Is ‘Autism’ Too Broad?

Well it’s Autism Acceptance Month (not ‘awareness’ because people already know we exist, they just need to stop treating us like shit) and I feel like now I should probably reflect a little. Mainly, why I like the term Autism Spectrum Disorder/ASD/being ‘on the spectrum’, but have gotten a little uncomfortable with the term ‘autism’.

Now, when I was growing up in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s nobody realized the autism spectrum was a thing. It was either distinctly Asperger’s or stereotypical autism. This was a bit of a problem for me. When I was two years old, it was clear something was not quite normal about me. I was speech-delayed. I was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder–Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), and because of my speech delay I could not be diagnosed with Asperger’s (the type of autism that describes me most accurately) on a technicality. So for the longest time I knew something was wrong with me, but I didn’t have a word to describe it. You can tell how growing up would’ve been difficult.

Things have definitely gotten a lot better now that I can be described with the autism SPECTRUM definition. But I feel like because of the term ‘autistic’ I am still subject to a lot of discrimination in the world of post-secondary education.

See, when most people think of autistic people, they think of those who have less capabilities/more difficulties than most people. While it is true I need some accommodations, for the most part I’m not really ‘disabled’. I’m just differently abled. This is one reason why I’m starting to switch to the Asperger’s label, which I’ll get to in a minute. But, basically, when people learn that I am ‘autistic’ but am actually very smart and capable (except when I’m not), they don’t know how to react. Sometimes they’ll accuse me of trying to get special treatment when I say I have trouble with group work, sometimes they’ll tell me to my face I’m not ready for work only to get defensive and lie when I confront them about it later, sometimes they’ll go behind my back and say I’m not ready for college level education because I’m not performing to a certain, impossibly high standard, and other times they’ll try to push me to my limits in a very condescending and harsh tone because I’ve made it so far. And don’t think of expressing your feelings and explaining how you feel you’ve been treated because they won’t sympathize with you.

This is one reason I actually like functioning labels because it can help both the ASD person and the people around them gauge what they are capable of and what they need help with. Just saying ‘autistic’ can mean anything. But because there will always be some people who use these labels to discriminate further (denying lower functioning people agency and higher functioning people accessibility) a lot of people on the spectrum don’t like using them and just say ‘autistic’.

I feel the term ‘autistic’ has become too broad, not helpful, and in some cases, harmful. My main reason for saying this is because far too often, I see people from all over the spectrum with different interests, skills, and challenges all lumped together in the same support group in the hope that we’ll all get along, have fun, and learn the same thing. No one autism spectrum person is the same, and I feel like saying we’re all united because we can describe ourselves as ‘autistic’ is untrue. We all face discrimination and ableism, and we may have similar quirks, but we don’t all have the same experiences or are affected by our neurotype the same way.

But the worst thing is that I can’t help but feel that a lot of people who are profoundly NOT on the spectrum are using the autism label because they are just a little bit different/have some problems (when something like ADHD or OCD might be a more accurate and helpful label). Why do I say this? Because when I see someone describe themselves as autistic but behaves like a complete bigot and asshole, I get the impression that they’re lying and/or using it as an excuse for shitty behaviour. There’s an entire group of aphobes (people who treat asexual people like shit and think they’re all straight for some reason) with a lot of members calling themselves autistic and it’s VERY suspicious.

So because of all this, while I am proud to say I am on the autism spectrum, I’m starting to call myself an Aspie (person with Asperger’s) than just ‘autistic’. Asperger’s is the most accurate place on the spectrum I belong to and it’s honestly kind of empowering for me, letting people know I am capable but just need my own space.

This is all how I feel, of course, and I’m not forcing other people on the spectrum to change their label or feel differently. ASD rights have come a long way, but work still needs to be done. We need allistic people to realize autism is not always a one-size-fits-all definition, realize we all have our strengths and limits, and be willing to work with us to accommodate us, rather than just make assumptions based on how we usually work and then get confused and angry when they get overwhelmed or need help. I won’t be surprised if having more descriptions for autism might be necessary.

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Understanding My Fave (and Least Fave) Characters

Being as huge an animation fan as I am, I’m starting to realize that the more I like the characters, the more I’m likely to love their respective media. Consequently, if I absolutely despise the main character or too many characters, I’m not going to like their series one bit.

I love Teen Titans and Avatar: The Last Airbender because of how fleshed-out and likable all the main characters are. I like The Legend of Korra because even though I have some problems with the show, I do really love Asami and Korra. I don’t have the most comprehensive knowledge of Overwatch but I really love the character of Symmetra because she’s a beautiful and powerful autistic woman (and really all the women of Overwatch are beautiful and powerful how can I not love it). Cybersix is an okay show itself but Cybersix herself is amazing. And I have a lot of fave Disney heroines either from nostalgia or from personal empowerment (Belle, Mulan, Pocahontas, Vanellope, Honey and Gogo, and even Aurora). But I hate Steven Universe now because I really dislike most of the main characters (ESPECIALLY Steven, who’s become a mouthpiece for the writers) and the characters I DID love have been regressing into tropes (Garnet is mostly just Ruby and Sapphire in a trench coat and Peridot is nothing but comic relief).

So when it comes to my absolute faves, Big Hero 6 and Wreck-It Ralph, it’s probably not a coincidence that Hiro Hamada and Ralph are actually my fave characters of all time.

File:Wreck it Ralph pose transparent.png

Why is that?

Because, as someone who is autistic, has struggled with mental illness, has a limited social network, and is only NOW really starting to figure out my place in the world, I relate to these characters so, so much. Not to mention they’re brilliantly well written too.

Not only is Hiro absolutely adorable, but he’s also a brilliantly well written teen boy character. It would have been very easy to just make him another whiny teenager, but he’s not. At the start of the movie he becomes enthusiastic at the idea of bettering his life, even if he needs some encouragement. When his brother dies he doesn’t become all brooding and angsty, he becomes seriously and realistically depressed. He has trouble letting people in at first, but his world brightens up when he makes close friends and becomes a superhero. He hits a road bump when confronting the villain, but he’s able to let out his grief in a peaceful manner, is comforted, and gets back on the right path. Eventually he’s able to rebuild his closest friend and start his road to a promising future. For me, that kind of parallels my own life: how I was in a horrible mental stage for almost two years before this movie came out, and how I started my path to recovery. Now, for the first time in 22 years, I no longer feel like killing myself, I have a wonderful friend, and I’m determined to get a job as a social service worker. (Have you figured out why this movie is my absolute fave yet?)

And Ralph, man, he’s just such a good hero. He goes through a LOT of character development (going from a lonely but still kind of selfish ‘bad guy’ to a true hero who’s willing to sacrifice himself for the only person who was ever nice to him) and is someone I wouldn’t mind actually being with. Like I know a lot of people find Tadashi Hamada attractive, and while he is, I don’t really know Tadashi well enough. But Ralph? Not only is he big and burly and very cuddly, but you know he’d never leave you behind and would do anything for you, and you’d have a lot of fun with him.

But I think there’s another major reason. Both characters have their flaws. Ralph, being a bad guy, doesn’t always do the right thing or have the best sense of morality (he takes obvious enjoyment out of interrogating Sour Bill for information). Hiro initially wanted to partake in dubious bot fighting and was at one point enraged enough to actually kill a man. But despite their mistakes, they’re fundamentally good people and actively make an effort to change. They TRY to be better people.

The same cannot be said for some of my absolute least fave characters, Anna from Frozen and Joy from Inside Out, movies that I cannot stand.

Joy is just…a bully. I’m sorry, but she is. She is obsessively controlling over Riley’s brain and making sure she only feels HER emotion, nothing else. But she always pushes the blame on Sadness. On their road trip Joy is consistently rude and condescending to her, and even at one point is willing to let Sadness DIE just because “Riley needs to be happy”. It’s only when Joy realizes that Sadness is useful that she goes back to get her, but even then, she never actually apologizes to her or acknowledges that she was wrong. That just constantly made me uncomfortable and made me feel the wrong way.

And Anna…ugh. Anna literally makes everything all about HER. She constantly disrespects her sister’s boundaries, even when she’s trying to ‘help’ her. But does Anna actually love Elsa? Of course not. When Elsa kicks her out of the ice palace Anna doesn’t even acknowledge her sister until she’s literally about to die. I know I’m supposed to feel sorry for Anna and find her sacrifice meaningful but, like, it’s your sister, of course you’re going to want to save her. That doesn’t mean you actually LOVE her. I understand I have a HEAVY bias against Anna because I identified with Elsa and was upset that she wasn’t the main hero, but…yeah I don’t like Anna.

But you can see why I hate their specific type of character (cheerful quirky girl protagonist): they feel like the universe revolves around THEM. Hiro and Ralph have to realize that other people matter, too. They have actual character development and give a damn about others. Anna and Joy are ‘perfect’ and only care at the very last minute.

Anyway, this was slightly more personal than my other posts, but I felt like it was important to share.

The Symmetra Test

In a 1985 comic strip for Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel inadvertently created the Bechdel Test, a tool used by feminists to critique media narratives. The rules are:

  1. The movie has at least two (named) women in it…
  2. …who talk to each other…
  3. ….about something other than men.

The test is NOT an indicator of a film’s overall quality (it is possible for a movie to past the test but still be sexist, or for a film to have empowering female characters who don’t talk to each other), and it was originally meant to highlight a lack of lesbian representation, but it does do a good job of highlighting a troubling trend in media.

Since then, there have been other tests. They include:

  • The Mako Mori test: a) at least one female character b) who gets her own narrative arc c) that is not about supporting a man’s story (this is mostly used for women of color)
  • The Furiosa test: the film makes the Internet angry for being ‘feminist’
  • The Babs and Kara test: the female characters are distinguishable and recognizable even if they were wearing identical bathrobes and their hair was covered (a critique of ‘same face syndrome’)
  • The Sexy Lamp test: if the woman can be replaced by a literal sex object, would the plot change at all
  • Ellen Willis test: would the character’s role in the story be the same if their gender was reversed
  • The Aila Test: a) is the character an Indigenous or Aboriginal main female character b) who does NOT fall in love with a white man c) who does NOT end up raped or murdered at any point in the story

You can read more about media tests HERE.

As an autistic person, I feel like there should be a similar test for autistic people. Representation for autistic people tends to be few and far between, and the most prominent examples tend to be stereotypical. So, I decided to create my own test: The Symmetra Test.

Here are my rules:

  1. Is there an autistic or autistic-coded main character
  2. Who ISN’T a white man
  3. Who ISN’T infantilized by the narrative or other characters

The test is named for the character of Symmetra of the game Overwatch, who is an autistic woman of color who is definitely seen, depicted, and treated as an adult.

If the autistic character in question is a child, they can behave like children, but it has to be appropriate for their age. So characters like Vanellope (who’s 9) from Wreck-It Ralph and Laura (who’s 11) from Logan, two characters I see as autistic-coded, would pass because they’re children but they’re not treated like literal infants or toddlers. Characters like Peridot would not pass because she’s at least a few hundred years old but is treated by both the crewniverse and the fandom as a baby.

The test is not a be-all, end-all indicator of quality autism representation and is not meant to discount white male autistic characters (as long as they’re not infantilized or rely heavily on stereotypes). This test is to bring attention to the fact that so few autistic or autistic coded characters are non male or non white, and fewer still are treated age appropriately.

If you’re autistic, let me know if you think there should be any amendments to this test, or if you can name any characters who would pass! I’d love to hear some feedback.

I hope this test can help bring attention to more autistic or autistic-coded characters of different genders and races, as well as help people when making any autistic characters of their own.

This is What Having Hyper-Empathy is Like.

Is it possible to have too much empathy?

Yes.

You’re probably familiar with the fact that a lot of autistic individuals lack empathy. You’re probably less aware of the fact that a lot of others actually have an excess of empathy. Hyper-empathy. And this is something that has become both a blessing and a curse for me.

I always feel deeply over everything. If I see, hear, or read about someone with a severe physical injury or other bodily horrors, my body starts to ache. I’m constantly worried about making others upset or disapproving. When someone gets sad or cries near me, sometimes I start to cry too. I get emotional very easily. I worry constantly for the wellbeing of others around me. I can’t stand it when children and animals get needlessly hurt or killed. I feel grief over the deaths of people I’ve never met. Even when I fight back against someone who bullies me, I feel horrible about it later. And if someone describes, graphically, their ideas of self harm or suicide, I get into legit anxiety attacks.

But there was a little incident recently when my hyper-empathy went through the roof.

A few weeks ago I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, hearing good things about it. At first I was enjoying myself, but as the movie progressed I was taken aback at how…unpleasant it was. Crude humor, Drax and Rocket being bigger jerks than they were in the previous movie, scenes of poor baby Groot getting tortured and tormented, seeing people getting thrown into space to die….it came across as weirdly cruel. I was not expecting any of this. I remember thinking to myself at several spots in the movie “I don’t like this”. But hey, maybe I was just being sensitive.

But then, came the scene that shocked me to a deeply personal core. Major spoilers from this point on.

It is eventually revealed that Peter’s father, Ego the Living Planet, has ulterior motives for having children. He needs to sire a child who has the same powers as him to terraform other planets into extended versions of himself, and Peter happens to be another Celestial. Things take an even darker turn when it’s revealed that Ego gave Peter’s mother cancer because he actually did love her…and she was a distraction. Peter becomes enraged, and tries to fight back, but is overpowered. And what did the movie decided to do to show us just how uncaring Ego was to his own child

He took Peter’s beloved Walkman, headphones, and mixtape, and crushed them in front of him.

It was at that precise moment when I walked out of the theater and didn’t look back. Trying to think about or discuss this scene would result in me feeling heavy, trembling, and crying.

Why did that scene upset me so much? Two reasons.

One, is because that was the last thing Peter had of his mother. Like, again, it just felt so fucking cruel. The whole movie had so many unnecessary cruelty that this was the final nail on the coffin.

And secondly (and this is extremely personal), is that a lot of autistic people see themselves in Peter Quill, and how attached he is to his Walkman (and when he dances around with it, it can be seen as him stimming). I use my iPod to help me stim. So to see his comfort object/stim tool be crushed right in front of him hit a really personal core.

I’m still shaken up over this damn scene. I know a lot of people are like “but it’s not framed to be cruel, we’re not reminded that it’s his mother’s” but keep in mind, I see films differently than other people. Movies aren’t JUST movies to me. Characters aren’t JUST characters to me. And for this movie, to see the characters that I had loved so much before get thrust into these situations was too much for me.

I’m not sure if I can really say if this was a bad movie or not, just that I didn’t like it. That’s not really my point. My point was to show how my autism affects how I view (and enjoy) movies, for better or for worst.

Drax the Destroyer: The Autistic Alien Done RIGHT

Let’s close out Autism Acceptance Month (and start getting hyped for the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie) and take a look at a good example of an autistic-coded character: Drax the Destroyer.

Image result for drax the destroyer

Like Peridot from Steven Universe, Drax is an alien that is very strongly coded to be autistic. He does not understand sarcasm or metaphors (very common with autistic people), may have some sensitivity issues (he never wears a shirt), is pretty blunt, and has some trouble with social skills. He also has other quirks that aren’t associated with common people.

With this, it would be very easy for the writers to botch up this character. (Look up ‘gremlin Peridot’ and you should get a good idea of how.) But while Drax can be a little rough around the edges, he ultimately proves to be a competent and even compassionate hero. He’s also an interesting character: he’s a man of honour grieving the loss of his family and will do anything to avenge them but ultimately can’t do it on his own, so he closes the gap between himself and the other Guardians in order to save the day. He grows to respect Gamora and even becomes good friends with Rocket. Best of all, he’s not a STEREOTYPE. He’s not a skinny, nerdy white man with obsessions and is a genius in math and science and has little to no empathy or even feelings. He’s not overly childlike or hard to understand or a burden to the people around him. He’s a SUPERHERO.

But the reason why I state that Drax is an autistic coded character done right is that real autistic children relate to him, as explained HERE. Autistic people can be superheroes, and don’t you forget it.

Let’s hope the sequel continues to inspire and help other autistic kids as well. As it is, Drax is a great character and an example of how you should code a non-human character as autistic without relying on harmful tropes.

 

Your Fave is Autistic Part 9: Gordo

Image result for gordo lizzie mcguire

I’ve been meaning to make this post for awhile.

Lizzie McGuireThat’s So Raven, and Even Stevens were my holy trinity of live action Disney Channel (or in my country, Family Channel) shows. Recently, I decided to check out Lizzie McGuire again (it’s pretty easily available online) and it holds up very well to this day.

And oh my god, when I saw Gordo again, I became 1000000000000% convinced that he was autistic. It’s amazing how I never realized it before.

I think the first major giveaway of him being autistic is that he’s extremely honest, but very blunt and on the nose, not always making appropriate statements. He doesn’t hesitate to tell the hard truth and point out when people are wrong or ridiculous and when he doesn’t like them or want to hang out with them. He also has some trouble picking up on social cues, often missing out what the rest of his peers are doing; in one episode, Ethan Craft tried to demonstrate a special pose that the boys their age were doing for their school photos, but Gordo was confused about the whole thing. In other, when Lizzie was distressed about not finding a job, Gordo was expected to say “I might not be a film director” but instead reinforced Miranda’s “I might not become a musician”.

He is highly intelligent and studious, often looking at things from a different point of view, making unique, poignant observations, such as “Any group activity that forces others to be happy, is by nature, evil”. (This can also show why he doesn’t have a lot of friends and is not very social outside of Miranda and Lizzie.)

He tends to hyperfixate on certain (often weird and definitely not mainstream) things and it often takes over his life (there have been quite a few episodes on his obsessions) and does not always like sharing them (or only shares it with certain people). But his biggest passion is to direct (again, a common interest for a lot of autistic people is with movies).

He is seen playing with a hacky sack a lot (kicking it around), which can easily be seen as stimming.

More than anything, he repeatedly makes it clear that he is not like everyone else and values individuality and being true to yourself. I relate to that a lot. I had trouble understanding why I had to conform to social roles, and often see things differently from others (my whole blog is full of unpopular opinions, haha).

Since this is a 65 episode long show, there’s probably a few details I missed out, so I recommend you check the show out. It will be easy to see that he’s his own unique person, one that just so happens to be relatable to me as someone who’s autistic.

Your Fave Is Autistic Part 8: Laura/X-23

Image result for logan

Logan is a great movie. It is the prime example of the gritty superhero movie done RIGHT. It’s absorbing, it’s touching, it’s intense, it has a lot of heavy themes and graphic violence, but still has funny moments and an optimistic ending. I really do believe Hugh Jackman should get an Oscar nomination for his performance, even if he won’t win.

Another reason why I like this movie a lot is the character of Laura. From the moment she first showed up I immediately saw her as autistic. (Mild spoilers from this point on.)

For starters, she’s described as ‘mysterious’ and ‘strange’, and has some of Logan’s ‘volatility, instability, mood swings, and shadows’ (only manifested in a different way). Those sound like pretty common descriptions for someone who’s autistic.

For most of the film, she doesn’t talk, and when she does speak, it’s very quiet and brief; she doesn’t talk the same way the other characters do, and tends to scream or communicate through other sounds. Some autistic people have trouble communicating verbally/have problems with language skills/are known to have selective mutism, and that is almost certainly the case for her character.

She behaves a bit younger than her actual age, and tends to get easily frustrated or angry/scared, such as when someone tries to move her things, when a ride stops working, or when someone points out she has to pay for sunglasses (which she wears almost all the time) and chips.

She also gets really absorbed in movies and music and is fluent in both English and Spanish. These are all common strengths and fascinations.

And most of all is her special connection with Xavier. They’re able to empathize with and understand each other, since they both have mental problems and they’re on the run. They get really close to each other. It’s pretty common for a lot of autistic kids to bond easier with older people than their peers. When Logan is able to warm up to Laura and gets closer to her, she grows to love him as her own father.

For a moment, I was a little concerned that maybe most of this behaviour was just because of her horrible upbringing, but when we’re introduced to the other children who were experimented on, she doesn’t quite behave like them. They all have perfect speech and can interact with others like common kids. Laura is noticeably different from the rest of them. So I think Laura is purposefully meant to stand out, and I see it as her being autistic.

I heard the director of Logan wants to make an X-23 movie, and I hope he does. This character is really great and the idea of an autistic/neurodivergent-coded character becoming the hero of her own movie could do a world of wonders. At any rate, I look forward to seeing more of this character and the future of this franchise.

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