The Problem With Autism Representation

This marks the start of a series of posts on representation in writing and art. Our first guest-poster, who will explore the topic over the next few months, is Rebecca Croteau. Rebecca is an avid writer, reader and knitter, who is also quite active on twitter.


The Problem With Autism Representation:

There’s not enough of it, and what exists is stereotypes

When my daughter was three years old, almost four, a psychiatrist told me something that I had already known for a year: my daughter is autistic. It wasn’t entirely surprising, either, when the next sentence he spoke was “And now, let’s talk about you.”

In 2014, I found myself in the awkward position of needing to learn a hell of a lot, very quickly, at the same time that I needed to educate nearly everyone around myself and my daughter about what autism meant in general, what autism meant for her, and what autism might mean for her future. I fielded questions about mainstreaming and vaccinations, stimming and meltdowns, labels and “special interests” (I hate that phrase). Because I am a liberal arts major, and also maybe because I, too, am autistic, my method of learning was to read, and read widely.

Here’s the problem with that, however: the representation of autism in modern media basically sucks. In popular TV, there are rarely regular characters who are autistic; in books, the representation situation is downright awful. Autistic characters are usually male, and white, and present the same set of stereotyped traits, over and over. They’re math whizzes, and they’re socially awkward, and they have an extremely accurate memory. They’re extremely literal, and don’t understand analogies or wordplay, or any kind of subtle interaction in language.

This is where I insert a gif of someone rolling their eyes.

The reason, I believe, that the vast majority of autism representation shows the same set of behaviors, over and over, is that autism is nearly always written about and conceived by allistic people, and actors who play autistic characters are rarely (diagnosed as) autistic. More and more in the age of social media we are seeing marginalized communities push back against the idea that their experience can be accurately portrayed by someone who does not share their marginalization. From the trans community to the disabled community to concerns about whitewashing Asian characters, those with privilege are being asked to step aside and make room for those of us who have not historically been able to see ourselves accurately presented.

In books, this situation is slowly starting to change. The amazing Kayla Whaley is one of the editors at DisabilityInKidLit, a fantastic reference site where you can get an idea of what marginalized people think about the representation in middle grade and YA novels. Corinne Duyvis’s On The Edge of Gone is a post-apocalyptic young adult sci-fi book, set in the near future, with an autistic protagonist. More books, more #ownvoices books, are on their way. In many ways, the publishing industry tends to be ahead of TV and movies in this way, especially with the ease of modern self-publishing. More and more writers are realizing that they need to have heroes like them, available on the page.

Now, I’m not on some kind of Magical Diversity Council (thankful hat tip to Claribel Ortega) who is the boss of what people can and cannot write. I’m never going to say that no one should be writing about autistic characters; I am going to argue, over a series of blog posts here, that there are certain stories that are for autistic people, not allistic people, to tell. I strongly want a world, however, where the background radiation of all of our stories are diverse and multifaceted. So I’m also going to put out into the world some tips and tricks about what autism is like and what it is not (necessarily) like, about how it feels to be diagnosed as an adult autistic, and about how to learn more about autism so that you can accurately write love interests, secondary characters, or even main characters in your stories as autistic characters.

Thanks to Allison for giving me the space to do so, and I hope to see you soon.

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