Welcome to the second post in my How to Write [Blank] series! Here we’ll be finishing up looking at writing autistic characters. This is by no means a complete list of every little thing to look at — I really strongly encourage doing your own research, especially looking at the links I’ll stick at the end of this.
In the last post, I started going over more specific aspects of autism you’ll want to look at when writing an autistic character and you definitely should look at it here if you haven’t already read it.
In this post, I’ll go over special interests, the necessity of a routine, learning differences, and audio processing. I’m also going to have a section at the end about stereotypes and resources for you to read for more information on being autistic. Again, I’m quoting and referencing the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) and their basic list of autistic traits here.
But let’s get right to it!
I hesitate to call this the defining factor of an autistic person — that’s not exactly a claim anyone should make — but in terms of characterization, this might be one of the easiest to write. Special interests are basically what’s on the tin: autistic people tend to hyperfocus or get really, really into a topic and learn as much as they can about it. Not only that, but for some autistic people it can be difficult to talk about other things. Special interests sometimes start bleeding into every aspect of life, or as much as the person can make it at the very least.
A comparison could be drawn to when young children have “stages” in their lives. For example, the train stage a toddler goes through, where they want their room to be decorated with train things and want to talk about trains all the time and know a lot about trains? That’s very much what a special interest is.
The best part about special interests, though, is that they can be about anything. Yes, you read that right. Special interests can be as specific as “Bucky Barnes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe” or as vague as “Norse mythology.” They can be “makeup” or “computer science” or literally anything you can think of.
“The best part about special interests, though, is that they can be about anything.”
I will clarify that just because your character has a special interest in airplanes doesn’t mean they don’t talk about other things. They should have varied interests — in fact many autistic people have more than one special interest at any given time — and they probably can hold conversations about other things. But when your group of daring adventurers need to disabled the bad guy’s flying fortress, maybe your autistic character can realize that the controls are similar to a plane that they’ve studied in depth.
I’ll take this moment to say: Don’t hesitate to make a character’s autism important to the plot or to them. Sure, you want the character to be more than “that autistic person” but that is still a part of their identity. For some people it might be more important it is for others. Use your best judgement and do your own research.
A part about living with autism is being able to have a predictable schedule and knowing what is going to happen on any given day. Without this routine, life becomes more stressful, anxiety sky-rockets, and meltdowns and shutdowns are more common. What this means as an author is that you need to really think about how an autistic character would deal with upheaval in their life.
As I’ve mentioned consistently, autism is a spectrum. Some people are more comfortable with changes and others need at least a month of notice before something changes in their life. Some people don’t have much of a routine at all.
This isn’t a guide about how to help people deal with a change in routine. There’s plenty out there already. But I wanted to mention this as a point to consider.
Note that I did not say “learning difficulties.” The ASAN describes this aspect of autism as “non-standard ways of learning and approaching problem solving.” What that means, functionally, is that autistic people are more likely to learn things in different ways and in a different order than other people.
Sometimes autistic people will understand multiplication before addition or they might be able to hold complicated discussions but be unable to pick their clothes for the morning. Of course, this is not the same for every autistic person. There are examples of people who have no problem with traditional “mental” tasks like math, reading, etc., but have poor physical coordination.
“Autistic people are more likely to learn things in different ways and in a different order than other people.”
This doesn’t mean that every autistic person is great at computer science or technology and it doesn’t mean that every autistic person is a master at a specific topic. There is a number of stereotypes about the “genius but socially inept” person or the “stupid and rude” person — I encourage you to break away from these tropes in your own writing.
Autistic people do have a trend in having complications with language. As I mentioned briefly in my last post, sarcasm can be difficult to understand. Beyond that, some autistic people are nonverbal, which is pretty much what it says on the tin: they don’t talk. Does that mean they don’t communicate? No. Thanks in no small part to the advent of technology, nonverbal people — not just autistic people — can use any number of devices to get their message across.
Additionally, body language is an important tool in communication period and even more so for nonverbal folks.
There is a wide spectrum of language processing “ability” for autistic people. Sometimes it can be difficulty explaining topics verbally or processing subjects when they’re talked about, but having no issue when reading or writing about the very same subjects.
“Body language is an important tool in communication period and even more so for nonverbal folks.”
This is the ability to turn outside noise into something your brain can comprehend. There are two major categories this can fall into. The first is the literal inability to hear someone, perhaps because they’re speaking too quietly or because there’s too much ambient noise that becomes distracting or interferes with one’s ability to make out another person’s words. The second is when everything is perfectly audible and the words are clear, but for whatever reason they don’t make sense.
Again, the intensity of this can vary from person to person. Sometimes it can be impossible to hold a conversation in a busy room while another person can be fine even on a crowded street. One day there might be no problem hearing others and then other days it’s almost impossible to understand a single word. There’s such a wide variety of audio processing difficulties that people — again, not just autistic people — can have that I don’t feel comfortable even trying to go into detail.
“There’s a wide variety of audio processing difficulties that people can have.”
As an author, what you can focus on is thinking about how much ambient noise is in an area? When you go on a walk, for example, or drive in your car, what else is going on? Maybe your autistic character needs the radio turned off to hold a conversation or maybe they ask for clarification more often than others.
Alternatively, how could your character hide difficulty in these situations? Perhaps they just nod and smile when they don’t understand something. Maybe they have a close friend who can fill them in later.
One trope I would avoid is when a person is inhumanly good at reading lips. While being able to see someone’s mouth moving is scientifically proven to make it easier to understand them, functionally it is incredibly difficult to know what a person is saying when you can’t hear them. Have you ever watched a Bad Lip Reading video? Then you know what I’m talking about.
There are not a plethora of explicitly autistic characters in pop culture, but there are certainly stereotypes for characters who are assigned autism by fandom. A few notable examples are BBC’s Sherlock Holmes (from Sherlock), Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, and Abed from Community. There are much better written and extensive articles about the pros and cons of these depictions, but they all share a few key concepts.
All three have difficulties in social situations, intense specialization in terms of interests and knowledge, and a sort of “awkwardness” that is played up as setting them apart from others.
Now, say what you will about the three — and if you read my first article, you know I have Feelings about how some autistic-coded characters are written — but it’s important to know what stereotypes there are before you write your own autistic characters.
- Socially inept
- Very good at math/science
- Played as “the joke” or not to be taken seriously
- Asexual or aromantic or both (alternatively: bad at relationships more so than any of the non-autistic characters)
- Rude and/or inconsiderate of others (especially if this is played as a reason to laugh at the character)
- Robot/Alien/Nonhuman Character
This is not an exhaustive list! And this is not to say that your autistic character cannot have one of the above traits, because there are autistic people who are one or more or all of the above (okay maybe not a robot/alien/etc. but who knows). But like with everything else in these articles, I encourage you to do thinking about what you want your character to be like.
“There’s no “one autistic person” and writing a convincing autistic character involves serious research and character development.”
Autism is classified as a “developmental disorder” but in reality it is far more complicated. There’s no “one autistic person” and writing a convincing autistic character involves serious research and character development. Hopefully the two posts I’ve written spark some ideas for you to use in the future.
Why Autism $peaks Is Bad: