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Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Corrina Lawson on Autism and Superpowers

NOTE: This installment of Special Needs In Strange Worlds features a guest post from author Corrina Lawson! – Sarah Chorn

Corrina Lawson likes to say she’s a writer, mom, geek, and superhero, though not necessary all four on the same day. Her fiction self is the author of the Amazon steampunk bestseller, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract, and the Phoenix Institute psychic superhero series. Her non-fiction identity is as the Content Director and co-founder of and co-author of GeekMom: Project, Tips and Adventures for Moms & Their 21st Century Families. She and her four kids have made an appearance together on the Take Me To Your Mother television show on NickMom.

Autism and Superpowers

by Corrina Lawson

Please don’t be the school, please don’t be the school.

It was the school.

When I first started writing my Phoenix Institute superhero series, I was well aware that the psychic abilities that my characters struggled with were stand-ins for issues that many struggle with in real life.

My telepath needs to shut out overly strong mental voices threatening to overwhelm her. My firestarter must control his fire and thus not be a danger to anyone. My self-healer is so used to going beyond endurance that he doesn’t know how to relax.

From a writing standpoint, it’s necessary. No character should be ultra-powerful and without flaws.

But from a personal standpoint, it’s so much more. The negative side effects of these powers are stand-ins for problems caused by autism, mood disorder and mental illness.

Why? Because I have kids who struggle with all those things.

But after a while, stand-ins weren’t enough. I’d started with metaphors because I didn’t want my children’s personal struggles to be the stuff of fiction or invade their privacy.

But using metaphors began to feel dishonest. I cringed when I saw young Clark Kent struggling with a classic autism over-sensory response in Man of Steel because I knew that this was a sign of extraordinary abilities for Clark, rather than the very real struggle to deal with sensory overload on a daily basis.

In The Curse of the Brimstone Contract, my steampunk detective novel, I gave the heroine’s father the intense meltdowns that can characterize some people struggling with mental illness. (Minor spoiler: his illness turns out to be partially because of outside magical forces.) I knew the heroine’s struggles to help her father would resonate with caretakers of those with mental illness but, again, I was using an analogy, a stand-in, a step removed from the real thing.

I couldn’t do that for the next book, Phoenix Inheritance, coming out next March.

Why not?

One, for the first time, I was writing a mother and her son, and her son had the psychic abilities which were causing him problems. I hated the idea of “oh, wait, this autistic kid? Not really autistic, he’s got powers!” Autistic kids don’t have superpowers. They are superheroes in how they deal with their special circumstances and they’re awesome but it seems to be white-washing their very real difficulties.

I refused to send the message, even in fiction, that autism could be “cured” by superpower.

And, two, of my kids was hospitalized several times this past year for serious and life-threatening issues related to his autism/mental illness. It broke my heart to see him so sick and it was a horribly difficult time for him as well.

Suddenly, writing about Charlie, the autistic eight-year-old in Phoenix Inheritance, became part-therapy and part determination to portray him realistically, for all the other autistic kids and their parents out there.

Because I want people to understand.

Charlie is autistic. His mother, Renee, routinely receives phone calls from the school that parents of special needs kid dread. Charlie’s impulsive, easily agitated, and overreacts to stress and sensory input. He’s also fun, intelligent, loves his superheroes and his pets, and a joy to be around.

Charlie also has the ability to speak to animals with his mind. But that doesn’t cure his autism, it just enables his favorite pet to be a better therapy dog.

It’s the hardest book I’ve ever written.

And that’s saying something because I’ve written an erotic novel with a three-way fertility ritual (Freya’s Gift), I’ve written a heroine who used to be an assassin (Dinah of Seneca), I’ve written a hero who gets off on pain (Phoenix Legacy), and I’ve written a heroine who is a Victorian seamstress when I knew nothing about sewing or fashion. (Curse of the Brimstone Contract).

I never worried about what people would think of these characters. They were fun to write, and it was fun to be in their heads.

It was make pretend.

Renee and Charlie are real to me. I’m terrified of what readers will think of them, especially because my critique partners kept saying “well, Renee’s kind of a bitch.” Hah. But they had a point. Renee is shut down emotionally because she’s too busy watching and worrying about the next crisis, all her focus dedicated to keeping Charlie safe. It leaves very little left of her.

But if readers don’t understand her, if they don’t empathize with her struggles to help her son, then I’ve failed two ways. First, in trying to entertain readers with a story and, second, in trying to help people understand what life is sometimes like with a special needs child.

And what about Charlie? Will people get him? Will they see him as a great kid who really can’t control some of his worst impulses? Will they think he’s spoiled rather than having a very real disability, for all that it seems invisible?

I don’t know.

I do know that I had to write the story because if even one person better understands autism after reading it, if even one person sees a child who seems to be too old for it having a meltdown in public and understands they can’t control it and parent and child are doing the best that they can, if even one person sees a special needs child having a hard time and empathizes rather than judges, and if even one person better understands the challenges parents and their children face, mostly invisibly every day, then it’s worth it.

Because that’s one more person who will better understand my child, one person who will have more compassion and understanding that they would have had if I hadn’t written the book.

It’s my hope that I can somehow make the lives of real-life kids like Charlie and their parents a tiny bit easier.

It may not work.

But I had to try.

8 Comments on Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Corrina Lawson on Autism and Superpowers

  1. Really enjoyed your post, Corrina!

  2. Excellent post! It’s very cool to see the combination of disabilities AND superpowers instead of a superpower stemming from a disability.

  3. Thanks for the replies. I was kinda shaking after I finished writing this.

    I could also say much on how those with “mental illness” in SF are later revealed to have psychic abilities that’s causing it. I know it’s a trope and can be useful but I always wince because it does a disservice to those struggling with actual mental illness.

    Or those memes that say “hey, the voices in my head prove I’m a writer.” No, not so much, because real voices in your head–and you’d know if you ever experienced it or been close to someone who experienced it–is a truly scary and terrifying experience.

  4. Great post Corrina! My nephew is autistic and it’s very difficult for my sister and brother in law to deal with how other people view their family and my nephew. Especially those who don’t know about his issues. It’s really sad that in the past our society dealt with people with special needs by locking them away and now this generation is dealing with the fall out – my sister’s mother in law can’t understand why my sister and her husband choose to keep their son at home, send him to school to interact with other children and treat him like he’s a normal part of the family. It saddens me to think of what would happen without people like my sister, and you, who chose to embrace your children for who they are and try to make life as full as possible. I’m very glad about the advances that have been made in medical science for special needs people and for the advances in social care and only pray that as more people become aware of these issues that they will grow socially conscious of the additional needs of special children and their families.

    • Well, they’re my kids and they’re awesome and I love them. I think every parent does that. I just wish they didn’t have so many obstacles. I feel for your sister and her husband in regards to the MIL. But they’re lucky to have you.

  5. I have a lot of physical disabilities and mental disabilities. I think dealing with the mental is a lot harder then the physical because of the outside world. People can see a wheelchair but they can’t see my complete agenesis of the corpus callosum that gives me my aspergers and a massive amount of other issues that have always caused people to see me as the weird guy. I can tell you that after a while you see yourself the way everyone else sees you. Your post is exactly what this blog is about. We need to see that we aren’t what everyone sees us as. We can do important things and contribute to the world in a good way. Change won’t happen unless we have more of these characters in books.

  6. Well said, Rob. Yes, change comes slowly but that’s what this series is about. The more people like you speak up and advocate for change, the better.

  7. (I should say that Rob’s comment has my picture on it because my brother sends his comments to me to post so I can edit them first…. It’s not fake. It really is my brother…. I just edit and post them for him.)

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