How a Romance Novel Helped Me Understand Autism

This post may contain spoilers for The Bride Test by Helen Hoang

I think of the autistic community as part of my neurodivergent family, but I know our brains are more like cousins than twins. There’s a lot of overlap between our experiences, but they are not identical. I’ve also spent only short bursts of time with openly autistic folks. As a result, my knowledge of what it’s like to be autistic comes primarily from three places: media, health and social work professionals, and #actuallyautistic Twitter and blogs. 

These sources, while informative to varying degrees, have their flaws. Although #actuallyautistic bloggers and advocates have taught me a great deal, my interaction with the authors has been limited to critical observations and brief glimpses into their lives. It’s the same issue with my experience with autistic people in real life– there’s no sustained relationship.

Professional writings are, by design, clinical. They lack a personal connection to the subjects. 

Most media outlets have significant improvements to make in the majority of their portrayals of autistic characters, many of whom are defined by a handful of autistic archetypes.

For these reasons, reading a romance novel by an #actuallyautistic author was a revelation. In The Bride Test by Helen Hoang, a meddling Vietnamese-American woman recruits a potential daughter-in-law (Esme) from Vietnam in order to convince her autistic son (Khai) to get married. The plot is not exclusively about autism; this is a classic (steamy) romance novel. Khai’s autism plays a major role in the central relationship, but it is treated as so much more than a diagnosis. The novel shows us how he lives his life, how he addresses conflict, how he works, how he grieves, how he loves.

The eight hours I spent with Khai are the longest amount of time I have spent with an autistic person, and not only did I spend that time with him but I also experienced his most intimate moments and thoughts, even the ones he would never say aloud.

There were things I was prepared for in this novel, but for every expectation I had about an autistic character, Hoang gave me an additional nuance or contradiction that provided me with new insight into the autistic experience. Most were things I knew to some degree but needed to feel in order to grasp them.

The Expectation: Autistic people have difficulty understanding social rules.

Possibly the best-known sign of autism is difficulty recognizing and responding to nonautistic society’s social cues. As expected, Khai exhibits this trait in the novel. Hoang makes reference to flashcards that Khai used as a child to learn facial expressions. In several other scenes, Khai is oblivious to Esme’s overt attempts to seduce him.

The Unexpected: Masking is an unrelenting effort.

What I hadn’t seen portrayed before was the constant, conscious effort Khai exerts to make others feel more comfortable. This practice, known as masking, is something many autistic people learn (or are forced to learn) in order to move through nonautistic spaces.

I’d previously read about masking and how tiring it can be, but seeing Khai make social calculations in his head helped me to experience it in a new way. Khai has memorized lists of rules that he follows in social interactions. He weighs the cost and benefits of his natural behaviors against his learned ones in every situation, like allowing his routine to be disturbed for Esme’s comfort. Every few pages, Khai had a decision to make. Thanks to the longer format of the novel, I myself was becoming exhausted by the endless navigations.

What’s hardest to watch is that, despite all of this effort, Khai still never “passes” as neurotypical. He and everyone around him still recognize that there is something different about him, and many (like his cousin on her wedding day or, at certain points, Esme) find his behavior offensive and disturbing. The reader can’t help but wonder how much happier Khai would be if he had permission to be himself, as nobody seems to benefit substantially from his efforts to mask his autism. 

The Expectation: Austistic people can have sex drives.

While asexuality may occur at higher rates in the autistic population, most autistic people do experience sexual attraction. Since The Bride Test is a steamy romance novel (prepare to blush!), I expected Khai to experience these desires. Esme is a hottie, and Khai definitely notices.

The Unexpected: Autism can complicate sex.

But, wow, is sex complicated for the couple! There are a few things at play here. First, Khai has some sensory processing issues. Soft touches, for example, are physically uncomfortable, so the physical logistics of sex require some negotiation and a lot of consideration from his partner.

Second, sex ed is pretty awful for everybody, but it’s especially lacking for people with disabilities. Most of what people learn from friends or the internet, Khai never picked up, probably due to a combination of thinking he would never need it, not knowing what he didn’t know, and being left out of conversations where such things are discussed. Certainly nobody ever walked him through navigating the physical and mental challenges he would encounter during sex. Khai received only the bare minimum education on sex and, as a result, was underprepared for his first sexual experience. 

Third, (and I’ll try to explain this without too many spoilers) Khai tries to implement the Golden Rule following his first sexual encounter. However, Esme doesn’t want to be treated the way Khai would want to be treated. Their brains are fundamentally different, and what seems to be considerate to Khai at the moment comes off as cold to Esme. This only confirms to Khai that his belief was correct: Because he cannot form a proper emotional connection with a partner, it is unethical for him to have sexual experiences.

The Expectation: Autistic people experience emotions, but they process them differently.

However, it’s clear to the reader that Khai can form emotional bonds. He cares deeply for his cousin, his mom, his brother. Khai’s emotions may not present in a way that is immediately obvious to a nonautistic observer, but they are visible in his actions. Khai works extremely hard to please the ones he loves. As his mother explains, if you tell Khai what you need, he will do it for you. Furthermore, despite his statements that he only experiences small emotions like frustration, we see Khai suffer profound grief as well as other strong emotions. 

The Unexpected: Autistic people can internalize the myth that they are unfeeling.

However, Khai doesn’t always recognize these emotions as what they are because he has internalized that the way he experiences emotions is invalid.

Throughout the novel, Khai characterizes himself as emotionless and computer-like and uses this perceived deficiency to distance himself from others, and from love in particular. Even when his brother plainly lists evidence to the contrary, Khai believes himself incapable of love, grief, and even happiness.

In the romance genre, the protagonists each have a flaw that keeps them apart. For Esme, it’s insecurities about her socioeconomic status and past. I was somewhat worried that Khai’s obstacle would be autism, but it’s not. Feelings of guilt and the misguided belief that he can’t feel hold him back.

I was familiar with the myth that autistic people are unfeeling and believed it thoroughly debunked. However, the myth persists and until The Bride Test, I had never considered the impact such a pervasive belief would have on an autistic individual.

The Expectation: Autism can make sensory experiences uncomfortable.

I’ve been learning more about sensory overload and processing disorders recently as they can also occur in folks with ADHD, so I wasn’t surprised that, in addition to challenges with touch during intimate moments, Khai is sensitive to sensations in a variety of circumstances. For example, Khai is overwhelmed by scent when Esme cooks with fish sauce. It’s so overbearing for him he must air out the room. He also requires haircuts to be performed in a very specific manner to avoid discomfort. 

The Unexpected: Heightened sensory awareness can be pleasant, too.

What surprised me were the small moments where Khai’s heightened sensitivity had pleasant results. Throughout the novel, Khai is able to appreciate small sensations that many of us would not perceive, let alone celebrate.

This unexpected feature to what is often only portrayed as a glitch was most noticeable to me in scenes with Khai’s carpet, an ugly shag relic. Hoang writes, “Heaven was bare feet sinking into his 1970s shag carpet. Initially, he’d hated it– the pea-green color as offensive– but walking on it felt a lot like taking a stroll in the clouds Mary Poppins style.” Khai gets a delightful satisfaction from the texture of it that left me smiling every time.

It’s a reminder to me that even the parts of neurological differences that are considered inherently negative can come with their upsides. Would Khai trade these moments of bliss to rid himself of his feelings of discomfort? I don’t know, and I shouldn’t assume I do.

The Expectation: Autism influences identity.

With so many autistic people preferring identity-first language and the rise of the neurodiversity paradigm, it’s clear that autism influences Identity. For Khai, it affects the way he dresses, how he schedules his day, how he decorates his home, and how he interacts with others. It is very noticeably as much a part of his personality as it is a diagnosis.

The Unexpected: Autistic people can have many intersecting identities.

That said, it isn’t his entire identity. Khai is a brother, a son, an entrepreneur, a Vietnamese-American. While autism affects the way Khai navigates the world, these other aspects of his identity also influence his movement through it.

It sounds obvious that autistic people also have multi-faceted identities, but how often do we see autistic characters presented in terms of anything other than their autisticness? I watch a lot of television, and I can only think of one autistic person of color from a tv show. I’ve never seen autism addressed from an immigrant’s perspective (“There was no such thing as autism or Asperger’s syndrome in the countryside of Vietnam.”), and it’s rare to see a successful autistic character without a focus on savant skills. Characters like Khai are important because they aren’t tokens; they are fully realized human beings. 

Like any identity, being autistic is something I’ll never fully understand without lived experience– but that doesn’t mean I should stop trying. Reading about autistic life from the fiction of #ownvoices authors may be one of the most powerful ways to build empathy and understanding for a population that too often receives neither from mainstream society. While processing differences can create a wall between autistic and nonautistic individuals, fiction may be the tool to break that barrier down.

Have you read The Bride Test? What are your thoughts? Share your recommendations of other #actuallyautistic, #ownvoices authors in the comments, too!

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