Dear Screenwriters and Fiction Writers: “Autistic” Is Not a Bad Word6 min read

It is well known that representation of marginalized groups in fiction matters.  We have made progress towards having more representation of Black, gay, female, and trans characters in fiction, to name just a few examples.

While it’s still not perfect, and cis white males are still overrepresented in fictional protagonists, it is better than fifty years ago, and having more representation so that marginalized children and young adults can see people like themselves in fiction is a good thing.

Unfortunately, disability is an area in which mass-market fiction (which I define as Hollywood movies, bestselling novels, primetime TV, Netflix originals, and other works of similar popularity) is not doing much to address representation.

Indeed, so many movies and TV shows with disabled characters do more harm than good for the disability community, such as Me Before You taking the stance that death is better than disability, The Accountant’s wildly inaccurate and stereotypical portrayal of autism, or countless other movies exploiting disabled people’s struggles to generate unrealistic “inspiration porn” stories showing disability as something to overcome through hard work and extraordinary talent.

However, there is another, less well-known problem with disability representation in fiction, one that is specific to autism.  Sometimes, there are characters who are easily identifiable as autistic but never explicitly called “autistic.” The writers tiptoe around the word like the way parents and doctors whisper about a child’s cancer diagnosis within the child’s hearing.

This simultaneously reinforces the perception that autism is something dirty or shameful, and gives the writers an excuse not to do actual research and hold themselves accountable for whether they get things right in their depiction of autism.  In fact, Bill Prady, one of the co-creators of The Big Bang Theory, has said that not wanting to have to get things right was one of his reasons for not explicitly calling Sheldon autistic.

In the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, when disgraced Starfleet officer Michael Burnham is transferred to the starship Discovery, she is assigned to be roommates with a character named Sylvia Tilly, who previously had her own room because she had “special needs.” It did not take long for me to figure out from Tilly’s quirky behavior patterns and difficulties with social norms that she is autistic.

At first glance, the portrayal of Tilly was better than most fictional portrayals of autism.  She was portrayed positively and sympathetically, and was shown having the deep and intense empathy that we tend to experience.  She was smart, but in a realistic way, not the savant-level intelligence of Shaun Murphy from The Good Doctor.  She was one of the few fictional depictions of a non-male autistic character, which is something we desperately need more of.

And perhaps most importantly, Star Trek: Discovery showed that autism is a part of humanity’s future.  The fact that a society capable of teleporting people instantly and traveling thousands of light-years either can’t or doesn’t want to “cure” autism indicates that the writers of Star Trek: Discovery see autism as a form of diversity to be celebrated and embraced, as much a part of the Federation’s cosmopolitan utopia as its acceptance of human diversity on Earth and of the nonhuman species who live in harmony with humans in the Federation.

The inclusion of autistic people in a positive depiction of the future could have been an excellent statement in favor of the neurodiversity movement…  but instead, the word “autism” or “autistic” is not uttered once in the entire series.

Why is it that in a tolerant, utopian society where progressive ideals have become the norm that, instead of taking pride in the word “autistic” as we do at The Aspergian, Tilly is afraid to describe herself that way?  Perhaps the latest installment of the franchise that aired television’s first interracial kiss is afraid of being too political?

This problem is not limited to Star Trek. Abed Nadir from Community has very intricate special interests, weak understanding of social cues, and very elaborate routines, and has so many autistic traits that his possible autism is even mentioned on the fan wiki for the show in the first line of his personality description.  However, the show never takes a stance, even referring to him as “Abed the Undiagnosable” in one episode.

Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory is one of the most recognizable autistic characters in modern media, but he is never canonically confirmed to be autistic in the show.  There are many autistic people who are bothered by the show’s constant jokes at his expense, and while I only watched one or two episodes of the show, I once had someone call me “Sheldon” as a nickname and insist on it, which was not fun.  While I do have some things in common with Sheldon, I am not a caricature like he is.

Indeed, the show has at times endorsed a cringey, “I don’t see labels” view of autism, which is directly harmful to us.  In my case, being afraid of the word and not seeing myself that way caused me to internalize my difficulties in social situations and at work as my own failings, not as problems with the social structures built by and for allistics, to the point that when I violated a hidden social rule at my first job and got my hours cut, I blamed myself and wished I was dead.

After learning to label myself as autistic and accept it, I have learned to appreciate the friends I have rather than wishing I had as many friends as the typical allistic person.  I now commute to a college within driving distance of my home and feel much more comfortable doing so than I did trying to live with allistics I had never met before in student housing to chase an elusive dream of college life that was never meant for me.

Also, Community and The Big Bang Theory point to a general problem with the portrayal of autism in comedy.  While autistic people can be just as funny as anyone else – any of my friends who laugh at my endless puns would agree – autism is not a joke.  It is a serious and important thing that should be treated sensitively.

Plenty of people who laugh at Sheldon would be aware of the problems with making any other marginalized group into a stereotype with constant jokes at the expense of their race, culture, gender, or sexual orientation.  Avoiding labels gives writers a shield to make their behavior more palatable.

To any fiction writer reading this piece, don’t be afraid to call your characters autistic.  It is one of the best things you can do to support neurodiversity.  If you are scared of getting things wrong, leave a comment on this article, and I will respond and answer any questions you have about how to write autistic characters.

Don’t be like the writers who deny us the feeling of having our identities represented explicitly.  Whether they do so out of unconscious biases against us or out of fear of being held accountable if they get things wrong, the end result is that they hurt us.  Autism is political, and denying us the word autistic to call ourselves by avoids that inescapable truth.

References

“Abed Nadir,” Community Wiki, https://community-sitcom.fandom.com/wiki/Abed_Nadir

Crippledscholar, 6-17-2015, “Mayim Bialik’s Take on Sheldon Cooper and Autism is Wrong,” crippledscholar, https://crippledscholar.com/2015/06/17/mayim-bialiks-take-on-sheldon-cooper-and-autism-is-wrong/

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I am an autistic adult who competes in debate and enjoys analyzing the deeper meaning of things in real life and fiction in ways that relate to my lived experience of autism. Buy me a coffee!

11 Comments

  1. Labels are good.  If you experience your autism as an Illness, Then you remain in a Hospital.  If you experience your autism as an IDENTITY, then you are liberated and it becomes the source of your power.

    1. That is a wonderful description!  I feel like this encapsulates how if you see it as an illness, the hospital exists in your mind even if you aren’t physically in one, which relate to Foucault’s comparison between hospitals and prisons because both attempt to control a specific group of people.  Seeing autism as a political identity is incredibly important and I’m glad that websites like The Aspergian have helped me access that

  2. You can see representation of autism in Japanese media too.  Two examples comes to my mind: (Names are written in Japanese order, so the surname comes first)

    “Hi-Score Girl” (in Netflix), as one of the two main characters, Oono Akira is a non-verbal autistic girl, and everyone in her class considers her a mysterious girl and seems to like her.  She is sometimes a bit aggressive trying to communicate with her friend Yaguchi Haruo.  Both of them love video games so they start bonding through them. 

    “New Game!”  too (in Crunchyroll), in this case, to me is plain to see that Takimoto Hifumi is Asperger, but even with her problems everyone at work likes her.  This series is about the video-game industry, and is super lighthearted, happy and funny. 

    Sadly, in both cases no one talks openly using the word “autism”.

    1. That is very interesting!  I watch a lot of anime and I may check it out sometime, I am actually writing another article that points out the anime Darling in the Franxx works very well as an autism metaphor, and there is a possibility one of the main characters in that anime is autistic

      1. I’m not that interested in mecha anime, but I’ve watched the original Gundam anime and Gundam Z.  I have interest in Darling in the Franxx being from trigger and all…  Maybe I should watch it, and also Aldnoah Zero from the writer of Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica and Saya no Uta (this one is a visual novel).

  3. I haven’t labeled many of my characters Autistic because I write mostly in fictional worlds, so the word doesn’t necessarily apply.  Should anyone ever ask me in an interview, however, I certainly wouldn’t deny it.
    My only openly autistic character is Irena, a secondary character in “The Time Traveller’s Accountant”, and recurring character in the overall series.  Lots more are definitely Autistic-coded, though.

  4. I write tween/teen fiction online.  I love labeling my characters autistic.  It gives my autistic readers explicit role models and characters to relate to.

    As a result, I ended up attracting a flock of autistic readers.  I’m pretty happy about that.

  5. When I write, my main character is usually autistic.  I think that’s a result of me writing them through my eyes.  I put myself in their heads, and some of myself becomes part of the character.

    If the story is set in this universe I use the word, but for fantasy universes I don’t.  Mainly because my fantasy was written before I knew I was autistic.  My first two novels were published 2017, I didn’t get assessment and diagnosis until 2018 and I had been writing them from 2013.  I have a few more novels to write in the same universe but it would be jarring to add ‘autistic’ now, considering it’s a world with magic and dragons. 

    My non-fantasy spec fic and crime novels, I do describe the main characters as autistic, because set in this universe it makes sense to use the words we use in this universe for different neurotypes.  It has caused problems, my MA Creative Writing dissertation piece was about an autistic police officer in a rural area.  I used my experiences of sensory needs and differences to inform the characterisation, and my dissertation supervisor, who was and is the course leader, told me to make her more stereotypical because no one would be able to see her as autistic.  I had to point out the character was an autistic woman, I am an autistic woman, I know a few autistic women and therefore I’m probably a better authority on how we process the world than a 60 year old, neurotypical man. 

    My PhD, once I get round to doing it, is going to be about the representation of autistic women in crime fiction.  From my initial scan of available literature and films/television shows most autistic women are portrayed as ‘Sheldon Cooper with tits’.  I wonder how much the attitude displayed by my supervisor – that people won’t be able to recognise a character as autistic unless the writer plays up to the stereotype – informs these representations, of all autistic characters and why people are so afraid to say their characters are autistic.

    1. EG: Saga.

      Lisbeth Salander.

      Some of this Australian crime writer’s characters.  [her nonwriting job is working with autistic children in medical practice].

  6. One thing that I have heard is that writers and producers don’t want to label their characters as autistic because they think that obligates them to adhere to a rigid, DSM definition of autism and they would have to portray the character according to those guidelines. 

    With regard to books with autistic female characters, “Queens of Geek,” by Jen Wilde (autistic high school students at a sci fi con); the Xandri Corelel series by Kaia Sonderby (autistic woman in space who is an expert on communicating with aliens), On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis (autistic girl and her alcoholic mother try to survive after an apocalyptic event on Earth.)

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