In part one of this article I discussed the similarities between vampires and people with high functioning autism, such as loneliness, social awkwardness, a use of formal, outdated language and a severe sensitivity to light and sound. When I was thirteen I could relate to Bram Stoker’s Dracula more than I could relate to any of the girls my age. Flash forward to fifteen years old, my sexuality blossoming and the social arena made twice as confusing by the prospect of dating, and I developed a new vampire obsession: The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice.
This was the first time I successfully shared my special interest with other people. A group of gothic/emo kids from my school and local drama club were into vampires too. Thanks to my thick black eyeliner and the fact that my I pod contained songs exclusively by Evanescence, Marilyn Manson and Slipknot, I finally had friends. I was beginning to look a bit like a vampire myself, in fact I’d become so determined to stay pale I developed a vitamin D deficiency a couple of years later. (My spine is still slightly bent).
For those of you who don’t know it, The Vampire Chronicles is a series of books by Anne Rice. It has several point of view characters, the most popular being eighteenth century French nobleman turned vampire rock star Lestat De Lioncourt. Daring, charismatic and egotistical enough to be referred to as ‘the brat prince’ by his fellow vampires, it’s hard not to be a little bit in love with Lestat. But I think what I really loved about The Vampire Chronicles (apart from all the blood, sex, history and poetry) was the multi-sensory aspects of Rice’s prose.
Like many people on the autism spectrum, Lestat himself is incredibly sensory driven, needing to smell, taste and touch everything before he’s even made into a vampire. After his supernatural transformation, Lestat revels in his newly heightened senses. When I first came across an audio book of The Vampire Lestat my personality was closer to Lestat’s shy, self-loathing vampire companion Louis. However, I could really relate to Lestat’s need to interact with the world on a sensory level. I was highly under sensitive to both touch and sound, scratching myself with a scalpel and listening to heavy metal with the volume turned up to get the stimulation I craved. My poor sister had a bedroom directly above mine and would often knock on my door late at night, eyes hazy with sleep, begging me to turn the volume down. I genuinely had no idea my music was too loud.
The following passage is from The Vampire Lestat, and describes Lestat’s first night as a vampire as he tries to control his newly heightened senses:
‘I was having a hell of a time concentrating. Everything was a distraction- the smoky flame of the candle on the brass inkstand, the gilded pattern of the Chinese wallpaper, and Monsieur Roget’s amazing little face, with its eyes glistening behind tiny octagonal spectacles. His teeth kept making me think of clavier keys. Ordinary objects in the room appeared to dance. A chest stared at me with its brass knobs for eyes. And a woman singing in an upstairs room over the low rumble of a stove seemed to be saying something in a low and vibrant secret language, such as Come to me. But it was going to be this way forever apparently, and I had to get myself in hand.’ (Rice, The Vampire Lestat, p. 132)
This lavish description should be familiar to anyone with autism. It’s sensory overload! The bombardment of smells, sights and sounds Lestat experiences, each one demanding his attention and their collective force preventing him from focusing on anything else is something I experience up to several times a day. While Lestat takes it all in his stride, most Aspie’s become highly anxious during sensory overload, and therefore take precautions to avoid over stimulation. Recently I was forced to quit a well-paid office job because the sensory overload I experienced in an open plan office environment was causing me to have melt downs and panic attacks every day. If only I could respond to my heightened senses with the poise and grace of a vampire!
Another aspect of The Vampire Lestat I can admire and relate to is Lestat’s determination to “pass” for human. Before being turned into a vampire, Lestat is an actor at a rundown theatre in Paris, where his favourite role to play is Lelio, a young lover. After becoming a vampire he inherits a great fortune and stops performing, deciding to make investments with his money. Lestat must pretend to be human so as not to arouse suspicion when conducting these business affairs. He compare’s conversations with his mortal attorney to his time acting on the Paris stage ‘he believed everything I told him… and certainly he would put out all the candles save one, if my eyes were still hurting from tropical fever… this was easier than playing Lelio.’ (Rice, The Vampire Lestat, p. 132).
Every Aspie will have attempted to pass for neurotypical at one point, whether it was for half an hour at a party or several years in a full time job. I was enrolled in an amateur drama group at the age of six (shortly after receiving my diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome) and those Saturday classes became a life line for me. The run down theatre the drama group met in was a place where I could socialise without the social hierarchy or sensory stimulus of school, and every drama class was a free lesson in how to socialise! Like Lestat learning to act human through playing Lelio, I learned to act neurotypical through my involvement with amateur theatre. Of course, Lestat wasn’t the first vampire to live among humans. Dracula tried it for a while, but was forced to return to Transylvania after his true identity was discovered. Perhaps he should have enrolled in a drama course before moving to London.
I stopped reading vampire books for a while when Twilight became famous and transformed my dangerous anti heroes into emotional, sparkly teenage heart throbs. I’d felt like an outsider for so long that the idea of sharing my special interest with so many other teenagers, the idea of my special interest becoming (shock horror) mainstream, was too strange for me to get my head around. But the image of Lestat on the stage in Paris, using his skills in theatrics to trick the audience into thinking he was one of them stayed with me throughout school and university, where I studied how drama therapy can be used to improve social skills in children on the autism spectrum. That research inspired Seeing Double, a social enterprise for children and adults with autism, which I am the founding member of.
Do all vampires really have Asperger’s Syndrome? Of course not. But they do have a lot more in common with teenagers on the autism spectrum than the protagonists of most young adult fiction (including characters that are supposed to have autism). Vampires are isolated, like some people with autism, they’re socially awkward, like some people with autism, and they use formal language and shy away from bright lights and loud noises, like some people with autism. And the world knows and loves vampires. Perhaps someday, the world will know and love autism.