Puzzling People: Fictional Characters with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (55+)

There have always been people significantly challenged by the intricacy of neurotypical social interaction and communication. Only in the last few decades have they been described as being on the autistic spectrum. Particularly since these memorable people can add misunderstanding— hence interest—to plots, many writers over the last 200 years have included them in novels and plays.

We will use current psychological and medical knowledge to gain insight into some familiar characters created by writers from the 19th century, including Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot; the early 20th century, such as Edith Wharton and Tennessee Williams; and contemporary times, including Barbara Kingsolver and Graeme Simsion. In a lively and interactive way, we will aim to increase our understanding of people we meet in both fictional and daily life.

Note: This course involves required reading.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

What will I learn?

Week 1: Introduction: Characters with “Classic”, Instantly Observable Traits

We will study excerpts from: Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853) by Herman Melville, and The Speed of Dark (2002) by Elizabeth Moon.

With additional excerpts from: Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen, The Overcoat (1842) by Nikolai Gogol, The Secret Agent (1907) by Joseph Conrad, and The Glass Menagerie (1945) by Tennessee Williams.

Week 2: Focused on Facts: Savants, Scholars or the Seriously Obsessed

We will study excerpts from: Middlemarch (1871) by George Eliot and Losing Nelson (1999) by Barry Unsworth.

With additional excerpts from: Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte, Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) by Jules Verne, The Stone Carvers (2001) by Jane Urquhart, Cutting for Stone (2009) by Abraham Verghese

Week 3: Oblivious Fathers

We will study excerpts from: Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen, Emma (1815) by Jane Austen and Animal Dreams (1990) by Barbara Kingsolver

With additional excerpts from: Family Album (2009) by Penelope Lively, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2005) by Marina Lewycka

Week 4: Minimally-Maternal Mothers

We will study excerpts from: Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen and Passing On (1989) by Penelope Lively

With additional excerpts from: Mansfield Park (1814) by Jane Austen, The Blue Castle (1926) by L.M. Montgomery

Week 5: Awkward Suitors

We will study excerpts from: Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen and Northanger Abbey (1818) by Jane Austen

With additional excerpts from: The House of Mirth (1905) by Edith Wharton, The Norman Conquests (1975) by Alan Ayckbourn

Week 6: Potential Life Partners

We will study excerpts from: Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen, The Rosie Project (2013) and The Rosie Effect (2014) by Graeme Simsion

With additional excerpts from: Four Letters of Love (1997) by Niall Williams, The Family Man (2009) by Elinor Lipman, Daughters-in-Law (2011) by Joanna Trollope

How will I learn?

  • Lectures
  • Discussion (may vary from class to class)
  • Papers (applicable only to certificate students)

How will I be evaluated?

For certificate students only:

Your instructor will evaluate you based on an essay, which you will complete at the end of the course. You will receive a grade of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

Textbooks and learning materials

There is required reading for this course.

Students will receive handouts each week with extracts from the novels to be considered. The first week’s handouts will also include information about autism. It is not necessary for students to obtain any of the books listed above.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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