Writing Autism

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.

17 thoughts on “Writing Autism

    1. I don’t believe that they can’t – since I know NTs who do – I just think that for most people it just doesn’t occur to them that life can be different unless they engage with it. Everyone is restricted by their own theory of mind, just we have to confront our differences constantly, and they don’t. Of course you do get some people who simply don’t care, but there are far more who just don’t know.

      I am the eternal optimist!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Your authentic perspective is wonderfully insightful. I am a mother of 3 boys, 2 of whom have autism. My middle son with ASD is 13 and is wrestling with his diagnosis and wanting to blend in with the “typicals ”. I think he is an amazing kid. I’m biased, of course …. I hope there comes a day when he can truly love and accept his mind for how it is. I love how he thinks and processes information. I wish he could see himself through my eyes.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. That’s so lovely to hear, Sarah. Having a parent love you for who you are and want you to be your authentic self can make all the difference in the world. Being 13 is hard, the last thing you want is to stand out, it can be so difficult to embrace what makes you brilliant 💐

          Liked by 1 person

  1. I actually wrote a poem called “We Can Do Better”. Not just when it comes to autism, but with everything.
    There is one thing I have noticed that is accurate about the portrayal of autistic characters- a complete irreverance towards racial differences. I feel this way myself. I notice societal attitudes towards difference, not the outside view of a person. Whatever the race or gender, a bully is a bully. I do
    think it’s high time the fourth wall of discrimination was knocked down. Ableism is every bit as wrong as racism, sexism or homophobia. That’s the sort of autistic hero we need: the kind who is fighting to end ableism. And yes, race and gender are totally irrelevant.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Hi Rhi, brilliant post. As I was reading, I was saying, yes, yes, yes! Thank you so much for being an advocate, for speaking with truth and clarity, but most of all, for keeping alive the hope that we can do better if we just listen and engage with each other.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post. Thanks for helping those, who attempt to write about disability but are not themselves disabled, to better understand where they are likely to go wrong. Even (and often, especially) if they follow the best of literary/cinematic/visual art traditions.

    You are charting treacherous territory for us, territory we do not completely understand as outsiders, territory full of landmines that can blow up in our faces, or, worse, harm those we seek to respect and support.

    And I appreciate your compassionate attitude, as a parent myself. The autistic experience is for sure a difficult one, but to a lesser degree, so is the experience of the autistic parent. And neither one’s account should nullify the value of the other’s experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I agree. We all have stories to tell and experiences to share, and it’s so important that we all feel heard. We are all trying to find our ways and the only way forward is to listen to each other. Sometimes we will miscommunicate, sometimes we will make mistakes, sometimes we will feel frustrated, but the second we stop listening it all becomes impossible. We all have our own battles to fight and we all deserve compassion 💐

      Liked by 1 person

      1. One other thing I would like to add is that ableism should be a sackable offence, just like every other form of discrimination. Anyone who believes ableism is wrong needs to call it out and tear any offenders a new one. Now there’s something I would like to see in fictional portrayals of autism. Whether an ableist bigot says something inappropriate, have someone give them a dressing-down and say “I will report you to the anti-discrimination board for that”.

        Liked by 1 person

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