Writing an Autistic Character But Don’t Know Where to Start?
You’ve come to the right place. One of the first things you learn about writing disabled characters is that we are not a monolith. No disabled person is the same or presents their symptoms in the same way, even within a specific disorder. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has a particularly diverse way of presenting in different people, as can be gleaned from the diagnostic criteria in the DSM-5. If you are planning on writing an Autistic character but don’t know where to start, this post could serve as a list of prompts.
It’s important to decide the personality and basic details about your character, before planning how their Autism will impact their thoughts and behavior. While their entire personality should not be dictated by Autism symptoms, their neurotype should influence how they see and navigate their world. I would advise not “adding” an Autistic character if it does not make sense for the character or overall plot.
Below are some symptoms of Autism and ideas for how to show the character’s neurotype on the page. This is not an exhaustive list, but may give you insight as to how you can describe your character and how they interact with others. Note: They would realistically not display all of these, especially at the same time. It’s going to depend on your character’s personality, age, upbringing, etc.
Here are some behaviors your character could exhibit
Unintentionally hurting someone’s feelings by being “too honest”
Engaging in special interests
Nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction
Avoiding eye contact
Making too much eye contact in order to counteract Autistic stereotypes
Developing, maintaining and understanding relationships
Being emotionally hurt by something that a neurotypical would dismiss (Ex. rejection)
Asking for clarification if confused about a social cue
Repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, etc.
Stimming (Ex. flapping hands)
Rocking back and forth or side to side
Insistence on sameness
Eating the same foods; preparing food in a certain way; not letting foods touch on the plate
Having a daily routine
Reacting negatively when a routine is interrupted
Being so interested in a book, movie, scientific field, etc. that they talk about it any chance they get
Hyper or hypo-reactivity to sensory input
Being in noticeable physical pain when hearing a sound, tasting a food, etc.
Actively seeking out highly stimulating activities, such as IMAX movies
A quick look at the DSM-5 criteria for ASD will reveal the concept of “severity.” Severity as depicted in the DSM-5 has to do with how much an Autistic person’s symptoms impact non-Autistic people. In order to write an accurate Autistic character, think about how their symptoms would both positively and negatively impact the character themselves, not just non-Autistic characters.
Things to avoid
Even if they are a side character, they should have a meaningful purpose to the plot unrelated to their Autism. Be careful not to use the Autistic character as a device to show of the "positive" traits of other characters. They should not be used to show how kind or personable the non-Autistic characters are in comparison. Or as a prop to show the moral group of non-Autistic characters.
Like everything in writing the best advice is given with context. If you have any questions about a character you're writing, or would like some feedback from a sensitivity reader, I'd be happy to help.
Nathaniel Glanzman has sensitivity read for both private clients and “Big Five” publishers since 2018. When unsure of what to do in a social situation, he asks the other person what their favorite part about space is. You can request Nathaniel as a sensitivity reader for your project on the Writing Diversely Directory. For more information on Autistic representation, please check out this video on Nate's YouTube Channel.