The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing an Autistic Character

In a world where autism is often portrayed in a negative light in media, a lot of people (myself included) create autistic headcanons to give to popular, positive characters who exhibit some characteristics of autism without being overly stereotypical. Yet canonically confirmed autistic characters do exist.

Here’s a (possibly incomplete) list. What really sticks out to me right away is that almost all of them are white men.  One of the biggest problems of autism in the media is that it’s portrayed almost exclusively as a white male thing. This results in autistic girls and boys of colour getting misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all, and raises stereotypes.

Some of the portrayals vary widely. Sheldon Cooper is a stereotype and his autism is often treated as a joke, so that’s not good (and his show is extremely unpopular, so that doesn’t help). Gil Grissom (from CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) is brilliant. He’s smart, a competent leader, is able to look at things from a unique point of view, is shown to be capable of loving others, is a hero, and is a multifaceted, layer character. When I read that he was on the list I was so happy.

When I saw Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) on the list, I was surprised, but then I realized it did make sense. That said, his character can be a huge asshole (there have been a lot of instances of him being a shitty husband to Sue), so, not the best representation.

Two literary characters that are autistic include Christopher Boone (from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a book I read for school), and Jacob Hunt (from House Rules). Christopher Boone is very stereotypical (if you find a find a checklist of autistic characteristics he fits every box), and his parents treat him like shit (they lie to him and tell them to his face that he’s driving them to an early grave), BUT I ultimately did feel for him, and I liked how the story was told exclusively from his point of view. I consider it a mixed bag. On the other hand, I could not get past the first chapter of House Rules because Jacob is 18 but treated like a child. No thank you.

But two characters that I want to bring to attention are Symmetra (from Overwatch) and Peridot (from Steven Universe). These characters matter to me because they’re both women/female-aligned (like me) and from series that are the most popular at the moment.

Symmetra is canonically autistic, and Peridot is very strongly implied to be so. There is an entire tag dedicated to Peridot being autistic. Some of the evidence of Peridot being autistic is her lack of social skills/inability to understand social cues, hyper focus, is easily frustrated, uses comfort objects, can be abrasive, needs a routine, etc. At first, she was a likable character! She was funny, she was unique, and a great foil to the crystal gems. What happened?

The show infantalized her.

Ever since season 3, she’s been described as a ‘gremlin’. She has been behaving more and more childlike, always shouting, always running around doing weird shit, not being allowed to show her technical skills. What’s worse, she’s had her comfort items broken (her recorder) or threatened to be broken (her tablet), there was one point where she was put on a leash, and in a deleted scene Amethyst tried to show her how to eat by putting her in a fucking high chair. Ultimately everything that made Peridot interesting is gone.

By contrast, we have Symmetra, a canonically autistic character who is not infantalized or treated like shit at all. She’s beautiful, talented, and capable. She’s allowed to be a hero. She has a desire to do the right thing, even if she’s doing it the wrong way (but is starting to realize something’s up). We can tell she’s autistic (the need for order and routine, black and white morality, special interest, smart but not very social) without relying too much on stereotypes. She’s a breath of fresh air.

Basically, if you’re going to create an autistic character, 1) don’t base them off stereotypes, 2) don’t overly infantalize them (having some childlike quirks and interests is okay, but constantly behaving like a toddler is not), 3) don’t have them seen as a joke or constantly treated like shit by the narrative or other characters, 4) let them be heroes and have them save the day, portraying their unique ability and worldview in a good light, and 5) try to make them something other than a white man.

Basically, WRITE US AS PEOPLE! And if you’re still having difficulty, research and ask people on the autism spectrum for help. I’d be more than happy to help. (You can look up some traits of autistic people HERE.)

Also, if you’ve seen, read, or played any of the media featuring canonically autistic characters, let me know of how you think they’re portrayed, and if it’s positive, I’ll be sure to check it out! In the meantime, I’ll make more posts on autistic headcanons to give visibility to characters who have characteristics of autism that are ultimately positive potential portrayals.

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Author: Laura Alexander

Hello! Laura here. I am autistic and I love animation. My fave movies are "Big Hero 6" and "Wreck-It Ralph". This is where I'll talk about my thoughts and feelings on animated shows and movies, among other things.

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