April 2nd is Autism Awareness Day. In honor of that, I wanted to find some books that I knew with excellent autistic representation, as an autistic person, but I found that I was coming up short. I know a few books with decent representation, but I definitely didn’t have enough to make a full article (I’m open to recommendations if anyone has any).
When I was thinking about autistic representation in the media, what I came to find was that I was picking up on more pet peeves and harmful stereotypes. I wanted to write this article on some tips and tricks/things to avoid when writing autistic characters so that hopefully less writing ends up falling into these stereotypes.
I am simply one autistic person, and I don’t speak for the entire autistic community, but I am sharing my own opinions in hopes of spreading awareness.
1)We don’t all look/act the same.
I feel like this should be pretty common knowledge, but you’d honestly be surprised. I’ve had literal doctors tell me that there was no way I could be autistic because I didn’t look or talk like I was. Unfortunately, this happens to countless autistic people.
There is this pervasive stereotype in media with autistic characters, where the character with autism is a straight, white, nerdy man who likes science (Big Bang Theory and Atypical… I’m looking at you). This stereotype may not seem like a lot on the surface, but it has created real barriers to people pursuing autism diagnoses and receiving support post-diagnosis.
When all of autism representation is forced into one caricature, it creates a real-world stereotype of how all autistic people present. It causes more stigma towards people who are marginalized and/or don’t fit the stereotype and leads to us not being believed when we try to share our experiences being on the spectrum.
2)We don’t all experience symptoms in the same way.
Following along from the last point, not every autistic person will experience their symptoms in the same way, or even the same symptoms. When we say “autism spectrum”, many people take that to mean that there are two points: more autistic and less autistic, while this isn’t really true.
The autism spectrum covers many levels of support needs in different areas. For example, a person could have very intense sensory issues and intense fixations, but may not need as much support in social situations, or vice-versa, or any other combination of symptoms and support needs. The way that a certain symptom is exhibited also changes from person to person.
Some autistic people I know talk in a very loud and overexaggerated manner, while some talk quietly and with a very flat tone. Some people are sensory avoidant and get overstimulated easily, which causes meltdowns, and some people are sensory seeking, meaning under-stimulation can cause meltdowns. Some people avoid eye contact at all costs, while some people make so much eye contact that allistics (non-autistics) get uncomfortable.
Some people lack cognitive empathy (the ability to understand someone’s thought process) but have very high emotional empathy (the ability to feel someone’s emotions), or vice versa, or both, or neither.
Though there are diagnostic criteria that every person must meet in order to be on the spectrum, the way that they present varies from individual to individual, meaning every character you write will present their symptoms in a different way.
3)Being autistic isn’t a tragedy.
Many works about autistic people (typically written by non-autistics), center on the “tragedy” of our “condition.” Of course, being on the spectrum isn’t without its share of challenges — hence it being classified as a disability – but I personally don’t see it as a “disorder”.
Autism is a difference in neurological development and is not necessarily better or worse than the brain development of a neurotypical person. This is also the reason why it’s impossible to “cure” autism, as it is simply a difference in how your brain is developed. Groups that claim they are looking to “cure” autism are usually just marketing repackaged eugenics (this is one main reason why we say that you should not support the group Autism Speaks, as they use this harmful rhetoric).
Many of the difficulties I find from being on the spectrum come from society itself. When I’m able to “unmask” (stop hiding my autistic symptoms), and able to practice coping with social and sensory stresses, I am able to cope a lot better.
Stories that center on how tragic it is to be autistic — or worse, how tragic it is to be related to an autistic person — can F— all the way off in my opinion. Being diagnosed with autism was one of the best things that happened for me, definitely not the worst. I have a deeper understanding of myself now that I feel comfortable not hiding my autistic traits. I actually feel happier and more confident.
4)Autism can be a strength.
Once again building off of the last point I made, autistic traits can often be a huge strength. Our ability to hyper obsess in one or two things (often referred to as “special interests” – soul consuming interests that last for years) leads to us becoming experts in one or two topics. Though the diagnostic criteria calls it “limited interest”, listing it as something negative, I find it really cool that we can specialize in something specific to us that we care about.
We tend to think somewhat outside of the box, and many of us have a knack for memorizing things. Though there are definite challenges that come with being on the spectrum, I find that a lot of my autistic traits end up helping me a lot in my day-to-day life.
For example, the ability to hyper focus on one writing project, get absolutely obsessed with it and consumed by it, is a massive strength. When I’ve written novels and scripts, there are times when it’s all I can think about, especially when the writing projects relate to my special interest. Though it sometimes leads to me neglecting other responsibilities – something I have to stay aware of – it has also been a massive asset to me as a writer.
5)Don’t infantilize us.
This last point should be more or less obvious, I hope. Many autistic characters are treated as more immature and innocent than other characters, while that’s not necessarily true. Many autistic characters are written as though they’re fully asexual (not that there’s anything wrong with being asexual). It’s often assumed that people on the spectrum can’t have romantic or sex lives, which simply isn’t true.
Even if we don’t always pick up on social clues, we aren’t naïve. Not every autistic person is a shy recluse either. Autistic people can be competent, can have wicked senses of humor, can be charismatic, and so much more.
Again I would like to reiterate that there is no wrong way to be autistic. If you’re on the spectrum and you’re more introverted, eccentric, and perceived as naïve (as I am), or have any of the other traits I’ve listed – or haven’t – that’s ok, and you also deserve representation.
The issue that I have is that people tend to think that we all have the exact same symptoms, and act in the exact same way, which is just blatantly false. Just like how every neurotypical person is different, so is every autistic person. No two autistic people will present in the exact same way, so it’s important to be mindful and aware of stereotypes, so you can avoid them or subvert them in a positive way.
is a young writer from Ottawa, Canada. When he isn’t in school, he enjoys reading, writing, crochet, and playing with his two cats. Their favorite genres are horror and fantasy, and they enjoy all things strange. You can find him on Instagram at @nate_fahmi
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