Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve adored vampires. Ever since I was a little girl I’ve also had a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, and I’m starting to wonder if those two things might be connected. The classic Anne Rice vampire has a lot in common with someone on the autism spectrum. They like to keep to themselves, behave awkwardly in social situations and often come across as over formal thanks to their outdated language and mannerisms. Vampires avoid sunlight because it hurts their eyes, and the heightened senses they use to hunt aren’t all that different from the sensory overload many people on the autism spectrum experience in crowded places. I’ve had plenty of neurotypical people jokingly ask me if I was a vampire because I wear sunglasses outdoors to avoid eye contact and reduce light sensitivity. I don’t drink blood, and you will occasionally see me outside during the day. But at times I’ve felt I had more common with the fang baring, black cape swooshing monsters you’ll find in horror and fantasy novels than so called “real life” book characters.
Some of you will already know about Kathy Hoopman’s book All Cats Have Asperger’s Syndrome, which compares typical feline traits to the behaviour of people with high functioning autism in order to explain the disorder to kids. Nobody could find something as cute and fluffy as a kitten weird, so what’s so weird about autism? A friend of mine who has Asperger’s Syndrome (and loves cats) told me he was given a copy of All Cats Have Asperger’s Syndrome when he was younger, which helped him accept his diagnosis. I wish Hoopman had written something like All Vampires Have Asperger’s Syndrome for teenagers either going through or coming to terms with a diagnosis of autism. For me, it would have made the whole process much easier.
The first vampire books I remember really sinking my teeth into (pun intended) are The Count Alucard Vampire Adventure Novels by Willis Hall. Their protagonist is Count Alucard, a vegetarian vampire who drains the juice of innocent fruits (‘Alucard’ spells ‘Dracula’ backwards). I know, I know, vampires should be fierce killers, not smoothie drinkers. But I was about eight years old when I first clamoured for the vampire adventures of Count Allucard to be read to me. My sister, who loved the vegetarian vampire as much as I did, was five. We soon tired of the books we had, and begged our poor Dad to make up story after story about our favourite vegetarian vampire, which he did without complaint.
My love affair with vampires continued with other authors, including Darren Shan, who reminded me that spiders are the second most beautiful insect (the most beautiful being moths). I became vaguely aware of my Asperger’s Syndrome when I was about thirteen, which coincided with me borrowing my parent’s copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I didn’t know much about autism (and would have angrily denied my diagnosis to anyone who bought it up) but I knew others perceived me as different. I just couldn’t figure out how to interact with my classmates. I understood every word they said to me, and at the same time I didn’t, because subtext, metaphor, slang, sarcasm, and every form of none verbal communication were completely lost on me. I felt foreign, forever outside the norm. So I guess it only makes sense that I’d identify with another foreign outsider: Count Dracula of Transylvania.
In case you’ve not read it, Dracula isn’t written from Dracula’s point of view. It’s a mish mash of journal entries, letters and newspaper clippings. The reader learns about Dracula through other characters, like Lucy Westenra and Jonathan Harker. When Jonathan first meets Dracula it’s as a solicitor assisting him in the move from old world Transylvania to Victorian London. At this point in the book, Dracula is not portrayed as a supernatural creature, but as a lonely old man trying to connect with a world that doesn’t understand him. Like many people on the autism spectrum he spends a lot of time alone, immersed in his special interest. Dracula also makes up for his poor social skills by falling back on formal, outdated manners, such as referring to Jonathan by his last name.
When I first read this book, my special interest was of course vampires. Dracula has a very different special interest; London, which he studies with all the absorption and focus of an autistic child lining up their toy cars:
‘He was interested in everything, and asked me a myriad of questions about the place and its surroundings. He clearly had studied beforehand all he could get on the subject of the neighbourhood, for he evidently at the end knew very much more than I did.’ (Stoker, Dracula, p.27)
Of course, English is Dracula’s second language, and he expresses great difficulty in speaking it fluently ‘True, I know the grammar and the words, but yet I know not how to speak them’ (Stoker, Dracula, p.25). This is something Dracula and I have in common. From an early age I’ve loved reading, and learned new words from my books, but often pronounced them wrong because I’d never heard them aloud before. (This seems to be a common experience for people with high functioning autism). Like Dracula learning about English customs through literature, I tried to pick up social skills from the books I read.
While reading taught me long fancy words, it didn’t teach me the slang and colloquialisms children my own age were using. I still remember when I was at school and a group of girls asked me if I had a pussy, to which I responded matter of factly ‘No, I do not have a cat.’ They all burst out laughing and I couldn’t work out why. I had no idea ‘pussy’ was slang for vagina! (No wonder I preferred vampires to teenage girls, they might kill me and drink my blood, but at least they didn’t use modern slang to trip me up or get me to say something stupid).
What helped me relate Dracula is the fact that other characters perceived him as strange, especially during social interactions. Early on in the book, Dracula indicates he’s aware of his strangeness: ‘Well I know that, did I move and speak in your London, none there are who would not know me for a stranger. That is not enough for me.’ (Stoker, Dracula, p.25) Of course, at the end of the novel Dracula fails to conform to the social rules of London and is forced to move back to Transylvania, where he is pursued by Van Helsing. This awareness of your own strangeness, combined with a powerlessness to alter that strange behaviour, is something I still experience as an Aspie. When I make a social faux pas now, I’m generally able to laugh it off. But when I made that kind of mistake as a child (which was far more frequently) the mixture of guilt and shame that followed was crippling.
***part two of this article will be posted on Friday***