Rosie-Colored Glasses: Autism Spectrum and The Rosie Project
Graeme Simsion’s novel The Rosie Project (2013) is in many ways a conventional romance. The story centers on Don Tillman, a genetics professor who is in search of a life partner. But the real theme of the novel is Don’s experience on the autism spectrum. Throughout the novel, his hyper-rational approach to love creates the obstacles that he and the other characters have to overcome for the story to reach its happy conclusion. Don’s unfamiliarity with his own emotional world creates a delicious dramatic irony for the audience as we recognize his feelings for Rosie long before he does, and in the tradition of the romance, we root for the couple to overcome the obstacles that keep them from happiness. Novels from Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice (1813) to Nicholas Spark’s recent The Notebook (1996) follow this pattern. However, the obstacle in this case is Don’s cognitive difference, and this is where The Rosie Project begins to depart from the well-worn conventions of the romance.
Of course, The Rosie Project is not the first representation of autism spectrum (AS) in romance: think of the film Rain Man (1988), or the unpopular film Molly (1999). These characterizations of AS are very different from The Rosie Project, though; Dustin Hoffman’s character, Raymond, in Rain Man is not part of the romantic plot, because the story is not told from his perspective. How could it be? Love and romance are two of the most commonly shared experiences in our culture, but Raymond’s autism seems to place him outside of this key marker of social normativity. In contrast, The Rosie Project bravely tackles cognitive difference by putting its protagonist, Don, at the center of the plot. In this way, the novel departs from two important assumptions that Rain Man makes: first, that cognitive differences signal an incapacity to fully participate in normative culture; and secondly, that AS characters do not grow and change with events in the story. The Rosie Project is about how Don finds his way in this world, and about he grows as a person in the process.
From Rain Man to The Rosie Project
In the quarter century between Rain Man and The Rosie Project, cultural attitudes about AS have shifted considerably, and I think that Graeme Simsion’s novel is the first full representation of this shift. As an adult on the spectrum, I’ve been following depictions of AS for a long time in film, literature and TV. Like Don, I’m a high-functioning university professor; I have many of his challenges, and many of his advantages. I organize my time down to the minute; I can happily eat the same foods every day; and I have a hard time at social functions. My close friends and family patiently struggle with the many small mistakes I make everyday, just as Don’s friends do, and my minor triumphs and personally challenges are as much a part of my life as they are for Don.
For me, reading The Rosie Project was a revelation, because Don is one of the first three-dimensional representations of autism spectrum in popular literature. I had never seen aspects of my own personality made public in such a thoughtful and accurate way. Like most high-functioning adults, most of my life is spent passing, that is, doing my best to act like a “normal” person by masking my cognitive difference. There are many reasons for passing as an AS adult, but at bottom the fact is that cognitive difference is still not well understood, and the cultural pressures toward normativity are powerful, and sometimes unforgiving. It was strange and fascinating to find myself at a coffee shop overhearing people at the next table over talking about The Rosie Project with enthusiasm in ways that could have described my own differences. Contrast this to television shows like The Big Bang Theory, which have been criticized for their simplistic representation of AS. Like the two-dimensional representation of queerness in film and television in the past, up to now our cultural awareness of autism spectrum has mainly been characterized by stereotype, even though this doesn’t give much of a sense of the richness and complexity of cognitive difference.
- What the Heck Is an Emotion, Anyway ?
An autistic spectrum adult discusses the foreign world of emotions.
Seeing Things from Don’s Perspective
The Rosie Project gives Don a voice with which to explain why he likes to wear the same clothes, or what he sees as the downsides to an emotional approach to problem solving. What makes the novel remarkable is that his arguments about the contradictions and inconsistencies of social convention (arguments that I’ve made to friends as well) are situated in a context that a broader audience can connect to. We all know that love and romance are full of impossible contradictions. These experiences are often as painful as they are joyous. Don’s encounter with love bears all of the traces of these same struggles, although in his case they emerge from the fact that he is “wired differently” (as he says) rather than the external obstacles that normally make up the romance plot. By ignoring the cultural assumption that people on the spectrum can’t experience love, Graeme Simsion opens the way to a much broader exploration of life on the spectrum.
Here's an example of what I mean: At a key moment in the novel, during his trip to New York, Don begins to understand that he uses his strongly developed intellectuality to cope with feelings and sensations that can quickly become overpowering. For someone on the spectrum, feelings are most often experienced as threatening, signaling an oncoming breakdown that can trigger a terrifying loss of control. For most high-functioning adults, coping with this possibility involves mediating those feelings by taking charge rationally. The Rosie Project shows us that Don’s commitment to ordered regularity and his hyper-rationalism are actually one and the same thing: they are modes for coping with the threatening possibility of losing control. This makes his realization that he loves Rosie tremendously courageous, because it means embracing many of the feelings that he has had to learn to mediate. Embracing the contradictions of love means risking everything for Don, making him a romantic hero in the deepest sense.
Cognitive Prejudice in The Rosie Project
Let me explain what I mean by way of a comparison: In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy accepts the social risks of loving Elizabeth Bennet, demonstrating the capacity of love to overcome the powerful class prejudices of his time. Mr. Darcy shows Elizabeth that he is willing to chance throwing his ordered world into chaos for her sake. For Don Tillman, the risks are inverted, but parallel: his private world depends deeply on the structure he has given it, but he shows Rosie that his love for her outweighs his need to control his environment. Like Mr. Darcy, Don has to be able to grow and learn as a character in order to come to this understanding and become a romantic hero.
Graeme Simsion’s decision to give Don the capacity to grow is extremely important, because it not only allows Don to be included in the category of the traditional romantic hero, it also changes the notion of what a romantic hero can be. Cognitive difference is not like Mr. Darcy’s social prejudice, in the sense that it is not simply an external pressure that separates two otherwise compatible people. Rosie and Don do not struggle against society to realize an otherwise natural and profound like-mindedness: it is when they are alone together that they face their greatest challenges as lovers. The central issue in The Rosie Project is the world of cognitive difference, not society, making the novel’s plot tension an incompatibility that cannot be smoothed over by the social ritual of marriage.
However, there is another dimension to The Rosie Project that we can’t ignore: Graeme Simsion’s novel is a story of personal growth, or what in the 19th century was called a Bildungsroman, a novel of education. Whereas the marriage plot ends by tying up all the loose ends with social ritual (such as a wedding), the Bildungsroman proposes education as a continuous process. The plot of the Bildungsroman ends when the protagonist reaches a certain plateau of self-understanding, but the implication is always that this kind of exploration can go on indefinitely. The introduction of cognitive difference into the traditional romance opens the genre up to a much wider process of self-exploration and growth, precisely because there are no social rituals that can mediate these very personal differences. Simply put, Don’s love for Rosie will never be like Rosie’s love for Don. AS is not something that dissipates after marriage; if anything, it will intensify because Don will have a great deal more chaos in his life without the emotional equipment to cope with it.
This brings me to the most remarkable character in the novel: Rosie. Toward the end of the novel, Don comes to the important realization that no one is quite “normal.” His cognitive difference often sets him at odds from the people around him, but he grows to understand that no one exactly corresponds to the typical social codes that we live by. Rosie is his greatest teacher in this, as she proves again and again that she cannot be made into a “project” because she frequently doesn’t act in a consistent manner. Throughout the novel, Rosie works through these contradictions as she learns about her fears, just as Elizabeth Bennet uncovers her pride in Jane Austen’s novel. But Rosie also learns something very different during her process of self-exploration: she also learns how to communicate with Don on his own terms. During their important trip to New York, for example, Rosie reasons with Don patiently, coaxing him with arguments instead of getting frustrated with his rigidity. Rosie deeply engages with the challenges of AS, giving me hope that their marriage was really the beginning of a lifelong love affair with cognitive difference that just might bring them happiness.
Here are a few autism-related questions that you might like to consider as you read The Rosie Project:
1) Don’s way of understanding the world is front and center throughout the novel. What about his psychology seemed especially foreign? Conversely, what did you find yourself relating to in his non-standard perception?
2) How do you think The Rosie Project changed your attitude about people on the autism spectrum? Try to find one or two key examples where your ideas about cognitive difference changed as you were reading the novel.
3) Many of us know someone who is on the spectrum or has another form of cognitive difference. How did your experience with those friends of acquaintances shape your encounter with The Rosie Project?
4) Don often says that he does not have “emotions.” What do you think he means by this? Try to imagine a world in which you, like Don, did not experience your feelings in the way you are typically used to. What do you think would be the biggest changes in your daily life? Do you agree with Don's claim early in the novel that a life without emotion is better?
5) Graeme Simsion has written a sequel to The Rosie Project, called The Rosie Effect. If you have not yet read the sequel, take a moment to think about what daily life between Rosie and Don might be like. What do you think would be the primary challenges? What do you think would work especially well for the couple? What role do you think AS would have in their future together?