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In Helen Hoang's Novels, Autism Is No Bar To Love And Happiness

Esme Tran supports her family — including her five-year-old daughter — by working as a maid in a Ho Chi Minh City hotel. Until the day a wealthy Vietnamese American woman offers her an opportunity: Come to California and accompany her son Khai, who is on the autism spectrum and has never had a girlfriend, to a summer's worth of family weddings.

That's the setup for Helen Hoang's new novel, The Bride Test. And of course, Khai resists his mother's matchmaking — but it wouldn't be much of a romance novel if he and Esme didn't begin to fall in love. "It's awkward and really uncomfortable — because he's on the spectrum, he's set in his ways, and she has some difficulties assimilating," Hoang says, "so they both have to reach a compromise together, and learn from each other."

Interview Highlights

On writing an autistic character in her first novel, The Kiss Quotient, and her own experiences with autism

I'd been considering writing a gender-swapped Pretty Woman, but I didn't know why a successful, beautiful woman would hire an escort. And I puzzled over this for a long time. And it was a meeting with with my daughter's preschool teacher that really brought things together for me — she told me that she thought my daughter was on the autism spectrum, and that was very surprising for me, because at that time I hadn't had much exposure to autism, but I came home and I researched it, and it didn't seem right, because my little girl is not, she didn't seem to be autistic from what I knew and what I saw ... but then I was thinking about autism, and one of the big things they say is there's difficulty with social interaction. And that's something that I can really empathize with. And I thought, wouldn't that be an interesting reason to hire an escort.

And so I started to research autism solely for the book, but as I researched, I ran into this very interesting thing where autism seems to display differently in women than in men ... women have learned to mask their autism, and they learn to copy their peers, and they learn to mimic. And as I was reading, I was thinking about all the things I do. I tap my teeth, but I tap them because no one can see. Because if you move your fingers or you move your body or you rock in your chair, then people will see, and that's no good, it has to be secret ... and that put me on this journey where I started to explore, could I be on the spectrum? And this all kind of happened as I was drafting the book. And the more I learned about myself, the better I could write this character — her name is Stella — but then as I wrote Stella I was learning about myself as I wrote her, so it was this reciprocal process. That's how the diagnosis came to be, and how the character came to be, we kind of happened at the same time.

On writing another character on the spectrum for her second book

I want to believe that I can be a main character, I can be a leading character in my life, that I can have a happily ever after, that I can find true love, and I can get married, and conquer, and be happy.

There was this website I looked at — I don't want to tell you what it is, because I don't want to drive traffic there — but it, basically they say that autistic people are heartless, and that we don't experience empathy, we are selfish and cold, and anyone who's had a relationship could go on there and kind of air their grievances and say how horrible it was. And I'm sure that those situations exist, but I can't accept that that's a rule. So Khai, this character, was born from that injustice. I wanted to write a character and show how he may look cold, he may look heartless, he might even think he's heartless, but he's not. And I wanted to show what that disconnect is, and how different people experience emotions and process emotions in different ways, and there isn't a one right way.

On telling stories about autistic people living and loving

I want to believe that I can be a main character, I can be a leading character in my life, that I can have a happily ever after, that I can find true love, and I can get married, and conquer, and be happy. And I think one thing for my books is yes, my characters have sexual intimacy, and I think that's also important, to show autistic people can have these very full lives, and experience things that regular people do. I sometimes run into people who find my portrayal to be offensive and insensitive, by giving people normal lives, which is, it kind of breaks my heart every time I hear that. Because I'm married, I have kids, my husband loves me as a woman. I am a woman, and I have the same needs and desires as anybody else. And I wanted to communicate all of those things by kind of tearing down all the perceptions, and not handling autistic people with kid gloves.

This story was produced for radio by Samantha Balaban and Caitlyn Kim, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.