In my search for good representation of autistic people such as myself, I have run into many cliches and stereotypes. This is disappointing, since we could really use some positive portrayals. So in this article, I’ll break down six things you should know to portray autistic people correctly.
1. Special interests are meaningful (and not always math-related)
Autistic people often have a specific subject they are passionate about. A common misconception is these special interests are always related to math or science. Sheldon from the TV series The Big Bang Theory is a good example. He's obsessed with nerd culture and science. Many autistic people like these things, and there's nothing wrong with that, but many autistic people don't. I, for one, hate math and chemistry, but I do like things like astronomy, biology, psychology, and sociology.
Unfortunately, writers seem to think of special interests as simply a box to be checked. Autistic people in fiction have special interests "because they're autistic." The special interest is never given the weight and meaning that it really has.
One good representation of an autistic character is in the book Acrylic on Wattpad. This story was written by an allistic (non-autistic) person, which shows it's entirely possible to write autistic characters even without having experienced it yourself. In the book, Tessa is an autistic girl, and her special interest is art. She loves drawing people and is an expert on art to the point where she gets angry when people choose the "wrong" pencils for shading.
Her fingers itched to take his pencil. It wasn't the right type. As soon as he saw he wouldn't get a response, Orion shrugged and started to put pencil to paper. He was stopped abruptly when Tessa snatched it away. She held the offending utensil in a tight fist. "You can't use that." Her words were tense with strife, as if using the pencil had caused her grief. Orion was too shocked to reply...The expectation of yelling hung around Tessa like a bad memory. People didn't understand.
As you can see, Tessa's actions are informed by her experience. She loves art and it's a comfort to her, so it's disturbing to see someone doing it the wrong way. Beyond that, the last sentence mentions yelling, going back to Tessa's own experiences as an individual, not just an autistic person. She has had experiences with yelling and so reacts accordingly, and throughout the story she uses her artwork as an outlet rather than just a quirky thing she likes.
Special interests are more than just a random obsession with something; they mean something to the autistic person. Think about your interests. You like them because they do something for you. It's the same with our interests, although often times they mean even more. In a world that's confusing and overwhelming, our interests help us make sense of the world.
Special interests are coping mechanisms. When you give your character a special interest, keep in mind why that's their special interest, and what it means to them as a person. Do they really like astronomy? Maybe their parent liked to read books about space with them as a kid, and thinking about the existence of extraterrestrials or the fact that humans are made from stardust makes them feel less alone.
2. Autistic people feel empathy
The idea that autistic people are unempathetic is a straight-up misconception that I would like to see stop. This is the main problem with The Big Bang Theory - Sheldon lacks empathy. He doesn't care about other people or their needs, and in so doing he perpetuates the stereotype that autistic people don't care. But this mixes up two different kinds of empathy.
Autistic people struggle specifically with cognitive empathy, which means understanding what your actions will cause another to feel. When I was a child I would (and still do to some extent) interrupt people constantly because I was bored with what they were saying, and I didn't realize this would hurt their feelings. I would also tell people their hair looked weird or I didn't like their pet's name without any thought to how it would make them feel.
However, I and many autistic people have a hyper-developed sense of the other kind of empathy: affective empathy. Once we know that we've hurt someone, we are the most caring people in the world. When I see someone cry, I automatically start to cry as well, as if on auto-pilot, and I immediately feel their pain. When I see a sick person, I feel sick as well. If someone is angry, I get angry too. Don't mention a yawn or I won't be able to stop (there, I'm yawning right now).
This form of empathy lies in understanding what it's like to feel an emotion and then caring about it. I may not recognize that I made a person sad, but if they tell me or show it in an obvious way (e.g. crying), I automatically understand how they are feeling and begin to feel the same emotion. Then I seek to fix the situation. Many autistic people are like this, and portraying autistic people like they don't feel for other people is a harmful idea with real social consequences.
3. Harassment isn't quirky
While on the subject of misconduct, please do not fall into a disturbing trend I have been noticing - that autism and/or quirkiness are an excuse for sexual harassment or assault. For instance, in the real world a man named Don Burke was accused of sexual harassment and misconduct by multiple people. His response? He has Asperger’s, and autism is a "terrible failing" of his.
Don Burke's excuse didn't arise in a vacuum - it was influenced by media. The idea he’s promoting, that he couldn’t help his behavior because he’s autistic, is false. We may not always be able to detect nonverbal cues, but it’s still obvious when someone is telling us “no,” or moving away. If anyone touches someone inappropriately, especially if they have sexual intentions and they haven’t asked permission, that's their fault.
As an autistic person, I follow the rules almost too much. I was a major tattle-tale in my youth. Asking for consent is the kind of rule that I love. It’s a clear and specific directive that should be performed at a clear and specific time – before engaging in sexual behavior with someone.
Even without the rule, sexual harassment is something people can figure out not to do, and being autistic is never an excuse for it. Please stop portraying sexual harassment as quirky and funny when done by socially awkward people. It's disgusting.
4. Sensitivity isn't Pickiness
In many media, autistic people are portrayed as comically picky. They want special clothes and can’t stand any kind of noise. While in media this is presented as just something that “autistic people do,” in reality sensitivity like this stems from experiencing the environment in a different way from allistic people.
Autistic people don’t have the same sensory experiences as allistic people. The screech of a siren is magnified in autistic people’s ears, and an itchy shirt can be unbearably painful. This isn’t due to overreaction – senses are amplified with autism, and disturbing stimuli are magnified.
Humanizing autistic people means recognizing that we come across as “picky” for actual reasons and that in our way of experiencing the world it isn’t an overreaction at all. As a child, I wasn't upset by bubble wrap “just because” - it was due to a terrifying sensory experience I felt every time one was popped. My experience came from me as an individual and my perceptions of the world.
In fiction, if an autistic person is sensitive to something like a noise or clothing, it’ll be for a reason. If an autistic character refuses to wear a certain pair of socks, for example, it might be because of the pain they feel when their feet rub against the material. It won’t be because they’re being arbitrary and picky.
5. Autistic People Stim for a Reason
Stimming is a repetitive comfort motion autistic people typically do. It's often hand flapping or rocking, but can also be twisting, ripping, fidgeting, or any other physical movement. I usually rip up paper or twist my lips, but since the lip twisting aggravates them when they're chapped, I need to work on finding a different stimming activity.
I don't have a specific reason for those particular motions, but I stim as a reaction to what's going on around me. It helps me calm down, because there's something grounding in being able to do a repetitive motion. Stimming is often necessary for autistic people when we get overwhelmed by sensory input. Noises that sound normal to other people are horrifying to us.
In On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis, the character of Denise describes stimming well:
I'm rocking, I realize....moving like this helps keep the thoughts at bay, lets me focus on the shifting, roiling pressure and relief, like that of shrugging into a soft robe after coming inside from the rain, or turning down the volume after it's been screeching in my ears for hours.
Denise stims because it helps her cope. Autistic people may stim for other reasons, such as improving concentration or connecting with other autistic people, but behavior is always linked to experiences and thoughts; it never just sprouts up because a person is autistic. On a side note, On the Edge of Gone is especially awesome because it features an autistic character in a sci-fi setting. I'd really like to see autistic characters in more widely varied genres, or stories that aren't just about autism.
Allistic people often think autistic people are overreacting to sensory issues. This is exacerbated when descriptions of stimming in books are given without descriptions of the factors that caused it. An autistic person may fear stimming because they have been yelled at for it in the past. But like a special interest, stimming is more than just doing the motion - it's a comfort mechanism that we often feel is the only way to protect us from being overwhelmed with descending chaos.
6. Autistic people are aware of being autistic
Too often, autistic people are portrayed as unaware of their condition. I have been in classes which patronized me and thought I didn't understand that I had trouble with social skills, and these attitudes were likely exacerbated by media portrayals. My classmates have done this too, ironically at the same time that they praised me for being smart. When I call them out, it's "cute." Allistic people often think autistic people are oblivious that we are different, even though we are often hyper-aware, and, in the worst cases, ashamed of it.
When people bully or patronize us, we know it. We are very aware when we are treated as though we don't comprehend others, and so any bullying that your character goes through will strongly affect them; they won’t be completely oblivious to it.
Autistic people view autism in different ways. Some are very proud of it and wear it like a badge. Others are ashamed. Some want it cured. Many abhor the idea of autism as a disorder. We want the same things as everyone else - love, companionship, success, safety - but we may struggle to get it. I want friendship and am aware of the fact that I have trouble getting it. I can reflect on this and have opinions on how autism has affected my life in this way.
If there's anything I want to get across in this, I want it to be that autistic people don't just go through the motions of their autistic traits. We have interior motives and experiences. We don't just have special interests, we use them as comfort, and we are interested in particular things for particular reasons. We don't just stim, we have opinions about it. We react strongly to stimuli because nearly every stimulus is magnified to us. We are people.
Not all autistic people will have all the traits I described above. Some autistic people might be good at sarcasm, or may not stim very much, or even like changes in routine. Every person has their own set of autistic traits and abilities, as well as their own personal experiences. One person may rock, another may hand-flap, but they don't just do these out of the blue - they do them due to an internal experience, just like anyone else.
I really, really want you to write a book with an autistic character. Yes, you. They don’t have to be the main protagonist, but we exist, and we should be featured beyond things solely focusing on autism. We are more than the comic relief or the burdensome child. Where's the autistic person in the fantasy adventure, the science fiction novel, the romance? Perhaps they are in your next book.