Autism, Writing, and the Tyranny of Choice

Robert Fromberg
Covering Autism and Creativity
TDR Regular Contributor / June 23, 2021

Between the ages of about 5 and 12, my brother Steve, who has autism, drew many hundreds of pictures. Although the number of pictures was large, the number of subjects was small: school buses, highway signs, house layouts, and street maps of Peoria, Illinois.

Steve drew with the shaky hand of a child, but with relentless precision, capturing minor variations in the window shapes among the city’s school buses; the subtle differences in logos and lettering among interstate, state, and county highway signs; and the shape of toilet bowls and direction each door swung in a house he had visited only once. He drew accurate freehand maps of the entire city of Peoria, which is 50 square miles and at that time had a population of 120,000.

As Steve, who is now 59 years old, entered his teens, he drew less and then not at all, shifting his attention to postcards, then photography, and later the internet. However, his subject interests have remained consistent. He still investigates new brands of school buses, describes the exit sign from interstate route 474 to Illinois highway 6, knows after one visit whether a house has two basins or one in its kitchen sink, and finds a YouTube video of the slight curve on Kickapoo Creek Road just outside the Peoria city limits.

Steve’s interests are not choices. To Steve, choice is excruciating. Just watch him try to select a candy bar from among the dozens of varieties at a convenience store and finally wail, “This is hard!” Steve’s interests chose him, not the other way around, and he has pursued those non-choices for a lifetime without the hesitation or doubt that defines pretty much everything else he does.

For writers, the notion of choice is in a constant war with the creative process. Our fertile but fearful brains wade through options from subject to diction, assessing them against criteria from significance to salability. As for what has chosen us, we are ready, even eager to ignore those mysterious things, so tiny and weak and weird and wrong-headed they seem when held up against our notions of what others expect from our work.

As a writing teacher at Northwestern University for almost 20 years, I had only one idea. At the time, I felt pretty silly, leaning on just one idea when my colleagues and students seemed to have so many. But I feel better these days about my idea, which was simply to point at something, anything, that reminded me of my brother Steve, that is, anything that seemed to have chosen the writer from among the many things the writer seemed to have chosen.

It wasn’t so hard to do. Often, it was just a matter of sensing when the writer was having fun. At other times, it was a particularly sharp detail. At other times, it was an unexpected digression. At other times, it was a sidestepped convention or conventional wisdom.

These non-choices stood out like bright marbles on a sidewalk. There was the student who, in an otherwise conventional crime novel, wrote an outrageously long description of the contents of the shelves inside a roadside gas station. There was the student who wrote a computer program (this was in 1990) to randomize the sequence of his story and included the code in the manuscript. There was the student who, in the midst of a typical I’m-sad-that-Grandma-died essay, suggested oh so briefly that the clicking of Grandma’s dentures had made the writer’s scalp feel like it would leap off her skull. There was the student whose dialogue was so lengthy and digressive that any sense of narrative was buried. There was the student who wrote a story about a lonely boy who joined a club of people learning to speak Esperanto.

More recently, I see writers online talk about choosing the next scenes of their novels in progress or choosing between traditional and independent publishing. Thank goodness, there is also Alex DiFrancesco, author of the story collection Transmutations, who posted this recently on Facebook:

“I’m saying again: There is straight up Neutral Milk Hotel and Leonard Cohen fanfic in my new book and it’s being widely reviewed and loved and I’m saying this because you should definitely, without a doubt, no questions asked, write the things that matter to you, and to fucking hell with everything else.”

The challenge for so many of us is to recognize, not choose, those things that matter to us and to have the courage to hold them up to the light.

I am jealous of Steve. Unencumbered in this respect by the tyranny of choice, he has a direct line to what is important to him. For those things, he is a fan, a recorder, a student, an interpreter, and an accelerator. A true artist, Steve is defined not by his choices, but by his celebration of what has chosen him.


Forthcoming September 7, 2021 from Latah Books:

“Robert Fromberg knocks me out.”
Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gilead

“In refusing easy consolations, Fromberg has created a memoir that shines like polished bone.”
– Patricia Eakins, author of The Hungry Girls and Other Stories

“Without a trace of affectation or adornment, Fromberg depicts the searing moments that made him who he is. Never have I read a more authentic, deeply-felt rendering of a child’s developing mind.”
– Leslie Lawrence, author of The Death of Fred Astaire and Other Essays from a Life Outside the Lines

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  1. I can in some way identify with this. Probably on the level of a writer. One’s thoughts and imagination should not have to be curtailed and packaged into set boundaries. It’s actually the other way around. Writing is like being lifted above the normalcy and thrown into a world of possibility where you don’t choose but are chosen to express as a medium deemed most suitable. 🙂

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