Autism in Fiction

Inigo Montoya

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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’.
  3. 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.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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20 Responses to Autism in Fiction

  1. All good information, Charles. I don’t foresee using an autistic character, but one never knows what is in the muse’s mind. Thank you for sharing.

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  2. ospreyshire says:

    Good call with this when it comes to the autism spectrum. I remember watching Ben X which is a Belgian movie where the main character has Asperger’s Syndrome and the creators clearly didn’t do their research. I know people who have Asperger’s and I know they don’t act like that character.

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    • I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t really say. Found some info that makes it sound like it could be an exaggeration. Aspergers is a tough one in my mind. I’ve met many who self-diagnosed themselves with it. So, it gets looked at as a ‘normal’ autism by those who don’t understand.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ospreyshire says:

        That’s fine. I watch a ton of indie and international films anyway, so the stuff I watch can be obscure. They do exaggerate the behaviors and symptoms in that movie to unrealistic levels despite the realistic setting. The term they use is high(er)-functioning in contrast to Autism and other variants of the spectrum. I get what they’re trying to say, but I still think it’s an odd way to describe it.

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      • Higher functioning is a rough way to see it, but this gets the point across to most people. It means the person has autism, but not to a point where they’re entirely dependent. Otherwise, most people think of nonverbal and constant meltdowns. This leads to the ‘you don’t seem autistic’ statement that hurts.

        Media tends to exaggerate to get the point across. I get it, but it’s frustrating.

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      • ospreyshire says:

        Makes sense. I do agree how that statement can be seen as hurtful and quite insensitive. I would like to see stories featuring characters on the spectrum to be created by those who have that mental condition or at minimum having them be in consultation roles in the creation of these characters.

        It’s just sad and I’ve seen it when it comes to neuroatypical people, ethnic groups, nationalities, etc when it comes to exaggeration and stereotypes.

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      • Fictional has always had exaggerations and stereotypes. Frankly, they make it easier to get points across. It’s lazy in a way, but your average reader won’t get nuance and subtlety. This is why autistic characters get shown as socially awkward geniuses or constantly having meltdowns. It’s what people can see and connect right away. Nothing else needed and you don’t have to announce the situation.

        I have read about more autistic authors getting books out.

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      • ospreyshire says:

        That’s definitely frustrating how fiction can still do those exaggerations to this day. Since we’re on the topic of autism, I remembered that Sia came out with that movie involving someone with an autistic little sister and how that got bashed for the unrealistic portrayal of that mental condition for that character. I wouldn’t be surprised if that singer-turned-director got canceled after the fact.

        Really? Good on them for doing so.

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      • The issue with fiction is that it typically thrives off exaggerations. Especially action and comedy. These things are typically blown up to make more obvious in order to get them across. Imagine how often you fail to notice mild autistic traits in people. It’s the big ones that you notice and make a connection. Fiction needs to spotlight the situation and exaggeration is one the best ways to do it. Many times it isn’t even true exaggeration, but just a focus on something that we might not normally see or isn’t universal for that group. It ends up becoming a lose/lose situation.

        I heard about the Sia thing. Never saw the movie and she got canceled right away from what I could tell. I don’t remember the bashing being about an unrealistic portrayal though. It started as her not hiring an autistic actress for the part. My guess is that the narrative changed to the more damning one of being insulting after the fact. I never saw it, so I don’t really know.

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      • ospreyshire says:

        That is a good explanation. It’s good with you bringing up that issue while still saying how it could still be problematic.

        Gotcha. I never saw the movie either. Even watching the trailer, I thought it looked schmaltzy and questioned whether the autistic aspect would actually work. It’s not surprising that she got canceled when people realize that a movie with that as a concept shouldn’t be some cheap thrill despite the decent budget and production (reference intended).

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      • (Dang. My comment didn’t go threw before.)

        I never saw the movie trailer. An autistic person I follow on Instagram started posting about the situation. So, I read articles and tried not to add views to the promos. Seemed like there was a lot of hypocrisy and double-speak going on.

        Liked by 1 person

      • ospreyshire says:

        No worries. At least it went through this time.

        Okay. I didn’t know if you have or not when it came to at least the trailer. That’s not surprising with the hypocrisy and double-speak about the autism portrayal.

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  3. This would be so hard to write. They’re all unique, so if the author seems a bit off base, I think they get a bit of leeway. You also can’t lose the plot in favor of perfection lest you write a scientific journal. It’s almost too difficult for me to tackle.

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  4. L. Marie says:

    A very insightful post! I wouldn’t have the nerve to write a character on the spectrum, because I’m not sure I could do that character justice. However, my friend Lyn, who is on the spectrum, wrote a novel about her high school experience. Another friend wrote a picture book about her son.

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  5. skipread says:

    I couldn’t agree more. People in the spectrum should be treated with respect – and the only way to really understand them is dig deeper about the condition. Thanks for this post!

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    • True. Though I have noticed a risk with digging deeper. Some people do so and then treat autism like a one size fits all. This leads to trouble and mistakes that are made worse by the person swearing they’re an expert. Thankfully, I’ve only run into this type a few times.

      Liked by 1 person

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