It's a worry writing about characters with learning difficulties. You want to be fair, you want to be accurate and you want to be respectful. I took such care to make sure that all three criteria there were met - I think I achieved it.
I based the character on my son, who was three when I writing the novel, and had just been diagnosed with autism. The consultant told me that he presented as severely autistic and would never go to school. My son couldn't talk at the time and it was very hard to get his attention, let alone teach him anything. I was in hell, and I set about trying to break through to Nathan and to teach him that our world was worth looking at.
I did everything that I was told to do by speech therapists, by our educational psychologist and by doctors and hospitals. And by the time Nathan was five he could say his name and his age and was out of nappies. He went to school and I prayed he'd find it interesting enough to wake up and take notice and learn. My prayers were answered. Gradually, he joined our world. He's now studying for his A levels - he's smart and kind and one of the nicest and strongest people I know. I could not be more proud of him. His autism is a point of interest to him, rather than something that gets in the way. He knows he has a slightly different take on the world - he tells me he finds everything visually interesting and that that's hard to deal with. I will be forever grateful that he can explain this to me. But whilst I was teaching Nathan to speak, he was teaching me a heck of a lot too.. And I ploughed a lot of what he taught me into Not Middlemarch.
Nathan taught me that talking is actually not all its cracked up to be. Words, words, words - what are they all for? What's the point of them? Did Nathan need to tell me he loved me? No. I knew he loved me. There is much more to life than words - this is a major realisation for a writer!
He also taught me to look around the world more, and to explore it. I quite often find myself staring at things the way he used to - looking oh so deeply at leaves and mud and surfaces and analysing their textures. Nath continues to be very visual - he loves art.
But most of all he taught me to be open-minded. I wasn't horribly judgemental before this happened but knowing someone with autism has made me more understanding of people who don't talk, having learning difficulties or have autism. I'm very comfortable around deaf people or people with Asperger's.
So it's been a long journey - and it's not over. But I am pleased to have published the novel I wrote back then. I don't actually say anywhere in the book that the character, Pete, has autism, but he does. It's a serious issue to plonk in a black comedy but I think it works. Comedy takes place in the real world, after all, and the real world has people with autism in it. According to the National Autistic Society, around 1 in a 100 of us are on the spectrum - quite a statistic isn't it?
Meanwhile, here are some other thought-provoking novels which include characters with learning difficulties...
Of Mice and Men - John Steinback
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
The Curious Incident of the the Dog in the Night-Time - Mark Haddon
Al Capone Does My Shirts - Gennifer Choldenko
The Sound and the Fury - William Faulkner
I think Not Middlemarch is in good company and I hope that as well as being a hilarious rollercoaster of sex and satire, it also gives some insight into what it is like to live with someone with learning difficulties. It's not all bad - Lisa and Pete have some wonderful times together...