Lewis Carroll and the Wonderland of Neurodiversity - By Emily Campbell
ENG 242 YD1
11 April 2020
Since its original publication in 1865, readers across the generations have been fascinated by the adventures of a little girl named Alice. Written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass became an almost overnight classic. The books have since been adapted into stage plays, animated and live-action films, as well as alternative Wonderland stories such as The Looking Glass Wars trilogy by Frank Beddor. The story begins with seven-year-old Alice sitting on a bank with her sister and being frightfully bored. Unimpressed by her sibling’s choice in reading material, Alice suddenly notices a white rabbit. She follows the rabbit in curiosity, quite sure she had heard it speaking, and tumbles down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.
Carroll has long been considered just as much of an enigmatic character as the ones he created. Born in England in 1832, his father was a minister and he carried on that tradition as a math professor at Christ Church College at Oxford, though he was never ordained. He loved reading from an early age and delighted in wordplay throughout his life, a habit that his colleagues sometimes found exhausting. He never married or had children, but he did spend a good deal of time with the children of his dean at the school, specifically young Alice Liddell and her sisters Lorina and Edith. He would regale the sisters with fanciful tales that later became the published Alice stories. Several theories have been posited over the years as to the source of his nonsensical stories and behavior, be it pure unadulterated genius or a more sinister accusation in regards to his predilection for the company of young girls. While there has been much speculation into the source of Carroll’s creative genius, a growing understanding of neurodiversity would seem to indicate that the author may have been on the autism spectrum.
As more information becomes available about Autism Spectrum Disorder, it is important to note what ASD is. According to the CDC, Autism Spectrum Disorder “is a developmental disorder that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges” (CDC 20). The American Psychiatric Associations Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders–or DSM–characterizes ASD as presenting with such behavioral deficits like poor back and forth conversational skills, sensory processing issues, and disruptive adherence to repetitive or ritualized behavior. Much has been learned about autism since the term was first coined by Leo Kanner in 1943 (Wright 2017). This information has made it possible for some in the psychological community to look back at many famous artists and determine that they were most likely on the spectrum in some way.
Evidence for an ASD diagnosis in Carroll can be seen equally in his life and writing.
In her book Writers on the Spectrum: How Autism and Asperger Syndrome Have Influenced Literary Writing, Professor Julie Brown examines several known factors about Carroll’s life, combined with her own experience having a son with Asperger’s Syndrome, to form a highly educational argument about a possible diagnosis for Carroll. Brown notes that in childhood “he had speech problems (stuttering), preservative thinking (obsessed with trains, train schedules, time, and riddles), and was something of a loner who preferred daydreaming to playing with other children” (Brown 117). She also states that “he was highly intelligent and gifted in the areas of language and mathematics. He loved animals and considered snails and toads to be his ‘intimate friends’” (Brown 117). Today, boys that display this kind of behavior can get a diagnosis and appropriate coping mechanisms fairly early on, but Carroll would suffer when he had to leave home for boarding school. While there, his sympathetic nature and lack of understanding of social cues made him an easy target for bullies. Brown also observes that his time at Oxford, while not as torturous as his school days, often had him standing out from his peers. It is almost impossible to look at his life alone and not conclude that he was neurodivergent, and this becomes even more evident when examining his creative process and writing style.
In the truest fashion of art imitating life and vice versa, many characteristics that are associated with autism are prevalent in how and what Carroll wrote.
The Alice stories are scattered with parodies of poems and songs that were popular at the time, but that modern readers probably would not recognize. An example of this can be seen in chapter 2 of Alice’s Adventures. Alice–being quite determined to prove to the White Rabbit that she is herself and not a more simpleton classmate–recites the following poem: “How doth the little crocodile/Improve his shining tail,/And pour the waters of the Nile/On every golden scale!” (Carroll 26). This is a parody on a morality poem by Isaac Watts entitled “How Doth the Little Busy Bee” written around a century earlier. According to Brown, this kind of mirroring is known as echolalia and is a prevalent behavior in as much as 75% of autistic children (Brown 120).
All of this could make a person with ASD sound prolifically dysfunctional, but those who stand on the outside are often hyper-observant and this was likely the case with Carroll. Victorian society was fraught with social rules and graces that could seem pretty ridiculous from a modern perspective. Who better to call attention to the superfluous flouncing of Victorian life than someone whom social rules were lost on? In his paper “Lewis Carroll and Psychoanalysis: Why Nothing Adds Up in Wonderland” Christopher Lane suggests that the backward nature of Wonderland was a scathing critique on the dangers of social conformity disguised as children’s literature. Lane states that “from the works themselves, we also learn that the comparison Carroll sets up between Wonderland and the Victorian’s symbolic world is not in the least flattering to the latter” (Lane 1032).
As if the plot devices weren’t enough, the Alice stories are rife with characterizations that exemplify ASD behavior. Returning to the concept of social rules, Alice finds it very difficult to get her bearings before she can even properly enter Wonderland. When Alice is attempting to enter the garden through the little door, she cannot ever get her size just right. When she needs to be small, she is big, and likewise when she needs to be big, she is small. The rapidly changing rules frustrate Alice to the point of questioning her identity. This is not unlike the frustrations that a neurodivergent person might feel attempting to grapple with what is considered socially acceptable, not only on a broad scale but also in person-to-person interactions.
Another common trait of autism–and one that can be particularly unnerving for neurotypicals–is a sense of directness or being literal-minded to the point of rudeness. This characteristic is evident in many characters such as the Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat. The Caterpillar consistently corrects Alice and drives the conversation in a direction that suits him. When Alice encounters the Cat, she enquires to him as to which way she should go. The Cat responds quite bluntly “that depends a good deal on where you want to get to” (Carroll 64). This pattern continues: “ ‘I don’t much care where’ said Alice. ‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go’ said the Cat” (Carroll 64). This type of demeaning and/or aloof behavior is a marked trait in those with a spectrum diagnosis. Carroll himself is noted as having displayed these traits by posing trick questions that often went unappreciated by the people on the business end of his riddles (Brown 132).
As suggested by Brown’s book, Carroll is hardly alone among his literature compatriots as being possibly autistic. Her work also presents arguments for writers such as Hans Christian Anderson, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville just to name a few. With that being said, is it possible to find a link between neurodiversity and genius-level creativity? One 1999 study says no. Jamie Craig and Simon Baron-Cohen presented sixty children with three different forms of creative tests. The children were separated into four groups of fifteen. The participants in each of the groups were either diagnosed as autistic, as having Asperger’s syndrome, or other mild learning difficulties. The control group was comprised of “normally developing” children (Craig and Baron-Cohen 320). The experiments generally consisted of providing the children with different drawings of lines or incomplete figures and having the children add to these figures in any way they saw fit. Craig and Baron-Cohen observed that the results of the experiments “suggest reduced overall fluency as well as reduced imaginative fluency in autism and AS” (Craig and Baron-Cohen 325).
The concepts of neurodiversity and autism have become more developed since 1999. It is difficult to look at the growing number of historical artistic figures being identified as autistic and not think that there could be some correlation between neurodivergence and creative genius. Where Craig and Baron-Cohen’s experiment failed was in giving non-standardized people a standardized test and expecting them to adapt to it in a socially acceptable fashion. Even without the ever-growing understanding of spectrum disorder, is it even possible to empirically analyze such an abstract concept as creativity?
Unfortunately, misinformation about Carroll’s legacy continues to abound in excess. It was long suggested that his writings were the result of opium-induced fever dreams or a repressed childhood. There is virtually no evidence to support these theories, and yet they are relatively commonplace when discussing the author. The worst of these culminate in the accusation of pedophilia. Carroll seems to have preferred the company of children, and young girls were often the subjects of his photography hobby; sometimes in the nude. At some point, Carroll had a falling out with the Liddell family and it has been postulated that this was due to the then thirty-year-old Carroll asking to marry Alice; who was almost two decades his junior at the time. Child brides were not uncommon in Victorian England, and there are some missing journal entries from this period in Carroll’s life, so it is impossible to know what happened. It is much more reasonable to think that Carroll found conversations with children easier than with adults. These kinds of age disparities, where the subject finds communication easier with people much younger or older than themselves, are not unheard of in cases of neurodiversity.
Despite all of the new information available in recent years, individuals on the spectrum are still just as misunderstood and undervalued as they were in Carroll’s time.
They are often targets of bullying and experience strained relationships. Sensory processing issues can lead to higher rates of anxiety and depression, and one of the most popularly known autism awareness groups, Autism Speaks, is notoriously staffed by barely, if any, people who are autistic, on top of presenting an image of autistic people as being broken and requiring correction. The popular image seen on awareness ribbon car magnets of a puzzle missing a piece only serves to further this idea that autistic people are somehow incomplete.
As the struggle for representation of minority groups becomes more prevalent, neurodivergent people cannot be left out of the conversation. Not only can the value of these individuals be found in classic art and literature, but in modern as well. Actor Dan Ackroyd is autistic and his hyper-fixation on law enforcement and the paranormal laid the groundwork for what would become the Ghostbusters franchise. Also autistic, Sir Anthony Hopkins is known for such roles as Hannibal Lector and Odin in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but he also dabbles in mixed media art and music composition. Neurodivergent people have always been and will continue to be sources of a unique perspective and passion. Thankfully, so many of them have seen fit to share their uniqueness with the world. While it is not an original Carroll quote, Alice Kingsley shares a sentiment with the Mad Hatter in the 2010 Disney film that Carroll would have no doubt appreciated, “You’re entirely bonkers, but I’ll tell you a secret: all the best people are” (Alice in Wonderland).
“Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 25 March 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html
Burton, Tim. Alice in Wonderland. 2010. Walt Disney Pictures.
Brown, Julie. “Lewis Carroll”. Writers on the Spectrum: How Autism and Asperger Syndrome Have Influenced Literary Writing. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2010, pp. 117-136
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Other Stories. Sterling Publishing Company Inc, 2018, pp. 15-120
Craig, Jaime, and Simon Baron-Cohen. "Creativity and Imagination in Autism and Asperger Syndrome." Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, vol. 29, no. 4, 1999, pp. 319-26
Lane, Christopher. "Lewis Carroll and Psychoanalysis: Why Nothing Adds Up in Wonderland." International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 92, no. 4, 2011, pp. 1032.
Jessica Wright. “The Real Reasons Autism Rates Are Up in the U.S” The Scientific American. March 3, 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-real-reasons-autism-rates-are-up-in-the-u-s/