Writing Autistic

Writing Autistic – Secondary Characters – Books About Minority Issues Vs. Tokenism

Welcome to another round of “LC gets into an argument about diversity in fiction and writes a Writing Autistic about it…”

So, you’ve got a large ensemble cast. And making them all white, cishet, able-bodied, neurotypical men is unrealistic. Not to mention, you’re not an arsehole. So, you write a bunch of different characters. Some based on people you know (the Autistic bisexual with anxiety issues) and some you don’t (the ace/aro, flirty PoC).

But they’re not your main character. You know that filling the world with characters who are all white, cishet, able-bodied, neurotypical men is wrong because it doesn’t reflect the world you live in.

But you don’t want to be accused of tokenism.

Bonus points if it’s a fantasy/sci-fi world where your characters don’t face what they’d face in a contemporary drama because… well, they just don’t.

Here’s the thing: I don’t want my sci-fi/fantasy to feature ableism. I don’t want my characters to face sexism in the future. I don’t want my bisexual/aromantic dragon rider to have to fight for her right to have a woman as a lover.

We get to create any world we want – why not a better one?

Contemporary fiction is harder. Do I want an Autistic character whose family is super supportive and who has never experienced ableism? Or do I want one who has been abused by the system and has nowhere to turn?

I don’t know. Both, ideally, I guess. But that doesn’t answer what you, with your one book, should do.

If you write a bisexual woman who has only ever dated men, where is the distinction? Other than her commenting on a woman/non-binary person being hot, where is the point in the story where she’s not just another character you’ve just called “bisexual”? And what does having her prove her sexuality to the reader by being with multiple genders within the story say to bisexual women who have only ever been with one gender?

And then there’s autism, which is arguably a bigger part of my life than my sexuality (which is top-secret information, anyone who is inferring anything from this post). It’s pervasive. It colours everything I say/do.

If your Autistic character is in the story enough, it’ll look weird if you don’t have them “act the part”.

But what about if they’re not in the story enough? What if they’re a secondary character among a sea of other secondary characters?

Is saying “Oh yeah, they’re Autistic” and then mentioning that one meltdown they had a while back enough?

I’m honestly going to be super unhelpful here and say, “I don’t know.”

I mean, yeah, sometimes we will be NPCs. Sometimes we will be secondary characters, without enough development to go into our precise sensory issues.

And, in all honesty, I don’t want Allistics writing stories about Autistic characters where they weigh in on issues within our community.

If you have an Autistic character with limited page/screen time, I think I’d prefer to learn that they’re a good sister, instead of learning that their auditory processing makes learning languages difficult.

I’d rather they be human than an educational tool.

But then, I recently got told that this approach was tokenism.

I was told that I was being offensive because I had a minority character and the story didn’t cover issues that minority faces in present day (in my book, set in 2200, where the main plot focuses on killing alien monsters) and that it was therefore tokenism.

And they told me that I should remove the character altogether.

And I thought, well, what if someone said that to an Allistic writer about an Autistic character?

What if a conversation went:

“Yeah, one of the ship’s crew is Autistic.”

“Do they face ableism?”

“Well, no… It’s the future. I’d like to think that we’re more accepting.”

“How do you deal with the issues Autistic people face?”

“Everyone’s accepting and gives them the accommodations they ask for, so there are no issues. It’s not a big deal, so there’s no reason to bring it up. Their main role in the story is to be the ship’s weapon expert.”

“So how often does their autism come up?”

“Two, maybe three, times. I mention they’re Autistic, and then related issues come up in conversation, like, twice. Plus, it’s a big crew. I don’t have time to go into everyone’s daddy issues. This isn’t a BioWare game.”

“Then it’s tokenism. Just remove the fact that they’re Autistic. It doesn’t serve the story.”

Here’s the thing.

I don’t want it to serve the story. I want the NPC who is a badass, but only around for one mission, to be Autistic (without mission dialogue where the exposit about how difficult being Autistic is). I want that mother figure to be Autistic, but not complain about her issues because she’s the mother figure. I want the merchant near the home-base to be Autistic, but for the story not to really go into it, because why would it?!

I want to be a normal part of the narrative, without it becoming about the evils of ABA or cure culture.

I don’t want people acknowledging and accommodating my needs to be hammered home. I want it to drift into the background and to be considered normal.

Want to avoid tokenism? Avoid stereotypes. Make them a well-rounded person. Have them sometimes make mistakes, while sometimes being right.

And I’m sure not everyone will agree on this point, but here it is anyway – the Smurfette principle makes sense because women make up 50% of the population. Having one in a group of eight makes no sense. The same could be said for ethnic minorities, which make up 25% of the English population.

Autistic people make up 1-2% of the population. Yes, having two Autistic people in your story is possibly the best way to avoid any problems, but I’m not going to be offended if there’s only one, especially if your story has a small cast.

And even with that one character, you don’t have to delve into issues like employers not accommodating sensory issues.

And, in all honesty, I’d prefer that you didn’t. Allistic writers will mess up if they delve too far into community issues.

Beyond real world examples (e.g. someone being asked to speak at a panel to be the sole representative of their minority group), I think tokenism is often used as a cop-out.

“Don’t have too many minorities – you might end up looking like a bad 90′s cartoon!”

I’m not saying it’s always perfect. I’m just saying that it’s better than nothing.

And if you write the Autistic merchant who appears in one chapter, and someone else writes the Autistic weapons expert who never really delves into their issues, and a third person writes the Autistic mother figure…

Then we’d be a million steps up from where we are now.

I want to be the arse-kicking main character, but I also want to be the NPC when the main character is someone else, instead of nowhere to be seen.

I don’t want people to fear that their writing is too diverse. I definitely don’t want them to fear those criticisms from the community (because I know for a fact the “I don’t want too diverse media” crowd will hijack that argument).

I’m not going to pretend that the line between “this character didn’t seem Autistic at all” and “goddamn Allistic writers speaking over our issues” isn’t a thin one. Hell, I’ve even talked before about how it’s a difficult balance (even for me as an Autistic writer) to find with the main character.

With a secondary character, the balance is even trickier, since there’s less screen/page-time.

So, no, I don’t have all the answers here. But I would rather someone tried and failed than not try at all.

tl;dr – Arguments about always being a side-character are about media as a whole, not your story. It doesn’t mean that it’s better to not include an Autistic character at all. It doesn’t mean that you, as an Allistic writer, should only feel it’s acceptable to write us when we’re “dealing with autism issues”. We’re people who exist in every kind of story, and we have lives outside of our neurotype. If you really care, then boost Autistic voices within writing.

Originally posted to on 17/8/15.

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