Writing Autistic – Autism is Not a Character Flaw

So, you’ve written a Mary-Sue. Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us.

But now you’re looking for a character flaw to give them. Something to overcome.

They’re a genius, so you decide to take away their social skills.

And, hey, Autistic characters are pretty popular right now.

Why not go the whole hog?

Nope, stop. I’m here to tell you why you can’t just do that.

I mean, maybe this isn’t your exact situation, but let’s face it, as an Allistic writer, you’re probably viewing autism as a character flaw. Something that your character will overcome by the end of their arc.

Even if you’re not going into your story with the view of your Autistic character growing out of their autism, you’re probably going to find your story going in that direction. Especially if you’re treating it as a character flaw.

But that’s fine. You don’t know any better. That’s what these blog posts are for.

But L.C., you say, it’s a disorder. Surely that makes it something to overcome?

Okay, so, as Cheryl Klein says in this episode of the Narrative Breakdown, autism is a value-neutral trait. (Hey, fellow Autistic readers. First of all, how are you doing? I hope you’re enjoying this series and feel that I’m doing the subject justice. If you think I’m missing anything, just let me know. I’m more than happy to revisit older topics. Secondly, you probably don’t want to follow the link. I mean, no one’s outright malicious, but it is three people who (I assume) have no personal experience with autism discussing its use as a character flaw. It can get icky.) Actually, Allistic readers too, the Narrative Breakdown is a good writing podcast and I highly recommend it (along with I Should Be Writing, Writing Excuses and Ditch Diggers, as long as I’m recommending stuff), but some of the discussion of autism in that episode is misinformed, so I’m not recommending it as an overall source of how to write an Autistic character, but I felt it was important to reference since I first heard “autism is a value-neutral trait” there and I’m just agreeing with that single point.

So, what does that mean? Basically, it’s not positive or negative. It’s just different.

It’s not something to be overcome.

Partially because it will give your character (if you’re writing it properly) strengths as well as weaknesses. You can’t have one without the other.

And partially because it can’t be overcome.

There is no cure for autism. (And many of us believe that there shouldn’t be – I’m looking at you SF/F writers.)

There is no sudden, tidy epiphany that an Autistic person can come at the end of the book to magically make then Allistic.

There are no therapies which get rid of autism. Many, such as ABA, focus on making Autistic people act Allistic and that’s its own set of problems.

Okay, I see you walking away from the idea as you realise it’s not the quick-fix you were hoping for. But fear not! I have a list of autism-related things you can use as flaws/obstacles for your character.

But L.C. I didn’t write it as just a character flaw. It’s the whole plot. It’s an inspirational story about a young boy who bravely struggles with autism and by the end, he overcomes it, and finally hugs people, and it’s beautiful, and it will make you cry and win me awards.

BURN IT!

Kill it with fire.

Take your laptop, build a pyre, and set that thing alight.

Okay, you done?

Good. Now I can tell the assassin to stand down.

For now.

I will also cover external autism-related things to overcome in case you are incapable of leaving autism alone.

Anxiety

Now, this one gets tricky. I’ve used it myself in a fanfiction (which I wrote 3 years ago and so it’s not my best work), but I am both Autistic and have anxiety, so it was easy for me to make a realistic portrayal of learning to overcome anxiety. Anxiety can be overcome on its own, but that usually takes a long time and a change of circumstance. Usually it requires therapy, possibly something like CBT (this can sometimes be tricky for Autistic people and can require programs specifically designed for us), and possibly medication. And sometimes learning to live with it and minimise its effect on our lives is the best we can do.

But L.C., everybody can have anxiety, I hear you say.

I nod, sagely, taking a puff from my bubble-pipe.

Here are a couple of examples of how anxiety can be specifically autism related:

Social Anxiety – Turns out, if your social responses are atypical, you get bullied. Who knew, right? And, it turns out, if you get bullied, you might develop a fear of socialising. This fear is particularly difficult to overcome because it’s not irrational. You could majorly mess up and people could shun you. The trick is learning not to care.

Exam/Test Anxiety – If questions on exams/tests are too ambiguous, Autistic people might struggle with them. If not given appropriate guidance on how to approach these questions, exams/tests might become a source of anxiety.

Any situation which causes sensory difficulty – If crowds are a deeply unpleasant sensory experience for the Autistic person in question, over time they might develop a fear of crowds. Any unpleasant sensory experience can cause this issue over time, especially if the Autistic person is given no choice but to do it. Again, don’t magically have your character get over their sensory issues. But you can have them learn to manage them, like having them wear headphones in noisy places, and then they can work to overcome their anxiety.

Self-Esteem Issues

Again, something I touched on in that fanfic, and something which ties into social anxiety. If you’re constantly exposed to the idea that you’re “broken” through ableist/disablist ideas about autism, or you’re not diagnosed and so are bullied with no idea of why you can’t communicate properly with your peers, it’s possible that you would develop self-esteem issues.

A character with self-esteem issues might struggle to take the initiative and might rely on others to take the lead, or only take the lead for as long as necessary before withdrawing. This flaw can be tricky to write, however, without making your character annoying.

Ableism/Disablism

So, remember that story I told you to burn? You actually probably could have just rewritten it.

My bad.

So, I spend my entire life being told that the way I think and act is wrong. That I am broken. Not to be all

I Hope it Doesn't Sound Arrogant When I Say

That I am the Greatest Man in the World

[gifs of Denholm saying “I hope it doesn’t sound arrogant when I say that I am the greatest man in the world!”]

but do you know how difficult that is? And do you know how even more difficult it is to face that, stare it down, and give it the finger?

So, yes, you can rework that story. Have your character change themselves to seem less Autistic. But don’t let that be the end of the story. Let that be the second act, where they’re broken and defeated. Then have them pick themselves up and dust themselves off and have them flap their hands and make chirping noises in the face of it all!

There’s your tear-jerking inspiration.

(Also, if you rework it into a SF/F YA bloody revolution of some kind, you would probably make all the money. You can definitely have mine.)

Further Reading.

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