Autism and writing what you know

I give a writing craft workshop called Write What Your Family Knows. The concept is partly about research, partly about a writer’s life. By mining my family’s interests or careers, I have instant access to a (mostly) inexhaustible source of expert information.

Do I want an alpha hero? Little brother is an Army retiree. Do I need a teen character to have a fun hobby? Just say “anime” to my baby girl, and I’m her captive audience for hours. These conversations are two-for-one; I get fabulous research and an opportunity to involve my family in my writing.

But here comes the tricky part. There is an ethical dilemma when using what my friends or family knows. Have they revealed something they might later regret if it appears in a book? Might readers assume that a character’s fictional belief or behavior belongs to one of my loved ones?

Which brings me to…autism.

I am an autism mom. I’ve rarely talked about that outside of close friends and family–believing it’s my daughter’s story to tell, not mine. In the early years after her diagnosis, she would’ve agreed. She simply didn’t want it discussed. But she’s reversed that stance in her adulthood. It was partially through her encouragement that I wrote a YA contemporary with a main character on the autism spectrum.

Fade to Us released in February. It’s a story about a newly-blended family with two teen stepsisters. Natalie has Aspergers. Brooke is neurotypical (“allistic”) and is the sole POV character. The reader gets to learn about Natalie through the mostly-reliable and well-meaning Brooke.

I bumped up against the ethical dilemma as I was creating Natalie. I wanted her to be a sympathetic, flawed, multi-dimensional teen on the autism spectrum. But Natalie couldn’t be a clone of my child, and I wanted Dear Daughter 2 to be clear about that.

Here are some of the steps I took to create a character who was both realistic and not my daughter.

  • Pets: A big, visible personality difference is Natalie’s love of dogs.  DD2 is more of a cat person. This might seem insignificant, but it was huge for us. If you ask my daughter how she knows Natalie isn’t a clone, the immediate response is “Natalie likes dogs.”
  • Physical appearance: I made their physical differences striking. Tall versus short. Waist-length ponytail versus short bob. Brown eyes versus blue.
  • Birth order: DD2 is the youngest in a family of four. Natalie has spent 15 years as an only child of divorced parents. Then, in the space of a few months, she becomes a middle child, with an older stepsister and a baby half-brother. This new reality feeds the main subplot–since routines are critically important to most people on the spectrum.  

No matter how hard I tried, though, there had to be some high-level commonalities. Big Sister is overly protective of Little Sister. A person with Aspergers is often a loner, speaks with gorgeous diction, and has an excellent memory and a great sense of humor. Some children on the spectrum will experience melt-downs. Many want loving connections but struggle with how to express what they need.

DD2 served as my sensitivity reader. And despite knowing that I’d tried to keep their personalities distinct, there was an instance where she couldn’t tell. In one scene, Natalie’s father and stepmother are having a brutally-honest argument about how to manage her behavior.  When DD2 came across that scene, I received a text.

HER: Mom, is that how you feel about me? 

ME [blinking back tears]: No! I will never put my private feelings about you in a book.


Have you had a similar experience with writing what your family knows? If so, how did you make it clear to them that your fictional character was fictional? Leave a comment and share your advice.

April is Autism Awareness Month. How has autism touched your life? Tell us what you’re willing to share; one commenter will win a copy of Fade to Us (print or e-book.)


Elizabeth Langston is a YA romance author. Set in a summer musical theater camp, her book Fade to Us (writing as Julia Day) tells the story of a teen, her autistic stepsister, and the boy they both like–in different ways. Learn more about Julia/Elizabeth at .

18 responses to “Autism and writing what you know”

  1. Rebekah Simmers says:

    Excellent post. This is something that I have thought about a lot with my writing. My WIP deals with military families, though set in medieval times, so that allows me to use my experiences as a basis, while making them appropriate for the time period. Several of my characters have traits from people that I know in real life, but like you said, I think it is important to use them as inspiration and not literally. I have five children, three of who are high functioning on the spectrum. Another testing for Asp. or ADD. I’ve drawn some from this family dynamic/experience and I hope to use what is beautiful and powerful from it, if that makes sense.

    • Julia Day says:

      It makes complete sense to me. You have to find a delicate balance, between creating a character who embodies what you know is true and using your knowledge in an exploitive way. The thing is, though, that once you know it could be a problem, you’re on the path to solving it.

      That’s why it helped so much to have my daughter do a sensitivity read. Some of Natalie’s behaviors and characteristics were true about my daughter–but they’re also true about many on the spectrum. My daughter was comfortable that I’d created a unique character who represented Aspergers accurately (Although she did ask me to change some things, and I did.)

      Best wishes with your WIP–and your beautiful and powerful family.

  2. Jennifer Bray-Weber says:

    Excellent and informative post, not to mention moving. I know how hard it must have been to explore and write that book. But how wonderful that you have. I’m sure it has brought you even closer to DD2…and made you both stronger.

    • Julia Day says:

      Thank you. Yes, it did bring us closer. It allowed her–at some level–to see that I was trying to understand. And it gave us space to talk about a lot of things. The blessing went both ways, I hope.

  3. Fabulous post, Beth. I definitely mine my personal experiences for material and these are great tips for keeping the veil between fiction and reality intact.

    I happened to write Always a Bridesmaid when my BFF was getting married (I’d already plotted it out when she got engaged, but the timing just lined up that way) – and when she read it she called me, worried that she had made me feel as isolated as my heroine felt – which of course she hadn’t. It hadn’t even occurred to me that she would see herself in the bride – they were so different! I explained that for dramatic conflict I took everything to the extreme and put my heroine under the most emotional stress possible, and of course I hadn’t felt that way. It’s fiction! But I suppose it’s a compliment that it feels real enough for someone to worry that it’s true?

  4. Rita Henuber says:

    What a beautiful post. How can we not put experiences into out stories? No family has asked about characters but I’m not finished writing. 🙂

    • Julia Day says:

      I agree; it’s hard not to include what we know. But I’ve held back for a long time about some things (like autism or being in the military), and I’m finally letting that reluctance go.

  5. Great post, Beth! I love novels with diverse characters. It makes a story’s whole cast seem less like cardboard cutouts. I’m presently writing a 13-year-old boy with Downs Syndrome–but not because it’s something I KNOW. In fact, I’ve had to do a lot of research for it.

    My character was inspired by an awesome reality show, Born This Way. I also loved the Netflix series Atypical. I hope they produce another season.

    • Julia Day says:

      Atypical does a reasonably good job with autism. So does the Good Doctor. I love that pop culture is beginning to catch up and portray diverse characters as complete people.

  6. Fantastic post, Beth!!! I have written a couple of Deaf characters and that is definitely what my family knows. My oldest son is Deaf and I also have a Deaf nephew. My degree is in sign language interpreting, as well, so writing Deaf characters comes fairly naturally, though I do ask my son questions now and again.

    As yet, however, I haven’t written from the POV of a Deaf character. I think you are so brave to do that, Beth, and I love that your daughter helped you so much.

    Love love love this post!

    • Julia Day says:

      Thank you! I loved writing it (although…scary too).

      I still got a few things wrong. So even though I felt fairly confident that I knew how to develop the character, there were still subtleties I missed.

      I hope you do continue with adding diverse characters–especially where their diversity is just a thing, not a plot point. Natalie’s diversity was part of the plot, but I hope to write autistic characters in the future where their autism is incidental to the story.

  7. June Love says:

    This a moving and informative post, Beth. I’m so glad you had the to courage to write this and I’m sure DD2 is proud of you and how the book turned out. You’re a good mother!

    • Julia Day says:

      Thank you. She’s asked to give copies to her friends, so I’m going to assume she’s proud of it. (My daughter is brutally honest about what she thinks; no worrying about where you stand with her.)

  8. Addison Fox says:

    What an amazing post, Beth! I love what you’ve shared!!!!


  9. Your daughter’s comment made me teary. Great post Beth!

  10. Tamara Hogan says:

    This was lovely, Beth. Kudos to both you and your daughter for giving readers some insight into this experience.

    It make complete sense to me that topics which saturate our personal lives find their way into our work. It took me a couple-three books before I realized that ‘thriving despite health issues’ is an ongoing theme in MY work. 🙂

  11. Debbie says:

    What a wonderful blog post. Thank you. I have two sons with severe autism. Neither of them speak. At present I’m trying to write a book from the POV of a sister of a young man who is severely autistic. It is a challenge. My daughter has been a huge help to me.


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