All Posts / How to Write:

How NOT to write: Autism

Hi, I’m Finn. I study sport and exercise science at Aberystwyth university, I run the blog Monkey King Athletics, oh and I’m autistic.
G has asked me to weigh in on the topic of writing autistic characters in fiction, similarly to her post about writing allergies.


The Facts

Autism is a neuro-developmental condition that has a variety of symptoms including socio-emotional deficits and cognitive processing differences that make life more complicated for autistic people. These differences are not inherently negative or detrimental. There are many areas that autistic people thrive in such as computing and mathematics.

Social

We tend to have difficulties with facial expressions and cues that others read without even noticing. You know how 70% of communication is non-verbal? It turns out we only get to work with the other 30%. Expressions, gestures and rhetorical remarks are lost on us and can make talking to people trying at best on occasion.

Cognitive

There are several differences that constitute the autistic mind. The most common is that we are masters of patterns and and systems. In general, we like to know exactly what is happening and what a system is made of. This is not unanimous, like all things within the autistic spectrum, but is a strong trend.

Highly Specific Interests

This means that we gravitate strongly toward a topic such as mathematics or trains or comics. These interests tend to take over and drive many of the actions taken by autistic people. For example, I have a strong interest in strength training so I indulge rigorously in all things related to strength and learning about strength. Someone I know has an overwhelming passion for world politics. He only discusses these topics and ways they can be brought back to them.

Sensory

This is a big grievance for me, as my eyes, ears, nose and skin are constantly under assault from the world and how bright, shrill, pungent and close everything is. The severity of this is highly individual and may not affect some people, whereas some like I suffer immensely and constantly.


The Reality

Social

The reality of interacting with autistic people is that we are very literal in our speech which can come off as arrogant or overly demanding. It’s not our choice, only how we are programmed. The key is to be understanding of the lack of social awareness and reinforce your intentions with words. If we are driving the conversation one way, it is likely as we do not know much outside of this topic and like to be in the conversation even if we lack the skills and knowledge to engage like others can.

The Meltdown

When we start to look uncomfortable, the best thing is not to comfort us physically, but try to talk us down and reassure us. Most of the time its not your fault or that you did something wrong. Normally we are over-stimulated either socially or environmentally and often both. This can display very differently in different autistic individuals.


The Etiquette

Social etiquette is different for all autistic people as autism is a highly individual condition that affects us all in different ways. There are a few general points that you can keep in mind, such as avoiding sensory triggers as much as possible, but interacting on a personal level is as individual for us as it is for everyone else, there just might be a few extra considerations needed. As stated in Sesame Street, we do things in our own ways. Just remember that once you’ve met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism. On that note, there are differences in how we identify and what terms we prefer individually. Some may be okay with autistic some may prefer person with autism/Asperger’s, aspy is common but you should check with the individual as to how they identify and proceed from there.


Representation

people in fiction can be over exaggerated and often far off the mark. Examples such as Rain Man (1988) have some flaws in their characterisation. They are often written as autistic first and people second, as well as mixing various stereotypes such as the ‘robot’; overly rigid and unemotional. The alternative is the super nerd that is wholly absorbed in geek media at the detriment of all social interaction. These may both be accurate of many autistic individuals; I am guilty of both to a degree. Only, these are not the only types of autistic people in the world. There have been times that have surprised me to recognise even half way through that a character is autistic but it is played into a layered personality and not the only character trait they have. An example of this is Alan in Dear John (2010).

One of my biggest gripes is with the character of Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. Though he is never explicitly stated as autistic, he is shown to have many autistic traits and personally I am not a fan of how he is portrayed. I feel that he is a good example of autistic before personality. Every interaction he has is a great opportunity in the writers eyes to show off how many jokes they can make at his expense. Following that, the show confounds many conditions with autism and only sticks to the two strongest archetypes of autism in media – the arrogant, robotic nerd. His iconic triple knock is in my opinion not autistic but far more likely obsessive compulsive. His blunt honesty and lack of social awareness combined with an unrivaled love of physics are what define him the most. All of the characters in the show are exaggerated, but it is discouraging to know that Sheldon’s only traits are his overtly autistic ones.

Power Rangers (2017) has an example of an openly autistic character in Billy the blue ranger that I liked more than most, as he states in the film that he is on the spectrum and this does not define him throughout the film as the quirky one or the tech wiz. He has as much depth and layered personality as the other leads and is the second to grace the screen making his debut as the nerd with a life outside of his passion.

The children’s show Arthur has a few axamples of of autism and how to interact with autistic people. These are meant more as learning tools for children so the lack of depth is warranted, however they are good examples of autism in children. Carl for example is a child that has a fascination with trains and starts to delve into great detail about trains several times in the episode of his introduction, as well as showing an example of an autistic shutdown when faced with extreme discomfort around a ventriloquist doll. Secondly, the character of george has asperger’s explained to him by the common analogy of living on a seperate planet without a guidebook, which I like as a metaphor and is explained very accurately in my opinion.

Sesame Street’s Julia is another example of autism in children shown realistically and how people can interact with them. These of course can not be entirely translated to adult autism, but many of the themes of how they experience life persist in adulthood.

When autistic people interact with others, we are generally good willed but can lose our composure when our situation is not accounted for. Examples of good autistic portrayal for me include The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Imitation Game (2014) and A Beautiful Mind (2001). These examples also have reference to anxiety, homosexuality in the 1940’s, and schizophrenia in combination with autism but still exhibit very accurate traits.

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