There’s been a lot of talk lately about good representation of autistic people in the arts, and as an autistic artist it all seems so… avoidable.
I remember being told a couple of years ago about how fashionable my autism was – from an arts point of view – and how taken aback I was at the statement. I’m not being autistic to be fashionable. I’m always this. I always have been this. I will always find the things I find hard, hard. I will always find the things I find easy, easy. It was a flash of insight into a world I don’t understand.
This isn’t about pointing a finger at any one example of poor representation, this is about the way we think about autistic characters and people.
Life is complicated. There are no complete heroes or villains, we are all different levels of shades of grey.
When we create realistic characters, we like to create multilayered and believable, but when it comes to autism we so often see a familiar trope emerge: We either have the victim to be pitied or inspired by, or the unfeeling monster who treats people like things, or even worse, we have the reaction of everyone else to the ‘creature’, with the autistic person there as nothing more than something to trigger emotions.
If we saw any other character reduced to nothing more than their affect upon those around them, we’d feel disappointed by that. We would find the character unbelievable. If we always wrote stereotypes, we would be rightly accused of lazy and damaging writing, but this is what so much writing about autism often descends into.
We are a problem to be solved, a victim to feel uplifted by, a beast to be afraid of.
In reality we are none of these things. We are human. There is far more that connects us than separates us. We all feel, we all fear, we all connect and we all are a part of this wonderful world of humanity – its good and its bad.
Autism isn’t a plot device – just like being BAME or a woman or any other minority isn’t a plot device.
I am not someone who believes that you have to be something to write about it. I have no problem with non-autistic people writing autistic characters (though I would like to see more support for autistic creators to get their work seen). I don’t have a problem with non-autistic actors playing autistic characters (though it would be preferable).
What I do want to see is proper collaboration to make sure that the authentic voice is heard. The only way you can understand the motivations of your character is to listen to autistic voices.
This doesn’t mean focus groups after the fact, this means having autistic people involved at every step advising on motivations and truth. This means listening when you’re told your motivations are wrong, this means perhaps feeling uncomfortable by the direct, honest communication style of an autistic person, and learning not to mistake it for rudeness.
We all want to see more autistic characters, but quality is far more important than quantity. We need authentic experience to come through, we need the truth, not more lies and ‘othering’.
Almost every autistic person alive today has lived through a world that treats them as strange, difficult, confusing. We are finally understanding that there is an enormous miscommunication going on. It is not that we are not understandable, it’s that you have misunderstood us and we have misunderstood you; we all need to bridge that gap.
Dehumanising us further means this will continue. Don’t market us as broken. Don’t market us as upside down. Don’t market us as less human than our community. Avoid puzzle pieces and sad faces behind a window pane. Research why these are seen as offensive by many in the autistic community. Think about what you are putting out there and how it is perceived.
In the week that Alan Turing – an autistic, gay man – has been named by BBC viewers the “greatest” 20th-century person, we should be doing better. This was a man hounded to death for his differences, whose work saved countless lives and arguably won us the Second World War.
We can do better.