Imagining a Fuller Spectrum of Autism on TV

Someday, TV will give us autistic characters who aren't all awkward savants. In the meantime, we'll keep claiming characters for our own.
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Someday, TV will give us autistic characters who aren't all awkward savants. In the meantime, we'll keep claiming characters for our own.
Julia on Sesame Street

Autism is currently enjoying an unprecedented wave of popularity in film and television. From educational programming to tent-pole blockbusters, new stories have been breaking boundaries, warming hearts, and raising awareness around the neurodevelopmental condition, which is currently diagnosed in one in 68 children. Once relegated to glorified props in prestige Oscar-bait like Rain Man, autistic characters can now be gun-brandishing action heroes, charmingly horny teenagers, and progress-making muppets.

Still, while fictional autistics are being enthusiastically embraced by non-autistic artists and viewers alike, their reception among real-life autistic people like me has been far more ambivalent. Atypical and The Good Doctor both offer portrayals of brilliant young men on the spectrum, and both shows have their supporters among autistic critics and fans. I'm genuinely excited about Sesame Street's Julia, a four-year-old autistic muppet, and the positive influence that her visibility will have on the next generation. In general, though, these explicitly identified characters rarely become as popular as the other characters that we've claimed for ourselves.

Faced with a climate where most mainstream portrayals of autism are crafted almost entirely by non-autistic people—often seemingly for a non-autistic audience—autistic people have been forced to get creative in our search for meaningful representation. Some, like autistic authors Rachael Lucas, Helen Hoang, and Corinne Duyvis have successfully created their own characters and stories in books like The State of Grace, On the Edge of Gone, and the forthcoming The Kiss Quotient. Many more have taken to blogs and social media to offer armchair diagnoses about already existing characters, discussing why we think they might be one of us. These readings are called "autistic headcanons"—the process of specifically adding autism to our personal understanding of a character, all in the context of the story.

As an autistic writer who spends a lot of time online, I find the act of forming and discussing autistic headcanons to be a fascinating look into the way that autistic people can use pop culture to better understand ourselves and the world around us. What I find most interesting, though, is how little overlap there is between the characters that are ostensibly created in our image by others, and the characters that we choose for ourselves.

An enthusiasm for headcanons is not, as I'm sure many non-autistic people might suspect, a desire to glamorize our condition, nor a symptom of our deficient empathy or theory of mind. Whenever there's a chasm between conventional assumptions about autism and the beliefs of self-advocates, there's a tendency for a certain segment of the neurotypical population to blame the discrepancy on autism itself. But that argument is often easily refuted by the content of the autistic headcanon discussions themselves. Autistic people aren't gravitating toward certain characters simply because we are looking for a very specific recreation of our own experience on the spectrum. We understand that people experience the world differently, and that each autistic individual is unique—and it's that range of experience that we're longing to see better represented on screen.

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As prevalent as autism has become in film and TV lately, it still tends to look, sound, and behave a certain way. With the exception of Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) in The Bridge and Wendy (Dakota Fanning) in the recently released Please Stand By, these characters are almost invariably young men. With the exception of Billy (R.J. Cyler), the Blue Ranger from 2017's Power Rangers, they're almost exclusively white. Heterosexuality, cis-genderhood, and savantism are all disproportionately represented. Most of these characters appear to be constructed from the same checklist of common symptoms: no eye contact, a flat-affect voice, and generically awkward body language.

Cherry-pick a few posts on blogs or Tumblr accounts like "Autistic Headcanons" and "Your Faves Are Autistic," though, and you'll soon glimpse a much broader spectrum of identities, personalities, and experiences. Claiming Holtzmann—Kate McKinnon's character in Ghostbusters, for example—allowed autistic fans to discuss everything from her sensory-friendly wardrobe choices to her echolalia-like speech patterns to her queerness. Analyzing the physicality of characters as diverse as Ren McCormack from the original Footloose, South Park's Kyle, and Disney's Snow White brings a much broader view to the kinds of repetitive movements that autistic people employ to stim. Star Trek: Discovery's Michael Burnham, a human with Vulcan training, has recently struck a chord with autistic people who have emotions, but sometimes struggle to process or express them. Headcanon after headcanon, autistic people are demanding—and envisioning—more from an industry that's increasingly profiting from our lives.

In a 2015 post titled "A Headcanon Named Autism: In Defense of Finding Our Own Representation," the anonymous blogger Feminist Aspie wrote:

I want to see a world where books and TV shows and films depict autistic people of color, LGBTQIA+ autistic people, autistic women, autistic people with other disabilities, autistic people who can pass for neurotypical and who can't, autistic people who are verbal, non-verbal, partially verbal, autistic people with all kinds of special interests, autistic people who use special interests in their work and those who don't, autistic people who are hypersensitive and hyposensitive and sensory-seeking, autistic people of all ages and all occupations, autistic heroes, autistic villains, autistic geeks and autistic sports captains and everything in between, with good qualities and flaws that are related to autism and those that aren't related to autism at all—realistic, multi-dimensional autistic characters that don't feel hollow or like the butt of a joke. And until that's achieved, autistic media consumers everywhere will keep working our headcanon magic.

Whether or not pop culture can outgrow the need for autistic headcanons is largely dependent on what non-autistic people—the other 67 in 68—genuinely think about us. If we are, as I've argued before, little more than a challenge or accessory for neurotypical artists and a prop for neurotypical audiences, then their autistic counterparts must continue to forge our own path. If the current wave of autism entertainment is just the start of a greater public hunger for more and better autism representation, then the rest of the world will have to start making more space for a wider range of autistic people on both sides of the screen. If we can expand the conversation and the vision for autistic characters when armed with little more than existing properties and Internet access, imagine what we could do with our own characters and the means with which to share them.