top of page
Search

Autistic Characters Deserve Good Representation

Updated: Feb 22

Person sitting in front of a laptop taking notes on pink post-its

It’s not that hard to find autistic characters, but as an autistic person, I am constantly looking for good representation of autistic characters. Authors want to use these characters to make their books more diverse. And that is part of the problem- that might even be the main problem. When looking at media with an autistic (or autistic-coded) character, the focus is often on how they affect neurotypicals (NT) and not on the autistic character themselves, a person who deserves to have their own story told.


While I can’t speak for all autistic people–or any autistic person that isn’t me–I’d love to give writers an idea of why good representation of autistic characters is hard to find and how to change that.


Be mindful of who’s centered in the narrative:

If the autistic person is the main character, either because they’re the primary mover or narrating the current POV, then the focus should be on them, their perceptions, and their experience of the world.


Sound obvious? It isn’t. Way too often the focus is on how NT people are impacted by this character, their interactions, and especially a vague but pervasive sense that the NT is a saint for tolerating the neurodivergent (ND) character. 

 

This manifests in several ways. The primary one is an othering of the character by the narration of the book. Often the character is “quirky” without regard to whether the quirks make sense together or even fit the character. The quirkiness is a substitute for a character arc or complexity and serves to flatten the character into a palatable mascot for the NT characters. 


The fix is simple but hard: Consider your character as a person. Not what function they serve or whatever quirks you’ve given them. Just…who is John Doe? What adjectives describe their personality? What does he value? What does he fear, and why? What is his motive for helping these people, or being this person’s friend? 


Your character should give the impression of having an interior life that exists outside the narrow focus of the book. 


Allow the character to be selfish:

Autistic characters often exist in a kind of vacuum. They exist, but their motives and inner world remain a mystery to the NT people around them. They serve very specific functions and then go away, and they never communicate anything inconvenient to NTs.


Autistic people do not need to justify their existence by being useful to NTs. If each NT character has a distinct motive within the text, so should your autistic character. If every member of the team experiences growth, so should your autistic character. 


Your character should have goals and desires that don’t directly feed into the main plot. I’m not suggesting a tangent about irrelevant things, but I am suggesting that if an NT character is, say, focused on an upcoming vacation, an ND character could be too.


There is a snare here for authors to be aware of– not every single interest an ND character has is a hyper fixation or special interest. There is this tendency among some NT writers to make anything an NT likes an all-consuming obsession played for laughs, or from which they have to be rescued by an NT friend who firmly commands them to stop being interested in whatever it is.


Aside from the insulting paternalism of that idea, there’s something problematic about having every single thing the ND character likes being a function of their autism. It reinforces the idea that autistic people lack individuality and personality outside of a narrow range of stereotypical interests and desires.


I can’t stress this enough–with characterization and writing, any motivation that works for an NT person will probably work for an ND person. If you’ve developed the character as a complex and whole person, you can make it work.


Autistic characters live in the same world as the NT characters:

My least favorite type of autistic characters are the ones the author seems to think are space aliens. They float through the story wearing bunny slippers at their high-powered law firm job. Their pet rat, Petunia, lives in their hair. They exist to inspire others to be their authentic selves by doing a lot of things that would 100% get them fired in the real world.


Maybe it’s a function of my autism, but this strikes me as unlikely. I live in the same world as the writers of these books, and yet we have a wildly divergent (pun intended) view of how ND people are received by the public at large.


For most autistic people, it is necessary to mask. Masking is, at a basic level, pretending not to be autistic. Some people are high-masking and can pass for NT with less effort. Some people are low-masking and can’t. Aside from the usual stereotypes around behavior, there’s a host of less-mentioned but still obvious tells, and many of us feel compelled to police ourselves constantly in public to avoid drawing notice and censure from others.


This doesn’t mean that your character needs to be indistinguishable from an NT person. It does mean that making them oblivious to the social norms around them, especially if you’ve established them as having minimal support needs, does not make sense and is pretty dehumanizing if you think about it.


Let your autistic characters be human, with everything that implies:

There’s a scene in almost every work that features an autistic character, and it usually goes like this:


Character has an interaction with a bully. Bully plays on their hyper-literalism or special interests to mock them, usually publicly. Character is just too literal and naïve to get they’re being mocked until Hero steps in and demands Bully stop. Then everybody claps. 


This scene does a lot of things. It reduces the autistic character to a prop for the hero to use to establish themselves as “One of the Good Ones.” It feeds into the idea that advocating for autistic people as an NT person means infantilizing us instead of uplifting our voices. And it’s a peak example of not living in the same world.


It’s also dehumanizing. Autistic people are capable of growth, learning, and change. We can take our experiences and use those to inform our interactions with others. 


In the same vein, the character’s special interests are usually something childish (unless it’s useful, like cyber-security.) There’s nothing wrong with having a special interest associated with children, but, it’s flattening. Adult autistic people live in a world with an endless variety of things to enjoy–why not explore a character whose special interest is buying and selling carnival glass? Or World War One, or baking pies?


Going back to the scene—what are some ways your character could react that aren’t that? Could they curse the person out? Mock them back? Reveal they own the café the scene is set in, and demand the bully leave. If autism is a spectrum, then it tracks that responses would vary, right?


Intersectionality Exists:

I’m also queer, a fan of folk rock music, good at cooking, and scared of geese. None of those things relate to being autistic. They’re just me. But autism informs and shapes my perceptions of those things. They’re not separable, but they aren't expressions of a single facet of myself either. It’s all just part of being human for me.


If your character has other marginalized identities, how does that affect them?


It’s okay for those identities to be challenging. It’s okay for them to express that being autistic sometimes makes their lives harder and to dig into the reasons why that might be–dating is harder, and I sometimes deeply resent the amount of effort that some ordinary tasks take. 


Consider how marginalized identities intersect for this particular person, and then write that. There’s no singular answer because autism and characters are both infinite in variety and expression. 


Writing the character as a person not a diagnosis will make these suggestions easier to implement. We’re complicated, interesting, and main characters in our own right. For an author willing to spend a little time working through the challenges of making an ND character, the rewards can be significant.



This is the second article in our Writing Autistic Characters Series. Click to read the first post, Writing an Autistic Character But Don’t Know Where to Start?

33 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page