Autism has been something that is coming up again, especially working with creating theatre for young people with learning disabilities or multiple and complex disabilities. I was encouraged to take the Autism Quotient test and I scored 35 which strongly indicates that I ought to look into it and see if it’s possible to get an appointment with the local autism diagnostic centre, which happens to be in the same building that I go to for general mental health and adhd stuff so it’s not like it’ll be hard to get hold of them because they’re physically there and can’t say “I’ll call you back” and then leave it for ages.
The more I talk with autistic people about the symptoms of autism, especially the social functioning aspects of it, the more I realise that I don’t have a neurotypical way of doing things. Like, I know people have found me a bit odd all my life but I’m finding that the unusual aspects of my behaviour are drawing parallels with autistic traits. I don’t really know how it makes me feel. I think there’s a part of me that’s really down about it because I thought that by now I’d done a really good job of learning how to be “normal” but it turns out that actually I’m still noticeably unusual and, the more I talk to people about it, it’s even been highlighted that there are things I didn’t think were atypical in my behaviour that are a little odd (or very odd in some cases). Like, I didn’t realise quite how abrupt I come across as. I don’t know. I feel quite confused and sad because I thought I was good at these things but the more I ask people that know me about them the more they confirm that I’m not good at the social things I thought I was good at. And I guess the people that like me aren’t bothered by it or accept it because they like me and they enjoy my strangeness so it’s never been mentioned as a problem, so I’ve never noticed it and it’s not really been brought up. Or maybe it has been brought up but I’ve been so adamant that I’m not doing anything wrong that people don’t bring it up again.
I’m also finding it frustrating that the questionnaires focus mostly on social stuff and things that are likely to affect others and there doesn’t seem to much to help me gain insight into the sensory processing and stimming side of it and to help me differentiate between autism and adhd with all that stuff.
It’s like the past 8 years have just been realising that so much of me and who I am is pathologised and I’m a collection of symptoms and it seems there’s barely a neurotypical thing about me, I’m entirely atypical? I dunno. It messes with my sense of identity when I learn that how I am is such a severe deviation from the “norm” that it’s classified in lists of symptoms. I know people say that they like my weirdness and they say asinine things like “well, what IS normal really?” Which is literally the most unhelpful thing that anybody could say but I have to agree with them because when I try to disagree I get talked over and they push this false notion that there isn’t actually a socially accepted idea of “normal” psychology and neurology and physiology and that everything outside of that spectrum is pathologised. Like, normal is a thing. And it’s a really powerful social construct. And it helps me when people acknowledge it rather than try to act like it’s nonsense.
Do you think that Erik was on the Autism Spectrum?
Hi Anon! This is a complicated question that merits a rather complicated answer, so please bear with me. :)
Please also bear in mind that I have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (formerly Asperger’s Syndrome), and that my answers are shaped by that life experience.
1) Do I think that Gaston Leroux, the man who created Erik, set out to create an autistic character? No, I don’t, because the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder didn’t exist when Leroux was writing.
2) Do I think that Leroux set out to create a character with what we would now define as a neurological difference, but which in Leroux’s day would have been defined as a mental disorder? No, I really don’t think he did. Please bear in mind that the list of psychiatric conditions that one could be diagnosed with was rather limited in 1909-1910, and Erik doesn’t really fit any of them. I think that Leroux was much more interested in emphasizing the “nurture” aspect of Erik’s behavior than the “nature” aspect of it — see below.
3) Do I think that it is appropriate for neurotypical folks to try and diagnose Erik with *something*, whether it be autism, or bipolar, or borderline personality, etc., for the sake of “figuring out what was wrong with him”? No, I really don’t think that it is.
First of all, for those of you who haven’t had a psychological diagnostic assessment, let me tell you, it is a *lengthy* process, requiring many visits to a psychiatrist’s or psychologist’s office. It isn’t like taking an MBTI personality test, or the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ) test that you can find online. It is highly rigorous, and requires the psych to go through an extensive set of tests. It also requires taking a history of the person’s life from childhood up to the present day, and often talking to the person’s family members. And EVEN THEN, psychs often can’t agree on a specific diagnosis! For instance, my first diagnosis was Nonverbal Learning Disability, and then I had two other diagnoses of Asperger’s Syndrome. However, Asperger’s Syndrome as a diagnosis has been removed from the DSM, and I now have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Do you see how INCREDIBLY imprecise a tool psychology is? It is not a hard science; it is a highly approximate description of a person.
There is no possible way that we could do a psychological assessment of Erik. We simply don’t have enough data on him. And even if we did have more data, if Gaston Leroux miraculously rose from the grave and wrote the prequel to Phantom (you know, the one Susan Kay should have written), it still wouldn’t tell us much because one of the most important parts of determining whether an individual has a psychiatric condition is if their behavior violates current social norms. Since the social norms in early 20th Century Paris when Leroux was writing (or in late 19th Century Paris when the novel was set) were different from our own, we could never use our current diagnostic assessments to diagnose Erik (or any historical character, for that matter).
Next, allistic (i.e. non-autistic) folks need to recognize that a diagnosis of autism is not an interesting personality quirk or a trendy fashion statement. There are certain tremendous gifts that I have from my autism, but a lot of huge drawbacks too, and it is a highly complex lifetime experience that should be discussed in an intelligent and sensitive manner. When people try and “diagnose” characters from literature with autism, they are taking what is an intensely personal experience for someone with that neurology and reducing it to a stereotype that usually ends up being ignorant and offensive. When an allistic person suggests something like, “Erik had really poor social skills; I wonder if he could have been autistic,” they have reduced the life experience of autism to a simplistic, black-and-white characteristic. Further, they are associating my neurology, my brain, with someone who was a violent, manipulative, lying control freak and criminal, and who had a tendency to kill people who got in his way. Maybe you can see why it would be offensive for someone to look at Erik and say, “I wonder if he had your diagnosis.”
Also, remember what I wrote above about psychs not being able to agree on a single diagnosis for a real live person that they have in their office (let alone a fictional character who existed in a different time period and culture). There are MANY different ways to explain a person’s behavior. I believe that Leroux was emphasizing the nurture aspect of Erik’s behavior much more than the nature aspect of it.
Remember that in the Epilogue, Leroux wrote:
“Poor, unhappy Erik! Should we pity him? Should we curse him? He only asked to be someone, like everyone else! But he was too ugly! And he had to hide his genius or use it to play tricks with, when, with an ordinary face, he would have been one of the most distinguished men in the human race! He had a heart great enough to have ruled the world, and yet he had, in the end, to make do with a cellar. Certainly we must pity the Phantom of the Opera!”
Leroux wasn’t trying to diagnose Erik with a psychiatric condition. His statement was that Erik was a product of his life experiences, which had contributed to him becoming the monster that we meet in the novel.
4) If you’re still with me, you get a gold star. :D Now, with all of that said, what I do want to emphasize is that if an autistic person wants to analyze Erik from an autistic standpoint, or write headcanons about Erik being autistic to help them with their own process of understanding themselves and their neurology, I say go for it! Headcanon away! Similarly, if you are bipolar, or borderline, and talking about Erik in terms of bipolar or borderline experience will help you on your life journey, go for it! Etc. I have zero problem with neuro-atypical folks finding parts of their favorite characters that they can identify with and using that to come to a deeper understanding of themselves. I think that that is great!
So to sum up my very long answer to your question, do I personally think that Erik was autistic? No, I don’t. But if you are autistic, and it helps you to find autistic characteristics about Erik, or to headcanon about him being an autie or aspie, then by all means, go for it and enjoy!