UW Today

August 17, 2011

A murder, a mystery — and a glimpse of the face of autism

Its a common plot in mystery novels: An ordinary Joe minding his own business suddenly finds himself accused of a crime. Naturally, the citizen-turned-sleuth then sets out to solve the crime in order to clear his name.

And thats what happens in Jane Meyerdings new book, Mapping Charlie. But Meyerdings heroine, Kay Schneider, isnt focused on clearing her name. Shes trying to correct an irrational idea.

“She has a need for things to be rational,” Meyerding said. “For her to be suspected of murder just seems totally irrational and therefore unbearable.”

Jane Meyerding has written a book featuring a character who has autism and face blindness, both of which she herself has.

Jane Meyerding has written a book featuring a character who has autism and face blindness, both of which she herself has.Mary Levin

It isnt the reaction one would expect of the typical person accused of murder, but this person is anything but typical. Kay Schneider has autism, and along with it, a little-known disability called prosopagnosia, or face blindness. And so does her creator.

Meyerding, a program coordinator at the Jackson School of International Studies who has worked at the UW for 30 years, has had both disabilities since birth, but she didnt know it until she was in her 40s. Shes hoping that her novel will help make adult autism more visible.

“Most people dont seem to know that there are adult autistics, because all the things you read in the popular press are focused on children,” she said. “But children with autism do grow up.”

And when they do, they turn into adults like her and her heroine, Kay. As the book opens, Kay is taking a Latin class and one of her classmates is found murdered. Another student tells police that she saw Kay talking to the murdered man (the Charlie of the title) on the bus, and it turns out that Kay was the last to see him alive, making her a suspect.

When a detective asks her why she sat next to Charlie on the bus, she says, “I didnt know he was him. I only talked to him because of the wolf….”

“What wolf?…”

“On his shirt. Thats what I saw when I got on the bus. The lovely picture of a wolf….”

“So when you sat down next to him and started talking, it wasnt because you had been in the same class with Charlie for six months, it was because you liked his shirt?”

“Yes.”

The conversation illustrates Kays face blindness, a disability that means she finds it difficult to recognize people by their faces. Kay had been in a 30-student class with Charlie for two quarters, but she didnt recognize him on the bus because of her face blindness and the fact that he was was out of context in that setting. Naturally, its difficult for the detective to believe this.

Meyerding has had similar difficulties on a smaller scale in her own life. Although she says those with face blindness learn to recognize people in other ways — by their posture, movements, voices, etc. — there have been times when shes caused misunderstandings when shes failed to recognize co-workers. In fact, years ago when she saw news of a study on face blindness published in University Week, she sent email to her colleagues, referring to the article and saying, “If Ive ever seemed to snub you in the past, this is why.”

Meyerding said the character Kay is like her and not like her. Kays disabilities are the same and she lives in Seattle and works at the UW, but other things are very different. Shes physically different — tall and chunky where Meyerding is petite — and her family background is different. Meyerding was blessed with a supportive family, while Kay was not. In the book, Kays mother and sister live in Philadelphia and spend most of their time scolding her over the phone.

In real life, Meyerding said her family “did not consider normality necessarily a good thing or a status to which one should aspire.” They were also devoted members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), so that Meyerding was always surrounded by a group of people who “accepted me as I presented myself.” She was, she said, a “little professor” who related better to adults than to other kids.

But that doesnt mean shes always found living with autism easy. As a child she was isolated from her peers and had no friends “unless another oddball adopted me.” When she first went to college, she was lost without the structure she was used to and decamped with a visiting sister, leaving behind the scholarships shed been granted. She finally got her degree at age 44 while working at the University.

Although Mapping Charlie revolves around solving the mystery, it also shows Kay — a middle-aged woman — discovering and grappling with the issues presented by her disabilities. Like Meyerding, she first gets her information on the Internet. Meyerding initially found a listserv for people with Tourettes syndrome because she thought she might have that. As she participated, one of the listserv members pointed her to an article on autism through the lifespan and she recognized herself. She later sought out a doctor for a formal diagnosis.

Similarly, in the book, Kay learns about autism and face blindness (there is a higher incidence of face blindness among those with autism than among the general population) on a listserv and begins to understand for the first time why she relates to others as she does.

“I was very fortunate in my life to have two older sisters who taught me a great deal [about human relationships],” Meyerding said. “The character in my book did not have that and remained much more isolated and unable to understand why social interaction happens and what it does for people.”

In the course of the book, Kay reaches out to the partner of the dead man and, with his help, not only solves the murder but finds ways to relate to people that are comfortable for her.

Meyerding has done that too. She works part time because “I have a sense of responsibility that is a problem because I cant turn it off. I dont want a more ‘important job because it would overwhelm me.”

And shes managed to develop friendships by working over a long period of time with others on common projects. In her case, the projects were two small feminist journals.

Mapping Charlie isnt Meyerdings first book. She had another murder mystery published by a small press back in the early 90s, and shes contributed essays to books about autism. But when she became captivated by making teddy bears, she stopped writing to do that. Then the character of Kay appeared in her mind, and she knew she had to write about her. She used National Novel Writing Month in 2009 to crank out the first draft and decided to publish it herself in order to get it out quickly. Shes since written a sequel.

“I wanted the book out to see if it could do any good for people,” Meyerding said. “Theres a strong need for books with realistic autistic characters.”

Shes already had responses from people with face blindness, who have told her, “Finally, something that shows what life is like when you cant recognize people.”

Autism has mor
e visibility now, Meyerding believes, because of activist parents whose autistic children are now about to enter adulthood. “With the combination of people diagnosed as adults and these younger people coming up with their parents — Im hopeful there will be more awareness and more accommodation and more acceptance,” she said.