Welcome to the first installment of my new mini-series, How to Write [Blank]. In this series, I’m covering a number of topics that I, in my person research, haven’t found a ton of in-depth resources for and/or feel like I could add my own two cents. As you can guess from the title of this post, today we’re going to start looking at autistic characters.
Now, the first part of writing any character whether they be neurodivergent (that is to say, not neurotypical or not being considered “normal” societally) or LGBTQ+ is to know what makes them that. For autism, I’ll be using the definition from the Autism Self Advocacy Network (or ASAN):
“Autism is a neurological variation that occurs in about one percent of the population and is classified as a developmental disability… The terms “Autistic” and “autism spectrum” often are used to refer inclusively to people who have an official diagnosis on the autism spectrum or who self-identify with the Autistic community. While all Autistics are as unique as any other human beings, they share some characteristics typical of autism in common.”
Now, what does that actually mean? First, I want to emphasize the fact that autism is a spectrum condition. That means that while many people may identify as autistic, no two autistic people experience the same situation. Some people use the terms “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” to help further categorize autism, however that is controversial and I will avoid doing so.
As with all marginalized identities, I encourage you to do your own research and thought about what terms you want to use to describe your characters.
“There is no single autistic “example.” Autism spreads across socio-economic status, race, gender, ethnicity, and sex.”
In terms of who identifies as autistic, there is no single autistic “example.” Autism spreads across socio-economic status, race, gender, ethnicity, and sex. That being said, most people who are professionally diagnosed at a young age are assigned male at birth (amab). This is due to inherent bias within the medical community and a number of other factors that, due to space and lack of relevancy, I won’t get into. However, if there’s interest I can write something about it, though there are many better worded and in-depth articles online if one cares to do the research.
Additionally, there is a correlation but no proven causation that autistic people are more likely to be transgender or gender nonconforming (including nonbinary/agender). Again, not a solid, hard-fast rule by any means and there is less “science” and studies behind this but it has been a trend that’s been noticed especially with the rise of accessibility through the Internet.
Even though some of the most famous (or infamous) depictions of autistic or autistic-coded characters are cisgender, white men, that doesn’t mean your autistic character has to be!
Okay, one last sort of “boring” topic before we get to the actual writing. In the autistic community, there is a bit of a hot-button issue in terms of person first versus identity first language. What that means for you, as a writer, is whether you’re calling your character “person with autism” or “autistic person.” I’m linking this great article, also from the ASAN, because it goes into more depth about what I’m about to tell you.
The majority, if not all, of autistic people prefer identity first language. Again this is not a catch-all and I know many people who work with autistic people and use person first language. As I said above, I encourage you to do your own research and thought about what terms you want to use. I, personally, will be using autistic person (identity first) in this series.
So how do you write an autistic character?
Being autistic is, in simple terms, a many-headed beast. There’s stimming, sensory issues, social cues you don’t quite pick up on, special interests, differences in learning, needing a routine — it’s not cut and dry (no matter how some depictions might like you to think). In this portion of the series, I’ll talk about stimming, sensory processing, and social aspects. If none of that makes sense to you, that’s okay! I’ll be explaining everything as I go along.
Sometimes confused with fidgeting, stimming is a repetitive movement commonly seen as flapping (moving hands rapidly up and down) or leg shaking. Stimming (or “a stim”) can also include bigger movements like full body rocking or can be as simple as humming, chewing something, or making other motions.
“Stimming is a repetitive movement commonly seen as flapping or leg shaking. Stimming can also include bigger movements like full body rocking.”
The main difference between fidgeting and stimming is that often autistic people cannot stop stimming. It’s used to help regulate environmental input and is both calming and helpful attention-wise — I’ll go into more detail about environmental and sensory processing later. Some level of stimming is shared with people with attention issues, like ADD or ADHD, since they use it to focus just like autistic people do.
Many autistic people stim! Consider whether your character does. It’s fairly common, but the degree and visibility shifts based on the person (and as was pointed out to me, not everyone does). You don’t need to call it stimming. You can say that they hum often, that they never sit still, that they have fidget toys in their bag all the time — be creative. It might help to do research on stim toys to get ideas, but even in a fantasy or sci-fi universe there can be equivalents available.
Being autistic can feel like living in a world with a filter over everything. The world is brighter, louder, rougher — it even smells stronger. Some people are sensory seekers. They want to look for the good sensory experiences and avoid the negative ones. Other people want to avoid as much “information” as possible. Either way, autistic people can be easily overwhelmed with what is considered “typical” by some. Of course, this is also a wide spectrum of possibilities.
“Being autistic can feel like living in a world with a filter over everthing. The world is brighter, louder, rough — it even smells stronger.”
Going to the mall, for example, can be fine on a quiet Monday morning but a horrible, no good, very bad idea on a Friday afternoon. Some autistic people may be fine with a loud movie but not with a loud concert. Not all senses are created equal! In fact, some autistic people use loud music to hep stim and calm themselves, while others wear noise canceling headphones as much as possible.
Food can also be difficult when you’re autistic, since some textures feel wrong or some tastes are too strong, like spicy food. On the flip side, there are many autistic people who love spices. Generally, autistic people like to stick with what they know — that goes for food, clothing, toys, and routine (which will be talked more about in another post).
“Generally, autistic people like to stick with what they know.”
Unexpected bouts of noise, being touched without warning, and eating a “bad food” can all bring on or lead to meltdowns or shutdowns.
Meltdowns are the “typical” sort of breakdown, the loud and sometimes violent outbursts when things aren’t going right and everything is the worst. It’s difficult to explain what this would look like in an individual since it can be so varied.
I will emphasize that not every meltdown is violent and not every meltdown is in public, but they can be and it’s important to acknowledge that. When a person is having a meltdown, however, that is not an active choice. It’s not fun to have meltdowns, it’s not fun to feel like you can’t control yourself. Meltdowns are a sort of last resort attempt to communicate that something in your situation isn’t right – there can be any number of reasons for a meltdown.
Additionally there are shutdowns which, as the name implies, are when a person almost seems to fall asleep or stops being responsive. Though they are fully awake and mostly present, as a defense mechanism they have “shut off” in a way. Shutdowns occur under similar circumstances to meltdowns.
Not all autistic people experience shutdowns or meltdowns, and what triggers either can change based on the person. Definitely don’t shy away from “inconvenient” moments where this can happen but also be consistent. If your character is fine with the noise from a rocket ship once, would they have a problem another time?
This is definitely a complicated part of being autistic since the amount of social cues one understands varies wildly from person to person already, not to mention throwing in being neurodivergent. To again borrow from the ASAN, they describe “difficulties in understanding and expressing typical social interaction” and provide examples such as “preferring parallel interaction, having delayed responses to social stimulus, or behaving in an “inappropriate” manner to the norms of a given social context.”
I want to point out that “behaving in an “inappropriate” manner” is not necessarily the same as the “cringe” culture “lol I’m so random rawr means I love you in dinosaur” stereotype. Realistically, this difficulty with social situations leads to many autistic people relying on “scripts” or mental ideas of how a conversation should go. If a conversation with a person follows a script exactly or close enough, then everything is fine because you already know how to respond. Of course, if someone goes off-script, then that’s an issue.
“No two autistic people are the same so why should all the autistic characters be the same?”
There is the common stereotype that no autistic person understands sarcasm which is partially true. Sarcasm can be difficult to pick up on especially if you don’t know a person very well. However, I encourage you as an author to think beyond the stereotypes not only to make your character more interesting but to further the understanding that autism is a spectrum. No two autistic people are the same so why should all the autistic characters be the same?
Difficulties in social situations can also extend to not acting “properly.” For example, it can be rather difficult to understand when one person is done speaking and when you should speak. Eye contact is very difficult as well — I know people who can only look at others when they’re looking away.
I’m going to take a hot second to tell you to please be consistent if your character makes eye contact or not. It bothers me so much when people forget that someone isn’t making eye contact and then talk about another character “looking deep into their eyes.” Like… no. Just no.
Anyways, I know this post is getting rather long but I’ll end this part on what is probably the most important piece of advice I can give.
Listen to autistic people.
And no, that does not include autistic people’s mothers or neurotypicals who “work a lot with autistic folks!” Listen, this isn’t me trying to say one person is less than another at all, but if you’re going to write about amputees, do you talk to people who have actually lost limbs or do you talk to doctors who perform amputations? As much as it might be somewhat helpful to talk to people who work with amputees, at the end of the day no one knows more about life without a limb than those who literally live that every day.
It’s the same for autistic people. No one knows quite what it’s like unless you’re autistic. But by writing autistic characters and making autism something that’s talked about — and not just when lies are being spread about vaccines, but in positive ways too — you can help an entire community become normalized.
Want to read more about autistic representation before the next part? Check out this good article as a starting point. It compares Community‘s lovable Abed to The Big Bang Theory’s famous (or infamous) Sheldon.
Let me know in the comments what you liked, didn’t like, or really hope I cover in the next part! Cheers 🙂
This article was edited on 01/20/2018 to correct the original assumption that all autistic people stim and/or have meltdowns.