Writing Autistic – The Innocent and the Damned

You know, this wasn’t even going to be the post today. I was going to write about the technical aspects of meltdowns and shutdowns.

But The Accountant is coming out and there have been social media rumblings, so I thought I would instead wade into the waters of Good, Bad, and Morally Grey characters.

This is gonna be an issue with any minority group. You’re going to be coming up against positive and negative stereotypes that you don’t want your work to contribute to. And yes, positive stereotypes can be harmful as well.

Bad Guys

This is where The Accountant comes in. I see a lot of people rail against autistic bad guys in fiction because of the stereotype that autistic people are violent/dangerous, but I think that’s an overgeneralisation.

The stereotype isn’t just that we’re killers (autism seems to be the new hotness when it comes to explaining violent crimes, such as mass shootings), but that we’re capable of such acts of violence because we lack empathy.

I’ve been meaning to write a revised empathy post, but for now let’s simply say that autism =/= lack of empathy, and lack of empathy =/= tendencies towards violence.

In all honesty, using a lack of empathy to explain why bad guys are bad is just lazy writing.

Bad guys aren’t just “bad”. Evil is not a thing people are born into. But this Key Stage One Reading Level style of writing remains. Lazy writers have just replaced “evil” with “psychopath” (doesn’t exist), “sociopath” (also doesn’t exist), and “autistic”.

Even if someone didn’t care about other people and had no empathy towards them, why would they turn to evil/crime? Why risk prison or getting involved with criminals?

“Because I don’t feel bad about it” isn’t a good enough reason to have a character commit crimes. It lacks motive.

Motive is important. Your bad guys should have it.

What do they want and how desperate are they?

Have they been indoctrinated into thinking that their targets aren’t real people?

“Because I grew up in a society where X type of person wasn’t valued” is a better reason for why they felt it was okay to kill someone than “Just because.”

Or “I was simply desperate enough and they were standing in my way.”

Your bad guys can be autistic, but being autistic can’t be the reason they’re bad guys.

Good Guys

Now, your counterpoint to the previous section may be “Fine, then I’ll just write about pure and innocent autistic characters who never do any wrong.”

Yeah, no, that’s too far in the other direction.

Specifically, there’s a line of thinking about a lot of developmentally disabled people that they have no ability to be consciously bad (if they are bad it’s all the autism – much like the devil possessing a child in a horror film – and isn’t actually anything to do with the autistic person making a choice) because they don’t understand right and wrong/are eternal children and therefore innocent.

If you write a character who is good and pure and who has never had a bad thought in their life… Well, that’s just not very realistic. So, instead of demonising your character, you’ve dehumanised them by denying them human thoughts/feelings.

Even Superman – the best of the good guys – has bad days.

Morally Grey Guys

The stereotype that is probably most likely to fall into the morally grey archetype is the manipulator. The character who, for either good or their own gain depending on their mood, will lie to their friends with no qualms simply because they can.

And I don’t know with this one. It’s definitely not an “avoid with all costs” scenario, because I’ve seen it done well (Sherlock in Elementary springs to mind).

But I also think that it comes back to the autism =/= lack of emapthy and lack of empathy =/= being evil/a dick/having a complete lack of any emotion problem.

This is done well when the reason behind the manipulation is explained. It doesn’t have to be romanticed or brushed aside, but it can’t just be for the lulz. It has to be a reaction to something. An emotion/situation that the character doesn’t otherwise know how to deal with.

This is best done in Elementary when Watson calls Sherlock on his crap and he is remorseful and apologises. It works because it’s a flaw of his character, not an unchanging constant that can never be addressed. It’s not just “the way he is”, it’s a maladaptive coping mechanism.

So yeah, I guess the part to avoid here is simply the “with no qualms” part. At least, in the long run. If your autistic character grows and changes then you’re already ahead of, like, 95% of writers.

Alright, well, I guess that’s it for now…

I might think of more points and do a follow up post, but I think this will do for this one.

I will get to working on that post about shutdowns/meltdowns, and I’m also going to put together a masterpost, including all of the links to my posts and to any other resources I know of.

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