I kind of tackled this in 2015 with a Questions 3 post. I didn’t really go into my own thoughts and details though. Also, I’ve learned a lot and my beliefs back then might have changed. As my son gets older and grows, I start seeing newer aspects of autism. This changes how I see it when presented in fiction too. Although, I want to first mention an early exposure to autism in fiction.
The movie was called ‘Mercury Rising’ and it came out in 1998. I watched it in VHS in college with a few friends. We didn’t get very far because it included an autistic child (not played by an autistic child) that broke a secret code or something. That meant he was being hunted and Bruce Willis had to protect him, which sounded like a cool idea. The reason we had trouble watching is because they went for the high-pitched screaming autism a lot. To be fair, this was in the late 90’s where autism was seen differently and we were freshmen in college. We didn’t know what we were looking at, but it felt like it was too much and broke a lot of the scenes. Now, I’d have a better time watching it if the overall story interested me.
This experience led to me realizing that it’s difficult to portray autism in fiction because of preconceived notions and beliefs. Especially back then, people would think of autism in one of three ways:
- The Powder Keg– A person who is constantly on the verge of being triggered into a meltdown. They can get violent with nearly superhuman strength and nobody can see it coming.
- Rain Man– They avoid eye contact and talk in an almost child-like style. All of them are amazing at counting, but they can be set off like the Powder Keg. Only they’re more likely to simply shriek and maybe run away. This tends to be connected with a non-autistic friend or relative that people are supposed to either for sympathy or respect for since they have such a ‘burden’.
- The High Functioning Savant– They’re autistic, but they’re geniuses. Sure, they have blunt and quirky social skills. Maybe they demonstrate no emotion or can be pushed to the point of needing to hide. Yet, they are incredibly smart and able to solve any problem presented to them. In fact, autism here is seen as a sign that the person has an incredibly high intelligence. I’ve actually heard people say that you can’t be a genius without a little autism.
The truth is that all three are stereotypes, which are typically done to give make the character eccentric and stand out. It gets used to excuse certain actions such as blunt honesty and extreme stubbornness. Creators might not even say autism, but use the template and expect the audience to make that conclusion. This can give them some cover to say that they never claimed the character was autistic, so people can’t say it was a poor presentation. Sheldon Cooper from ‘Big Big Theory’ is a good example where they never said it, but many people believe the character has it. I will say that they did get him to change and reduce his autistic habits as the show progressed, but this still brings up another issue.
The problem is that autistic characters show up most often in comedies. Their habits and behaviors are played up for laughs, which can make people feel like autism is funny to see in the real world. Once they meet someone with autism, they get confused at how it isn’t what they expected or laugh. This stems from comedy working off exaggerations and cherry-picking, which is common for many groups. With autism, it creates an issue due to your average person not understanding much of it in the first place. There’s not a strong enough base to make it clear that what Sheldon does is exaggerated or designed for laughs, so a person may think that’s how it works. Now, a more dramatic autistic character can be taken seriously, but those types are typically designed to be high-functioning savants. You run into that misconception issue again.
The best way to tackle an autistic character is to do your research and get a sense of how their minds work. I believe the foundation is how the character would see the world and react to their challenges. Their external behaviors are related to that, but an author needs to create some context. You don’t have to openly call it autism either. Also, you should make it that being autistic isn’t their only trait. Show that they can grow and change like every other character because that’s how reality works. They may evolve differently or in unexpected directions, but they still grow and become stronger.