndrome. So obviously Samuel Hoenig is cured and we need to change the name of the series.
Glad we cleared that right up.
Anyway, until the APA made its decision last year, Samuel had Asperger’s, and he was diagnosed with it when he was in his teens. He’s now in his early 30s, I believe, although I’d have to go back to the series bible to be absolutely sure, and you don’t want me to have to do that, do you?
I didn’t think so.
The point is, autism is not a laughing matter. Families are strained (and in some cases destroyed) by it, people who have it can experience innumerable difficulties and suffer anything from slights at school to clinical depression because of their differences. It is something that requires serious thought and consideration, research and empathy. Autism is not something to laugh at.
That presents something of a problem when trying to write a funny book with a narrator who has a form of autism (no matter what they’re calling it this week). But it’s important in the Asperger’sMystery series never to make fun of Samuel’s autism. Under no circumstances would that ever happen.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I can’t have some fun with the way some people react to Samuel’s autism.
The comedy in that series is to see how some characters will respond when Samuel insists on conducting an interview while striding the circumference of his office, thrusting his arms above his head and trying to work up a sweat. His regiment insists on exercise every twenty minutes during the working day, and nothing will dissuade Samuel from that activity. So I let him go and watch the other characters as he races around the room. Their reactions are (hopefully) funny. His “eccentricity” is not.
Samuel also notices idioms and turns of phrase that many of us take for granted and wonders either what they mean or why they came to be at all. Tell a person with Asperger’s (see previous parenthetical expression re: name of disorder) you’re “just pulling their leg,” and you’ll almost certainly be asked why someone would want to do such a thing.
The Asperger’s books are not intended to be joke machines, like some previous series I’ve written (and future ones I might write). Samuel’s point of view is the focus, not being hilarious. But if you think I’m going to deliver a serious, dark, depressing view of a man with a tragic disorder, you have come to the wrong place.
Samuel doesn’t think his little corner of the autism spectrum is a jail cell; he believes it to be his own haven from the madness that goes on around him (that’s most of us). While not an unrealistically upbeat or saccharine kind of guy, he will not wallow in self-pity. Frankly, he believes most people act in ridiculous, borderline psychotic fashions.
And if you read the daily newspaper, it’s hard to argue with him.
E.J. Copperman/Jeff Cohen, either or both, write(s) the Asperger’s Mystery series, which continues (from The Question of the Missing Head) on October 8 with The Question of the UnfamiliarHusband. It might make you laugh. But not at autism.
You can find out more about the Asperger's Mystery series, and read excerpts, at E.J. Copperman's website. You can also peruse his blog, Sliced Bread, friend him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter as @ejcop. You can explore all of Jeff Cohen's books at his website, friend him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter as @jeffcohenwriter. Jeff also blogs at There's a Dead Guy in the Living Room, which, along with Jungle Red Writers, is one of the longest-running mystery blogs on the internet.