Writing Autistic – Tropes – Neurodiversity is Supernatural

TV Tropes page.

“A real-world atypical neurological condition, most often autism or schizophrenia, is presented as the result of or the presence of something supernatural. Bonus points if it doesn’t occur naturally at all in the fictional universe.”

Someone was asking about stuff similar to this over on Tumblr, so I decided to move it up the list.

Whenever a writer has an Autistic character with supernatural abilities, this trope is always dangerously close by. There are variations, such as the supernatural being a result of the autism, and not the other way around, but they all present danger zones, which most sci-fi/fantasy authors fall into.

Many of these dangers also apply to writing characters as savants (I’m looking at you, sci-fi writers).

The Danger Zones

The Weapon/Tool

This character is usually a child and/or non-verbal. They’re not the main character, usually just a side-character, and don’t get any (or barely any) characterisation of their own. They’re nothing more than a McGuffin. A tool or object to aid the main character in their quest.

Don’t make your autistic characters McGuffins. Just don’t. No character should ever be treated as an object, autistic or otherwise.

Examples of this include the video game Amy, the Philip K. Dick book Martian Time-Slip, and the TV shows (A Town Called) Eureka and Touch.

Don’t Worry! My Power Makes Me Worthwhile!

This character leads a terrible life, where they are a burden to those around them. But don’t worry! They find that they have a special power which makes them worthy of love and respect.

This can be quite subtle, but still insidious. Mostly because it ties into a lot of real-world issues.

Quick answer for why this is bad: Supernatural powers aren’t real. If your character is portrayed as burdensome without their powers, then you’re telling autistic people that they’re burdensome and the only way for them to be worthwhile is to have fictional abilities.

Long answer: Above, but also the fact that people try to fight the stigma autistic people face by saying that we have some kind of special powers/abilities (see indigo children) or that we have some kind of unique intelligence. The problem here is that autistic people are not magic. At all. Saying that we are is super dehumanising, even if it’s meant positively. And we’re so varied in what we’re good at that any claims of “well autistic people are worthwhile because they can do this specific thing” will never be true for all autistic people. It just divides us into “worthwhile” and “not worthwhile” autistics. Which is awful. Also, it becomes a case of positive discrimination which too big of a topic for me to tackle here.

Examples of this include the book Mass Effect: Ascension, the Philip K. Dick book Martian Time-Slip, and the TV show (A Town Called) Eureka.

Balancing an OP Character

I mostly covered this in my Autism is Not a Character Flaw post, but I didn’t talk about the supernatural element. Which basically just boils down to – autism is not kryptonite. It’s not a clever way to balance your OP character. Don’t use it as such.

Power is Relative to Disability

This is where you have multiple characters with the same power(s), and the ones who are disabled are better with their power. And the more disabled they are, the more gifted they are. It’s this idea of a cosmic trade-off, along the lines of “the more tragic someone’s life is, the more saintly they must be.” It’s ridiculous, not true, and it’s more positive discrimination.

An example of this is the book Mass Effect: Ascension.

Supernatural Cure

This is where an autistic character, at the end of their quest, is cured through supernatural means. Sometimes as a reward.

Again, I covered this a bit in my Autism in Not a Character Flaw post, but curing autism is not a “happy” ending. It sucks. Autism has no cure and, even if it did, a lot of autistic people wouldn’t take it. Curing a character is basically saying that autism is bad and needs to be eradicated.

An example of this is the TV show (A Town Called) Eureka.

Ways to Avoid Danger

Both Autistics and Allistics With Powers

The fastest way to show that autism isn’t tied to the power is to have your autistic character not be the only one with that power. If allistics have it too, then it’s not tied to their autism. This can get tricky though if your character is the strongest.

Not All Autistics

Another way is to have another autistic character who doesn’t have any supernatural powers, but who isn’t seen as lesser for that lack.

Autism Can Affect Their Power, But Complexly

It’s logical that autism would affect the way a power presents. The problem with that is when you position it so that autism is only positive or negative. If autism affects how they use their power, the best way to do that is to make the effect neutral, or to have both positive and negative aspects to it.

Be Able to Back Up Your Writing With Science

I would not recommend this unless you are ready to do some hard research (and be able to sort the crap from the decent stuff) and have a complex and well-explained magic system. For example, some autistic people are pattern thinkers (not all – some are visual thinkers, etc.) so if you have a magic system which involves tracking patterns in nature or something, then it would make sense that they might show skill, in the same way that they might show skill in programming. This will bring you closer to the danger zones, but you can balance it by showing other autistics who don’t have the same abilities and having some areas of magic harder for them to learn than for allistics.


Originally posted to myautisticpov.com on 9/8/15.

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