Writing Autistic – Baiting, Coding, and the Importance of Being Explicit

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.

7 comments

  1. Hey there, thanks for this article !
    Could it also be that in some occasions the writers are afraid they are not correct enough about how they made the characters ? I mean if they made mistakes while portraying them they can fear the backlash, or be genuinely worried they haven’t portrayed it well enough.

    What is a preferable situation :
    A character falling into the autism spectrum but not being declared autistic, or a declared autistic character who’s not depicting autism well enough ?

    Thanks !

    1. Definitely. That’s what I meant by “they don’t want the liability that comes with the label”. But no one is ever going to get it 100% right unless they’re autistic themselves.

      I think it’s a bit of a catch-22. When a writer declares their character as autistic, they often end up overloading on medical journals etc. in an effort to educate themselves, which makes the character very flat and unrealistic. When they don’t, they let the characters be more human, and therefore more accurate.

      I think I would rather that writers/producers be open to the idea of diagnosing a character later on in a show/series. If they don’t want to do it early on, then fine, but there’s nothing stopping them from doing it later down the line.

      For stand-alone works, I think would prefer that people just declared the character as autistic. If they get it wrong, then they get it wrong, but there are so few autistic characters that I would rather they take the chance.

  2. When you say that you recommend stating the fact that a character is autistic outright, does it have to be in the very beginning of the work? I’m autistic (but not open about it IIRL yet, hence the fake name) and I’m currently writing a novel with an autistic protagonist. My plan was to wait until about halfway into the book to reveal that she’s autistic. (I wanted to do an experiment to see how readers would react if they didn’t know a character was austistic until after they got to know her as a character.) (also, part of a subplot involves her debating if she should tell people about it,mand whether or not “coming out” [for lack of a better term, my apologies if that term is only for LGBTQIA scenarios] will help or hurt her credibility in a debate over a book her school is banning.) I’m open about the way autism impacts her life (missed sarcastic comments, sensory issues, etc.) so people who are in the know may figure it out, but the rest won’t know until she first tells another character. Would waiting to reveal the diagnosis be problematic?

    1. I definitely wouldn’t say that (especially not given that the main character of my Freya Snow series isn’t going to become comfortable outright identifying as autistic until later books). The main issue here is leaving it ambiguous when you take into account the work (whether it be a stand-alone novel, a series of books, a film franchise or a TV series) as a whole, including being ambiguous when it comes to Word of God (you as the creator talking about the canon of your work).

      I actually think your premise sounds really interesting! I would definitely read a book like that.

  3. *cough* TWELFTH DOCTOR! *cough* He’s getting more blatantly autistic as this season of Doctor Who goes on and I’m loving it.

    I do agree that not naming a neurotype so “you can’t get mad at me if we mock it because we never said character X is autistic!” is a pretty crap move and I wish producers/directors/etc wouldn’t keep doing it.

    1. The cards, right? With what he should be saying on them, from a couple of episodes ago? That was the point at which I decided that there was no possible way he wasn’t autistic.

      Yeah, it does suck. Like I say, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt and say that some are probably just trying to use the “awkward nerd” stereotype and don’t realise what they’ve done at first, but there’s no way that they remain unaware. Not with the internet.

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