You know what makes me nervous?

Allistics using gimicky tricks to emphasise that their character is Autistic.

Like, only using certain types of camera angles or structuring sentences in a certain way.

I’m not saying it never works, but it always makes me nervous. Because, unless you’re consulting with an Actually Autistic person, you have no way of knowing whether it accurately conveys what it’s like to be Autistic.

At best, it could just be a little off, and at worst it could be completely othering, only driving home the point to any Autistic person watching that you have no idea what you’re doing.

That’s a lot harder to recover from than, “Well, that one scene with the meltdown was a little off…”

So, how exactly should you go about getting the perspective and POV of your story right?

Well, first of all, avoid any gimics unless you’re closely collaborating with an Autistic person. Again, there may be examples where it has worked, but don’t count on that being you.

In fact, the best possible advice I can give in general is count on f**king up.

And then ask Actually Autistic people to tell you where the f**k ups are.

But, back to the specific advice. There are a few things to take into account when choosing POV for an Autistic character.

First Person

So, I started writing a novel with an Autistic main character in first person and I noticed a few hiccups.

First person is really good for being inside a character’s head, so it could help to convey the Autistic style of thinking, but for an Allistic, I think this could just potentially give you more places to mess up.

Stories which are about autism, which are about getting Allistic readers inside of our heads… I don’t want to outright say that no Allistic person would ever be able to stick the landing… But it’s surprising when it happens, put it that way.

Even as an Autistic writer, first person challenged me. You have an even more limited view of the other characters than you would have with an Allistic main character.

For an Autistic person, figuring out what’s going on in the head of an Allistic person is difficult (Remember: This also works the other way around!) and even figuring out what a fellow Autisitc person is feeling can be tricky, thanks to the “double filter” issue (A.K.A. more of L.C. trying to find terms for things and then just making them up).

Say I’m talking to B (my Autistic BFF). She’s learned how to mimic Allistic behaviour, but it’s not quite right. I’ve learned how to kind-of figure out what Allistic’s are feeling from their body language, but I often miss things.

So, she’s trying to filter her behaviour through what she’s learned are NT norms, and I’m trying to interpret her behaviour through what I’ve learned are NT norms (which aren’t nessecarily the same things she’s learned).

I’ve known B for years, so we’ve dropped the filters, but it is something to bear in mind if your Autistic character isn’t particularly close with someone.

First person can help to create a feeling of isolation for your character, but it can also create story-telling hiccups. The story I was trying to tell was filled with a large secondary cast and focusing on everyone with first person became difficult. Characters had secrets and they lied and I realised as I wrote, that there was no way my character would be observant enough to pick up on half of it – mostly because I wouldn’t be.

Even something as simple as talking to another character and them being uncomfortable with a certain topic – like, basic “HERE! BACKSTORY STUFF IS HERE!” writing – becomes tricky. Any level of foreshadowing the motives or attitudes of another character becomes difficult to write because you can’t often have your main character picking up on anything beyond the words directly out of other character’s mouths.

I talked about this a bit in my post on empathy.

Obviously, if someone’s crying and I ask what’s wrong, if they say “fine”, then I clearly know they’re lying, though it might go a bit like this:

I knocked tentatively on Isolde’s door, hearing the sound of muffled crying beyond.

“Yeah?” she said, her voice quieter than usual.

I entered, only to see her sitting on her bed with her knees curled up to her chest, her face red and her eyes puffy. Loose strands of short brown hair stuck to the dried tears on her face.

I shifted my weight awkwardly. I knew I was supposed to comfort her, but I had no idea how. I’d never seen Isolde cry before. Or, well, show any emotion beyond stoicism, really.

“I… Are you okay?” I eventually asked.

“I’m fine,” she answered quickly.

I paused, stumped. Clearly, she wasn’t okay. Did she want to be alone or did she want me to stay? Did she not want to talk about it, or did she just think that I was too young to understand?

So, my main character isn’t picking up on complex expressions. It’s just the surface level stuff. If there is one “gimicky” thing I tend to use, it’s that I don’t say:

Isolde looked pensive.

I would say:

Isolde frowned and I wondered if she was angry, but then I noticed how her jaw wasn’t set in that way that told me she was gritting her teeth. I just assumed that she had a lot on her mind and left her be.

Just to show how reading emotions is a step-by-step procedure, rather than intuitive.

But, in all honesty, I prefer using third person.

Third Person

Third person gives you a bit of a cheat. If you need to convey how another character is feeling, because the audience needs this information, but they’re covering up that emotion and you think that picking up on it wouldn’t be something your main character would do, given how you’ve been writing them, you could always slip it in.

For example:

“So, how do you know the Queen?” Lia eventually asked as they headed out of town, unable to contain her curiosity any longer.

“We were friends a long time ago. I’m surprised she even remembers me. We were practically children.”

Lia nodded, satisfied with the answer, completely oblivious to the way Isolde’s grip on her reigns tightened until her knuckles went white.

And yeah, I know, I know.

But L.C.! I thought you weren’t supposed to give your audience knowledge your character doesn’t have, even in third person.

Yeah, I don’t care.

Like, I use this sparingly. It’s not an every paragraph occurance. But sometimes you have to screw the rules to keep your story interesting.

image

[gif of Seto Kaiba saying “Looks like the rules… just got screwed” as he puts on sunglasses. It then cuts to the Yu-Gi-Oh! the abridged series title card with “YEAHHHHHHHHHHHHH” written underneath.]

Multiple POV

Of course, another way to get around it is to just jump around between scenes or chapters. This way, if a character misses something, the audience only has to wait until the next scene/chapter to realise what’s going on.

But I only do that with ensemble casts and I’ve only got one of those going right now (out of, like, six or seven WIPs).


Originally posted to myautisticpov.com on 21/6/15.

Part One Here

So, now that I’ve got my rant about how to write stimming ethically out of the way, we can finally get to the practical side of it.

Much like with SPD (Power Rangers to the rescue! and no, this joke will never die), the best thing you can do is have a character sheet and add stims to it. Know how your character stims and when so that you keep it consistent throughout the story.

Here is some info on stimming to help you do that:

Reasons to Stim

One of the most annoying things authors do is write stimming as a “symptom” of autism and nothing more. There’s no reason for the character to be stimming. They just are. Because that’s what autistic people do, right?

Stimming isn’t random. It’s not without purpose. Even if that purpose is just “I like it.”

Body Language

Stims are often body language for Autistic people. I bounce when I’m happy and I flap my hands when I’m frustrated. These aren’t universal to Autistic people, and might in fact be reversed, but it’s an example. You should write this just like you’d write body language for an Allistic character. Just remember to keep it consistent.

Self-regulation

Having sensory input being all over the place is a nightmare. Sometimes you need to generate your own just to have something within your control. Sometimes you’re undersensitive to things and seek them out. Stimming can do all of this.

Types of Stimming

Stimming isn’t just hand-flapping. It can be, but there are hundreds of different ways to stim. If you need specific examples, I suggest going here. Here are some general ones:

Fidgeting

Sometimes stims look exactly like fidgeting/bad habits in an NT. Biting nails, tapping pencils, chewing hair, etc. But when we do it, it’s pathologised.

Sensory Input

These are things that we do for the specific sensory input. Like lightly scratching your skin or having a piece of fuzzy fabric.

Stim Toys

Stim toys are objects specifically designed for stimming with and can be bought at online stores like this one. They’re usually designed to be discreet and more durable or (in the case of chewable jewelry and the like) safer than make-shift counterparts. Having your character use a stim toy would be a level of realism hardly seen.

Self-Injurious

Sometimes stims can be self-injurious.

This is not the same as self-injury.

Sometimes stims can cause injury. This is not the same as wanting to hurt yourself. It’s not a sign of depression. It’s a side-effect of the stim.

Yes, this is bad. But sensationalising it in your story, or making it a sign that someone is “low-functioning” (more on functioning labels here) isn’t the way to handle it.

If you *must* write a character dealing with self-injurious stims, please try to write them with tact. Not as a sign that autism is evil, but as something your character just has to deal with.

More on how to deal with self-injurious stims here.

More on stims in general here.


This was originally posted to myautisticpov.com on 14/6/15.

Crash course on what stimming actually is here.

So, I’ve got two main points to address here in terms of writing. How it fits into the narrative and how to write stims naturally, so I’ve split this into two parts.

How It Fits Into The Narrative

So, I covered this a bit on my Autism is Not a Character Flaw post, but there will be plenty of posts where I need to retread that ground, including this one.

An unfortunate reality of the world we live in is that many of the treatments and therapies for Autistic people (well, children really – there are currently next to no services for Autistic adults) aren’t designed to help the Autistic person. They’re designed to make them look as “normal” as possible, no matter how detrimental this might be.

We’re essentially put through conversion therapies, where we’re told that who we are is wrong on a fundamental level. We have to expend our energy on pretending to be something we’re not if we ever want to be accepted, we’re told.

The reason I bring up this particularly grim fact is that one of the most visible parts of being Autistic is stimming.

Which means it’s the first that people try to extinguish.

Why do I bring this up?

Because it’s often one of the biggest indicators of Autistic people not getting to stay Autistic.

For Allistic writers, stimming tends to be something they have the hardest time respecting.

We have a culture of trade-off with Autistic characters. They’re allowed to be socially inept if their genius is enough to make up for it. They’re allowed to struggle if that struggle can inform another character’s personality or their story arc, but not their own. Or they’re nothing more than a dehumanised plot-point.

The harder an Allistic writer tries to write a “positive” portrayal of autism, the closer they get to the socially inept genius, rather than the dehumanised plot-point, but in doing so they often erase parts of autism which are too “other”.

Stimming is usually the first to go.

If stimming is included, it’s usually something that the characters seek to stop. They have to be normalised again.

But stimming isn’t bad.

It’s visibly autistic.

And if that’s enough of a reason for you to think it’s bad, then you need to re-evaluate your thinking before attempting to write an Autistic character.

For a lot of us who were conditioned out of stimming, it can be harder for us to avert meltdowns. A lot of us just channelled our stims into less obvious movements. And, for many of us, reclaiming our more Autistic stims is a way of reclaiming parts of ourselves that society tried to strip away.

So, TL;DR – No storylines about Autistic characters learning not to stim unless you highlight the horror of that particular arc. And no omitting stimming because you fear writing about the parts of autism which are too “other”. That’s how you get the Insufferable Genius end of Hollywood Autism.


This was originally posted to myautisticpov.com on 27/5/15.

When it comes to autism, the autism itself often isn’t the thing causing issues. It’s usually either ableism/disablism, or co-morbid conditions.

Autism is just a different way of thinking.

Co-morbid conditions can be anything from Specific Learning Difficulties (e.g. Dyslexia) to mental illness (e.g. OCD) to Sensory Processing Disorder, which is what I’m going to talk about today.

Sensory Processing Disorder is when your brain doesn’t interpret sensory information properly. Our sensory organs actually receive more information than we get. Our brains just can’t handle every little thing at once, so it filters out things like the feel of your socks against your skin, and the sound of the clock ticking.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is when it either doesn’t filter out enough, and you receive too much input to handle, or it filters out too much, and you don’t get all of the information you need.

This is just one of those annoying things that Autistic people have to put up with.

It’s also one of the things that mostly gets seen through Allistic eyes.

“Oh no, look how terrible it is for me, my child freaks out when I take them to the shops. Oh woe is me!”

*Rolls eyes*

Look, it’s not exactly fun for us, either. You think I like the fact that concerts are sensory hell for me? That crowded shops give me similar symptoms to vertigo if I’m not wearing headphones? That someone wearing strong perfume makes me queasy and gives me a headache?

But one thing I’ve learned as an adult is that these things can all be mitigated.

I can wear headphones in crowded shops.

I recently saw someone suggest carrying a little pouch of coffee beans to counter strong smells.

I can leave concerts and have a break to eat and drink before returning, allowing myself time to recuperate.

If an Autistic person is constantly melting down because their sensory needs aren’t being met, then that’s a problem.

Please don’t have your character meltdown because of sensory overload and then frame it as their fault. If they’re not looking after their sensory needs, chances are that it’s because of outside factors.

There’s also the fact that SPD can work the other way, and you can be under sensitive to things.

When thinking about your Autistic character’s SPD, it’s best to lay out the senses and figure out if your character is over or under sensitive to certain things, and if they’re sensory seeking for certain things.

I’ll fill out this one for myself to show you:

Touch

Oversensitive

Particularly Defensive Against: Oily textures, felt and light skin-on-skin.

Seeks: Soft, furry things.

Overload Sensations: The touch will linger and I’ll flap my hands and make whining noises (like a sad puppy).

Taste

Not sure. (This is okay – not all senses have to be notably over or under sensitive.)

Particularly Defensive Against: Nothing.

Seeks: Acidic foods. I will drown anything in vinegar.

Overload Sensations: Not Applicable

Smell

Oversensitive

Particularly Defensive Against: Heavy perfume/cologne/fragrance and bin bags.

Seeks: Nothing.

Overload Sensations: Queasiness and headaches. I will usually eat/sleep to make myself feel better.

Sight

Oversensitive

Particularly Defensive Against: Bright lights.

Seeks: Nothing.

Overload Sensations: Light on its own tends not to overload me.

Hearing

Oversensitive

Particularly Defensive Against: Chaotic sounds. If I can’t predict where the sound is going, like with background chatter or certain kinds of music.

Seeks: Nothing.

Overload Sensations: Vertigo symptoms. I get dizzy and feel faint.

Temperature

Oversensitive

Particularly Defensive Against: Cold.

Seeks: I don’t like hot weather, but I will drink/eat things that are still hot and really like hot water bottles.

Overload Sensations: Nothing.

Proprioception (Where You are in Space)

Under-sensitive (This ties into dyspraxia, which I will deal with in another post.)

Particularly Defensive Against: Nothing.

Seeks: Nothing.

Overload Sensations: Not Applicable.

Pain

Not sure. (For the love of Gandalf, please don’t portray your Autistic character as not feeling pain. Many of us have atypical reactions to pain, but we’re never completely immune to it and malicious people sometimes use this reasoning as an excuse to abuse us.)

Particularly Defensive Against: Nothing.

Seeks: Nothing.

Overload Sensations: Not Applicable.

Balance

Oversensitive (I will overcompensate on bikes and the like.)

Particularly Defensive Against: I will get travel sick easily. I’ll get travel sick looking at my phone while walking.

Seeks: I like balancing on things.

Overload Sensations: Not Applicable.

 

The best way to approach this in your writing is in the little things.

Don’t have them go into sensory overload every chapter. It’s not believable.

But do have them decide against buying a nice item of clothing because it feels scratchy. Do have them being annoyed by their bright bulbs and wondering how much it would cost to replace them with ones with controllable brightness. Do have them forcing themselves to smile through the suffocating stench of a colleague’s perfume.

Another thing to bear in mind is that these can sometimes change. People can go from under to oversensitive about things over time. It can change rather rapidly when they’re stressed or tired.

So, I hope this post has helped with your understanding of how to write SPD. If there’s anything that still needs clearing up, I’ll be happy to do so.

More on SPD.


This was originally posted to myautisticpov.com on 16/5/15.

Can we please get over the mentality that tropes are the devil?

I write a lot of YA and the YA community online is so full of people declaring that you’re never allowed to use certain tropes.

And I talk about tropes a lot on here, (if you’re confused because you don’t feel that I have, it’s probably because I’ve not yet finished moving the archives over from myautisticpov.com) and I try to give alternatives and make it clear that I’m not saying that the trope should never be used ever but sometimes things get lost, so I thought I would do a whole post just about tropes in general.

I’m going to be very upfront in saying that when dealing with any minority group, there will be tropes that are hands-down terrible and should always be avoided (unless you’re subverting them and even then, take a look at the hate John Green gets for writing Manic Pixie Dream Girls before you commit to that path).

With autism, these include cure stories and stories where we’re framed as a tragedy. Also, stories where a lack of empathy results in criminal behaviour (not that these two can’t co-exist, but there’s a difference between co-existence and causation).

Others you don’t have to subvert, you just have to appreciate why people are tired.

For example, I’m mathematically minded and my IQ is in the “superior” range, and my General Ability Index is in the “very superior” range. But I am sick to death of the “autistic genius” trope.

You know why?

Because they’re all cis, straight/ace, middle-class, white dudes.

Give me a confirmed autistic Felicity Smoak or Curtis Holt (this is an Arrow reference, for those who don’t watch) and I will love you forever!

Or hell, give me a cis, straight/ace, middle-class, white dude with a gender-nonconforming special interest!

Just give me something a little different.

More Abed, less Sheldon.


L.C. Mawson is currently trying her best to learn that throwing her book at people while yelling “BOOK MOTHERFUCKER!” isn’t an effective marketing strategy. For the sake of all of the randomers she meets, please check it out here.

If you’d like to make sure you don’t miss her weekly advice on how to write autistic characters, she also has a weekly newsletter to keep you up to date.

Even if you’re fairly new to certain kind of media critique, you probably know the phrase “queer-baiting”.

*Cough*Destiel*Cough*

The idea is that they spend a large amount of time hinting that two characters of the same gender are into each other, but the creators insist that they’re straight and “just bros”, and nothing ever comes of it.

This is also becoming a common tactic with autism.

*Cough*SheldonCooper*Cough*

Obviously, with autism they don’t use relationships with other character so much as they use coding.

Autism-coding is where a character is given autistic traits that are obvious to autistic people, or people with a lot of experience around autistic adults.

This, much like real life autistic people, tends to be missed by everyone else.

“But, L.C., surely that’s just an accident, right?”

There is an argument to be made that the bumbling, socially-awkward scientist archetype originally came out of observations of undiagnosed autistic people.

Hell, Sherlock Holmes was based on a real person who everyone pretty much agrees must have been autistic.

But, here’s the thing: we know better now.

And I don’t mean that the autistic community knows better, but no one else does. I first heard about the “socially awkward scientist being based on autism” thing from a Movie Bob video.

And yet, Sherlock is never called “autistic”. Neither is anyone else.

The way I see it, something might start as accidental coding, but anything that goes on like this for more than half a season (or a single instalment in a book/film series) is pretty deliberate. It’s the creators trying to have the best of both worlds.

In the case of autism, they want autistic people watching and identifying with the character, because it creates enthusiastic fans, (or, if we’re assuming the worst, they want to make fun of autistic people) but they don’t want the liability that comes with the label.

In the case of queer-baiting, they don’t want to lose the middle-America viewers. In the case of autism-baiting, they don’t want to lose the viewers who have a mental block, preventing them from thinking of autistic people as, well, people.

This is a common problem with disability in Hollywood. People don’t believe that disabled people are capable, which leads to disabled people having to be portrayed in an over-exaggerated way (listen here if you want more on that).

“So, let them do it. Best of both worlds.”

Except, as I covered in last week’s post, it pushes these characters into the realm of headcanon, and if you hadn’t seen it, you wouldn’t believe the vitriol allistics sometimes throw at us for those headcanons.

It also makes this problem worse. Having coded characters without a diagnosis reinforces the idea that autistic people who pass as neurotypical can’t really be autistic. They’re just quirky.

Like Sheldon.

Or Sherlock.

This idea is why they’re never diagnosed on screen, but the fact that they’re never diagnosed on screen reinforces the idea.

Something has got to give.

The point, dear reader, is that, even with the best of intentions, not being explicit with your character’s neurotype is harmful.

It doesn’t count if you don’t make it clear that you intend for them to be read as autistic.


L.C. Mawson’s YA paranormal novel with an autistic protagonist, Hunt, is available now.

You’re probably aware of headcanons, right? Things which aren’t explicitly stated one way or the other in media, and so the audience must draw their own conclusions.

“Steve Rodgers is bi,” for example.

There’s never been a point in the MCU where he has expressly stated that he’s not bi.

(He’s totally bi…)

So the only argument that he’s not is heteronormativity.

Autistic headcanons, much in the same way, are rarely ever outright refuted in media.

(The exception being Sheldon Cooper, who constantly exclaims “I’m not crazy, my mother had me tested!” but even within the canon of the show, if you take into account his age, it’s not surprising that he would have flown under the radar for autism as a child.)

It’s just assumed that all characters are allistic.

Strangely enough, I’ve often found that characters who are never expressly stated as autistic (just coded as it) tend to be better written and more accurate than those who are given an on-screen diagnosis, though their lack of a label can often be used as a way to make fun of them without the backlash (again, Sheldon Cooper).

So, if you want to learn by example, autistic headcanons might just be the way to go.

Though, before you go scurrying off, I have a one more bit of advice.

Autistic headcanons are often… controversial.

Now, this could be a good thing for you. Polite discussions about whether or not certain traits are enough to consider the character autistic, could be educational.

But this is the internet. Polite discussion does not exist.

And, while two autistic people debating the veracity of a headcanon could be informative, an allistic person telling off an autistic person for their headcanon won’t be.

I go into the whole politics aspect in the video below.


So, as long as you’re mindful, here are some good places to start:

The Autistic Headcanons tag on Tumblr.

Actually Autistic Headcanons

Autistic Character of the Day

Autistic Exchange

My Autistic Headcanon tag over at MyAutisticPoV.com

My Top 15 Autistic Headcanons Video