Hi friends 👋🏻 We are getting close to the end of Autism Acceptance Month and it struck me that I hadn’t written a single thing about Autism this month. Of course, we should be accepting of people all the time, but awareness and acceptance months exist to teach people and here I am to teach.
What originally made me think about how I want to see Autism-based media to change was actually an episode of American Dad! which features a running joke of Steve possibly being Autistic because he really likes trains, and this was punctuated by him stating a locomotion fact in a fast monotone voice while rocking back and forth in his seat. I wasn’t upset by this but rather disappointed because I didn’t expect that kind of “joke” from American Dad!.
Obviously, I can’t speak for every single Autistic person because we’re all different and experience life in different ways from one another. This is just what I want to see personally.
Please do not use Autism Speaks when researching Autism. They are a hateful group that does not help Autistic people, focuses solely on children, and have a campaign that seeks to “end Autism”. This is eugenics and should not be supported.
Less inspiration porn
I feel like this doesn’t just apply to media about Autism specifically, but to media about disability in general. I have seen too many things, both fiction and non-fiction, that feature disabled people solely with the purpose of making the abled audience feel better about their own lives and inspire them to better themselves because “it could be worse, you could be in a wheelchair, or unable to see, or bedridden for the rest of your life”.
Inspiration porn is just downright insulting to disabled people. We don’t exist to be inspirations for abled people and we certainly don’t exist to teach abled people how to better themselves. It’s a form of exploitation and it needs to be done away with.
More autistic main characters
An unfortunate reality is that most media about Autism does not actually feature Autistic protagonists, We are either deuteragonists, minor characters, or even plot devices that are used to teach the neurotypical main character a lesson and become a better person.
What’s even more unfortunate, is that when we are main characters, the representation is either poorly written, inaccurate, stereotypical, ableist, or just simply hinted at. While there are people out there who think that representation and diversity are not important (which I don’t understand why they wouldn’t be important), it is important because there are kids out there who deserve to see characters like them in the pages of a book or on-screen.
Representation helps marginalised people to feel like they’re not alone, and I personally feel like we still have a long way to go because disabled people are left out of diversity conversations so many times. We deserve to see ourselves in fiction just as much as everyone else because seeing disabled characters normalises being disabled and helps us to see that we’re not “weird”, we’re just different.
More own voices books
I will admit that I have an issue with the “own voices” label because outside of authors of colour and authors who have physical/visible disabilities, it can be very difficult to classify what is an own voices book and what is not when people don’t want to disclose how they are “qualified” to write a book about people from a marginalised group.
That being said, I do want to see more books about Autism by Autistic writers and also books that aren’t about Autism by Autistic writers because while we deserve to be able to tell our own stories, we should also be able to tell the stories that we thought of.
I don’t like the idea that “own voices” books have to be only contemporary issue books because genre fiction should be diverse too. I want to see fantasy or sci-fi stories with Autistic main characters who aren’t sidelined or treated as plot devices.
Writers who don’t treat autistic characters as burdens thrust onto their neurotypical carers
This thought came to me not from any books I’ve read recently, but from the sheer amount of video essays I’ve watched about the movie Music, which is written and directed by Australian pop star Sia. In that movie, the title character is a non-verbal Autistic teenager who goes into her neurotypical sister’s care after the death of their grandmother. This would be a fine enough plot if the movie didn’t treat Music as a burden who is a stereotypical caricature of non-verbal Autistics and only exists to help the neurotypical main character grow as a person.
There is a lot to say about Music that I can’t really comment on because I have not seen the movie (and don’t plan on ever watching it because Sia worked with Autism Speaks – a hate group – and basically admitted to being ableist during promotion) so I will leave some links to the video essays I watched.
I feel like this is something that is being phased out of media about Autism because of the Autism community speaking up and telling neurotypical writers how harmful this is, but it’s still something that I want to see more often because it’s what puts me off of reading a lot of books with Autistic characters in the first place.
Video essays (an asterisk notes that the essay is by an Autistic person):
- Sia’s Music: The Trap of Symbolic Autism Representation – Jessie Gender*
- SIA’S MOVIE MUSIC | An Autistic’s Opinion – Paige Layle*
- ‘Music’ by Sia In-Depth Review and Criticism from an Autistic Woman – Category: OTHER*
- Sia’s Movie: Another Autistic’s Response Because Y’all Won’t Listen – Tianasoa*
- The Dangerous Failure of MUSIC (2021) – In/Frame/Out
More variation in how Autism affects characters
We constantly tell people that Autism is a spectrum and every Autie experiences being Autistic in different ways. A lot of neurotypical writers, unfortunately, have two ideas of Autism that stem from the outdated idea of people being either “high-functioning” or “low-functioning”. These labels are not used anymore by the Autism community, or even medical professionals, because they’re inaccurate. I personally have days where I need more help than others but that wouldn’t make me “low-functioning” or someone who needs to be cared for 24/7.
Another problem I find is that when looking at Autistic characters in the media, the vast majority of the time, they are white cisgender boys or men who have poor social skills, very niche interests, are geniuses, are likely to be asexual without explicitly saying that they’re asexual, and most of the time are not said to be Autistic at all, they’re just shown to be “weird”.
Autism is something that affects all sorts of people all over the world in different ways and I want to see that be put down onto paper and explored in fiction. I want to see how it affects people from different cultures than my own, how it affects LGBTQ+ people, people of colour, and I want the writer to say loudly and clearly “this character is Autistic” because I’m sometimes a little tired of my headcanons just being headcanons.
talk to me!
Have you read any books that feature Autistic characters? How do you want diverse books to be better written?
This is such a wonderful post, Louise! You make so many great points, especially about the certain portrayal of white, cis autistic males, when you said that, I thought back to the (few, sadly) books I have read with autistic characters and YEP literally almost every one was a little 10 year old white kid who fit a sort of “autism stereotype”. And that is SO sad. And like you said, in nearly every case, the kid was a catalyst for an older sibling to like, stop being awful or whatever. Which, NO, that is not okay. I worked with kids with autism for many years, and of course they’re infinitely more diverse than media presents. I too hope to see many more books in the future from autistic authors, and I really hope you get to see some GOOD rep soon!
Thank you, Shannon! 😀 I hope we all get to see some good rep in the near future because I know that autistic authors can do their own lives justice 🙂
I have to agree that almost all of the portrayals of autism that I have seen fit one of these categories you talk about. I will admit that I hadn’t thought about this representation enough until recent years when I’ve seen other bloggers talking about it. This is one of those cases where the blogging community has opened my eyes as much as reading has!
The blogging community has helped me in realising a lot of things too! It’s definitely a great place to learn things 😀
Ooh, I totally feel all of this! I also don’t plan to watch Music because…ugh.
I felt such a void for autistic characters that…I created my own, for a book I’m writing because I realized the books I most want to read didn’t exist at the time of that development. I stopped and picked it up again because breakups suck, and it brings me solace.
Also because…usually the autistic characters in books are more akin to side pieces and written by non-autistic people.
Making your own characters is such a good way to fill that void! I recently started writing again and almost all of my protagonists are autistic because I put so much of myself into them. I hope your writing goes well! 😀