"Up and Down" the Spectrum: Autistic Fictions in Flowers for Algernon

Enrichment text for Flowers for Algernon

Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon is a popular book to use in classrooms that discusses cognitive disabilities .  The story of Charlie Gordon, the tale's protagonist , builds on stereotypes  that are popular now about Autism Spectrum Disorder.  Specifically, the imaginary "cure" for Charlie's Intellectual Disability that makes him smarter doesn't really cure him.  Instead, he simply moves from one set of autism stereotypes to another.  He never fits the category of neurotypical .  His condition goes from Intellectual disability to stereotypical descriptions of Asperger's Syndrome .  Keyes' novel does not show the good side of either side of the spectrum.  Intellectually disabled Charlie is like a child who should be pitied, while "smart" Charlie is full of himself and does not care about other's feelings.  While the novel does not depict either end of the spectrum as being a positive thing, ultimately it favors "higher functioning" Charlie.



Intellectually Disabled Charlie

Charlie's depiction as an intellectually disabled person is full of damaging stereotypes .  Intellectually disabled people are considered lazy,unmotivated , and more likely to be hostile.  The early progress reports in the novel try to show Charlie is intellectually disabled by being filled with grammar and spelling errors.  The problem is, these errors are not authentic .  It's a neurotypical  writer pretending to be intellectually disabled in a way that pokes fun at what these people are capable of.  Furthermore, Charlie is chosen for the experiment because he is considered "special" by Dr. Strauss and Prof. Nemur.  They choose him because he is motivated and hard-working, something the novel states other Intellectually Disabled people are not.  The idea that people with cognitive disabilities are not disabled, just lazy, is another damaging stereotype that the book seems to support.

"Cured" Charlie

After the operatiion, Charlie may be smarter but he does not fit the definition of neurotypical either.  Instead, he is a savant with almost all of the common Asperger's stereotypes.  He trades in his Intellectual Disability for a Social Disability.  Charlie has many new skills that show his intelligence (he speaks more than one language, has a photographic memory, and possess high level skills in neuroscience and math).  However, Charlie becomes socially awkward because he is now too smart.  For example, when he goes to a party at the university he tries to start conversations with some "experts" in their field of study.  Instead of realizing they are leaving the conversation because he is boring them, he thinks they are trying to hide their lack of knowledge in the subject.

He is also very rigid, and his life is rule bound.  He is obsessed with his work, and the relationships he had with people start to break. Professor Nemur, seeing Charlie's new personality tells him he went from a kind Intellectually Disabled man to a miserable, unlikable one.  However, this condition presented as better than the way he started the novel.  Charlie and those around him act as if he were dying as he starts to lose his intelligence.  Charlie even says that visiting the Warren Home where he will go was like sitting in his coffin.  Even though his life is now miserable, it is seen as preferable to him having an Intellectual Disability.