When I hear about representation of autistic characters in media or of some new show with a “quirky” protagonist, my first though is- oh no.
Because there’s a lot that can go wrong and a lot that does.
Don’t misunderstand, though: representation is important. It’s incredibly important. The only problem is that, regarding people on the spectrum, it falls flat more often than not. While guided by good intentions, they end up creating buckets of stereotypes. And these buckets of stereotypes stretch their legs and spill over into real life.
Admittedly, that metaphor didn’t go the way I thought it would.
The point is that the way people are represented in fiction carries over to real life. It directly influences the way the public thinks about and treats autistic people.
The history of autistic characters in media is a story for another time, perhaps. It’s a messy history that shows the lasting impression just a handful of movies or shows can have. They’ve had both positive and negative and also highly dubious impacts, but we can do better now.
If you, dear reader, hope to avoid some of the common pitfalls when writing an autistic character- read on.
First, Some Things to Get Out of the Way
A little about yours truly: I have autism, but that doesn’t mean I’m qualified to write about everyone’s experience with it. Like a lot of things, it’s a spectrum. Just keep in mind that every individual with autism is different, with different struggles.
It’s something you’ve maybe heard before: when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. Your characters, regardless of neurological makeup, shouldn’t all be the same.
Generally, autism is a developmental disorder characterized by:
- deficits in social interaction and
- repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.
The ways these manifest visually vary, and they’re not always obvious (if visible at all). Individual symptoms also vary wildly. It’s worth keeping in mind that autism is often comorbid with things such as sensory issues, echolalia, sleep difficulties, and more.
We’re understanding more about it all the time, and a lot of this is thanks to incredible advances in brain mapping technologies.
Keep in mind that autism is far from being fully understood.
The “Savant” Problem
This is a big one. Briefly: autism does not equal savantism.
There are some relations to be found, but not as much as some seem to think. Savant syndrome is incredibly rare, and neither is it a very helpful diagnosis- being that it isn’t a recognized diagnosis at all.
Autistic characters with terrible social skills and a complete lack of empathy (but savant level abilities that are supposed to make up for it) are perhaps the most damaging of all the tropes.
People with autism do not lack empathy, though they may have difficulties expressing or processing it. Mistakes will be made, but it’s no excuse for being a terrible person.
A Note On Speech
The actual intelligence of autistic people is all across the board. It’s sometimes in ways that neurotypical people wouldn’t expect, however, leading them to make the premature judgments about someone.
Many will have some sort of speech deficit, including myself.
I’ve certainly had my intelligence questioned due to difficulties with speech. It’s something that happens to anyone- autistic or not- that doesn’t sound like everyone else.
A number of people on the spectrum don’t communicate at all using typical, verbal speech and are mute, or selectively so. I know a number of people that use technological aides for communication in day-to-day life. This does not mean they aren’t intelligent.
We All Have Our Interests
For autistic people, interests are often more intense than is common or may seem unusual to the outsider.
It may be an interest in algorithms or sequencing the human genome, but it can’t be assumed to always be related to science math.
There’s no single, agreed upon reason for their intensity. Part of it is simply that we’re human. Another less obvious reason may be that, because the world can seem so confusing at times, it helps to have something with understandable rules and structures that you can come back to.
You may seem the odd one out to be collecting bugs most of your waking hours. But then you might also be the person that went on to create Pokémon.
Our special interests are a big part of our identities. They can cause problems or the awkward moment when you begin to realize that the person you’d been talking to for twenty minutes might not be as interested in something as you, sure. But they also cause immense benefit for ourselves and sometimes others.
Whether it’s an interest that leads to some world-changing discovery or not (usually, it’s not), it’s still important.
Special interests should be an important part of autistic characters, but be careful not to overdo it. Also know that the interests of autistic people vary just as widely as they do for anyone else.
On Sensory Experience
Most autistic people experience sensory issues, which severely limit the places they choose to go, the activities they decide to engage with, the food they eat, and so on.
This is related to a comorbid condition called Sensory Processing Disorder, which is not always in conjunction with autism but often is.
In many people with autism, individual differences in the connectivity and sizing of parts of the brain lead to problems related to processing sensory input (whether this is taste, sound, touch, proprioceptive sense or any others).
Some, like myself, are hyper-aware to sounds in the environment- particularly human voices, anything sudden and unexpected, and so on. Parties, grocery stores, and any other loud place with a lot of people are gathered can cause sever anxiety. It’s why I wear noise canceling headphones a lot of the time.
Sometimes, despite precautions and mental preparation, it gets to be too much. This is what’s known as sensory overload.
For a person experiencing sensory overload, the best thing you can do is get yourself out of the environment as soon as possible.
When I’ve been to family gatherings or parties and it got to be too much, that’s exactly what I would do. If I wasn’t able to leave completely, I’d take frequent trips to the bathroom to sit down and close my eyes and cover my ears.
Some people just shut down. Some people try to escape. But it’s a common experience for many in the spectrum.
I’ve been told I’m rude for leaving things early or disappearing or standing at the edge- that I need to “be there,” but it’s the only way I can be present at something without totally passing out.
Everyone handles it differently, but the problem is always that of too much information: coming all at once, from every direction, and being able to process it.
It’s hard to understand without having experienced, and hard to explain when it’s a common part of your life.
Symptoms, at least for me, include:
- Slurring of speech
- Feelings of panic and anxiety
- An inability to form cohesive sentences.
If it’s a particularly bad case, it can take days to recover.
Autistic people stim as a way of self regulating. Sometimes it’s a reaction to sensory overload, sometimes it’s because of nervousness, other times it’s something we do simply because we’re happy or as self expression.
“Stimming” itself is a repetitive behavior, such as hand flapping or rocking back and forth, but it’s individual to each person. It can even be the oral repetition or sounds and phrases.
Frequency is one thing that separates it from typical fidgeting. A lot of people bounce their leg when they’re nervous. I do, too, though I also do it when I’m happy, or deeply focused on something, or literally any other time.
The purpose, as self regulation, is another difference. Coming home I’ll repeat sounds and phrases aloud to myself to calm down.
It works, better than not doing anything at all.
Someone may not know exactly why they stim: it’s just something they have to do, in the same way someone might not know exactly why their ankle is itchy: it just is. Does it really matter in the end?
Unfortunately, to a lot of people, it does. It shouldn’t be.
It’s not something we do to appear “quirky” or “cute.” They’re coping mechanisms for living in a world that’s largely not built for us.
The Communication Problem
This is one that often comes up and is more obvious to others.
Part of this can be related to sensory issues. I never make eye contact except on occasion because I know, without it, people assume I’m not interested or that I’m lying.
The human face contains a lot of information. I can choose to listen to you and come up with a response, or look you in the eyes and feel intensely uncomfortable. It’s quite literally impossible to do both well.
It’s true that we often don’t know what to say in a situation. And that we often say the wrong things. It’s not something that autistic people are incapable of learning, however, which is a common misunderstanding.
Whether it’s second nature is often the problem.
I worry about saying the “wrong things”, and often stay quiet because of that- and because I’m simply introverted in nature. I also avoid engaging with certain topics for fear of coming off as hostile. It’s something that happens a lot, when really I’m just curious about something.
We can be a mess- I can really be a mess. But it’s not something we’re necessarily oblivious too. On the contrary, it often causes extreme anxiety.
Everyone has different capacities for connecting with other people, but it’s something we all want to do in one way or another.
Obviously, the best thing you can do if you want to write an autistic character is to meet people with autism. Even though this covers only a small part of a still little understood disorder, hopefully it helps.
While representation of autism in media has a long way to go, it’s good to know that there are autistic characters that avoid the most common problems.
Representation Done Right
Everything’s Gonna Be Okay by Josh Thomas (television) takes a more thoughtful approach to its characters as a whole, features an actress actually on the spectrum, and explores the intersection of autistic and LGBTQ+ identities (which is more common than you may think. Most importantly, it’s incredibly entertaining. I personally looked forward to this since his previous show, and it hasn’t disappointed.
On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis (novel) is a young adult science-fiction novel that helped showed me that it’s okay to write a protagonist that isn’t neurotypical. Writing as someone on the spectrum herself, Corinne Duyvis perfectly captures the internal world of her autistic character. Just as refreshing, she doesn’t make the character’s autism the sole plot point of the story.
Douglas by Hannah Gadsby (standup) alright, this one isn’t released yet- although it’s set to come out on Netflix this year. After the incredible success of Nanette it’s something to look out for. She’s spoken some about her late diagnosis on the spectrum, and this special apparently has some bits on that. Whether it’s as much as I expect, it’s not something I’ll complain about. However long she’s on stage you’re seeing a wonderfully queer person coming to terms with all parts of herself in a world that’s not always kind.
Two books helped me understand the science of autism and its history more than any others. These are The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin and In a Different Key: The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker respectively.
The first is a fairly short read. The second is anything but. And both go overboard for the purposes of this article, but they’re books I highly recommend to anyone- autistic or not.
There’s a lot more I’d like to cover, but only so much space in one article.
Have any questions or any other examples of representation of autism that you found inspiring? Feel free to leave a comment below. Or, you can get in contact with me here.
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