Writing Autistic

Writing Autistic – Tropes – Hollywood Autism and Ambiguous Disorder

TV Tropes Pages

Hollywood Autism

Ambiguous Disorder

Short version

Don’t do either of these.

Long Version

Oh boy, okay, here we go…

Hollywood Autism

Basically, it’s a massively over-simplified version of autism. Usually either a genius with Autism Lite (just awkward around people, with no SPD issues or any stimming) or someone who has debilitating issues, but is a savant.

Why is This Bad?

Because autism is not that simple. It’s not just being slightly quirky or Rain Man. And I don’t mean that in an Autism Mom “My child needs constant looking after and they’re not even a savant to make up for it!” way (which is an incredibly toxic mindset). I mean that it’s not so black and white. There are thousands (if not millions) of different ways to be Autistic. Hollywood Autism is limiting.

Hollywood Autism also rarely shows the Autistic person being happy with their lives. That’s just inaccurate. Also, super offensive.

How Do I Avoid It?

Erm, that’s pretty much what is blog series is about… Read the other Writing Autistic posts and listen to Actually Autistic people about what are live are like. Research is the ultimate solution to Hollywood Autism.

Ambiguous Disorder

This is essentially just “I want my character to have something but I don’t want to name it and then have to do a load of research on it.” While Ambiguous Disorder can be used to resemble other disorders, a lot of the time, characters with Ambiguous Disorder end up coded as Autistic.

Why is This Bad?

Because it takes away representation. There are so few Autistic characters to start with, Ambiguous Disorder is like saying “I want to write an Autistic character but I don’t respect Actually Autistic people enough to get it right.” It’s kind of a dick move.

How Do I Avoid It?

Just say the character is Autistic, and then see the bit about how to avoid Hollywood Autism.

Originally posted to on 28/6/15.

Writing Autistic

Writing Autistic – Perspective and POV – Foreshadowing With an Autistic Main Character

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.


[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 on 21/6/15.

Writing Autistic

Writing Autistic – Stimming – Part Two

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.


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:


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.


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 on 14/6/15.

Writing Autistic

Writing Autistic – Stimming – Part One

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 on 27/5/15.

Writing Autistic

Writing Autistic – Co-Morbid Conditions – Sensory Processing Disorder

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:



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).


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



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.



Particularly Defensive Against: Bright lights.

Seeks: Nothing.

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



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.



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.


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.


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 on 16/5/15.

Writing Autistic

Writing Autistic – Avoiding Tropes vs. Stifling Creativity

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 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.

Writing Autistic

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”.


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.


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.

Writing Autistic

Writing Autistic – Tools – Autistic Headcanons

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

My Top 15 Autistic Headcanons Video

Writing Autistic

Writing Autistic – Words and Phrases You Need to Know

It occurs to me that many of you probably haven’t had much contact with the autistic community before this point. You might have already done in-depth research before reaching this point, or this blog might be your first port of call. In order to make things easy for you, I’ve decided to compile a list of words and phrases used within the autistic community, as well as within this blog.

Most of these words and phrases are for topics that I have already covered, or plan to cover in the future. This guide is meant as a quick way for you to understand autism-focused blogs during your research, as well as terms I might use on this blog.

Allistic: Someone who is not Autistic.

Neurotypical: Someone who has no intellectual disabilities, learning difficulties, developmental disorders, mental illness, etc.

Note on Allistic and Neurotypical: In some areas, the use of “neurotypical” is up for debate. The word arose from a need to refer to people without autism as something other than “normal”. It’s as important of a label when talking about autism as “straight” is when talking about sexuality. Some neurotypicals see this as an insult, though this mostly stems from them being annoyed at autistic people who are venting their frustrations, much in the same way that someone might say “white people are the worst” or “urgh, men are pigs”.

They’re not attacking every individual neurotypical personally (#NotAllNeurotypicals!) but they are using it as shorthand to refer to the ableist neurotypicals who do attack them, the ignorant neurotypicals who unintentionally hurt them or spread harmful misinformation, and the systems of oppression upheld by neurotypicals. Suffice it to say, I have little patience for neurotypicals who dislike being “labelled”. Really. I can’t possibly imagine what that must feel like. /sarcasm

Within the community, there are those who use “neurotypical” to mean “allistic”. The word originated in autism communities, and many people dislike the words “allism” and “autism” because “autism” comes from the root “auto”, meaning “self”, and is meant to describe “morbid self-absorption”. “Allism” comes from the opposite root.

To the first point, that “neurotypical” originated in autistic communities, the person who coined the phrase has backed the definition I have given above. It also just makes sense from the way the word is made up, and it’s important to have a word with that specific meaning in order to build solidarity between neurodivergent groups (see below for definition).

To the second point, about autism and allism as words, that ship has sailed. In fact, Asperger’s Syndrome was originally coined as an alternative diagnosis to get rid of the stigma of “autism” and we’ve reached a point where it’s agreed that, as much as it helped to broaden the criteria for autism, it fed into the idea of “good” and “bad” autism that persists today. As long as we’re stuck with autism, allism makes sense as a counter.

I will personally tend towards using allistic when talking about issues solely surrounding autism, especially in these blog posts. This is because someone with depression/an anxiety disorder/etc. may have a better understanding of some issues surrounding autism (for example, they may experience executive dysfunction as part of their condition) but they will never understand it to the same degree as an autistic person, and they may still perpetuate ableism against autistic people.

Neurodivergent: Someone who is not neurotypical, due to intellectual disabilities, learning difficulties, developmental disorders, mental illness, etc.

Neuroatypical: Someone who is not neurotypical, due to intellectual disabilities, learning difficulties, developmental disorders, mental illness, etc.

Neurotypical Passing: An autistic person who is indistinguishable from their allistic peers to a layperson. This usually requires a lot of energy and the need to be NT passing most likely contributes to the high instances of anxiety disorders, etc. among autistic people. For example, a large number of teenage girls are only diagnosed after being referred to mental health services for eating disorders.

NT: An abbreviation of neurotypical.

Neurotipic: An abbreviation of neurotypical.

Neurodiversity: A movement that believes that having diverse neurotypes is as essential to humanity as biodiversity is to nature. There is nothing inherently wrong with people with autism or ADHD, etc., we’re just outnumbered.

Asperger’s Syndrome: A diagnosis coined in the days when autism was still largely believed to have been caused by “refrigerator mothers” to encourage parents to accept a diagnosis for their child, without facing the stigma of having caused the condition. It was named for one of the first researchers to identify autism, Hans Asperger, though due to his working out of the University of Vienna during the rise of Nazi Germany, his work was lost to history for more than a few decades. Due to the fact that Asperger was very much aware that the children he worked with would be euthanised under the Nazi regime if he wasn’t careful, he strategically highlighted cases of extreme intelligence or children with extraordinary abilities. These factors have lead to Asperger’s Syndrome being seen as the socially-inept genius archetype, rather than the “true horror” of “real” autism.

Asperger’s Syndrome is no longer a diagnosis in DSM V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which is currently used in the United States. Instead, people who would have been diagnosed with Asperger’s are now diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, which is graded in levels, though whether these levels are helpful in determining the level of services someone needs, or are just more detailed functioning labels (see below) is a question that is perhaps better asked of American autistics.

The ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases) is currently used in many other countries (including the UK) and Asperger’s is still included as a diagnosis. It is currently being revised, however, into the ICD-11, which appears to be an online system which accepts contributions from around the world. This will probably lead to Asperger’s being absorbed by the Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis there as well.

Aspie: An abbreviation for someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. This originated from within the community and can often be preferred by aspies for its less pathologised-sounding nature.

PDD-NOS: Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified. The “not-autism” of autism diagnosis. This was also absorbed into Autism Spectrum Disorder in the DSM V.

ASD: Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Functioning Labels: This is when someone refers to an autistic person as being either “high” or “low” functioning.

There is debate around whether these labels are actually any good at describing autistic people. Autistic people themselves generally think not. Areas of ability and difficulty are so varied among autistic people, one label cannot adequately convey them. What usually ends up happening is that “low functioning” people are trotted out by allistic family members as a bogeyman trump-card to win any argument about autism. (”Family members shouldn’t talk over autistic people!” “You’re not like my child! They’re ~low functioning~! Only I can speak for them!”)

“High functioning” is also used to silence autistic people, usually by allistic family members telling them that they can’t ever truly understand their child. Apparently the chain of people who understand autism goes: high-functioning autistic < allistic family member < doctors/anti-vax pushers/that shady guy who sold me some poisonous herbs to cure my child < low-functioning autistics, if they could ever possibly communicate, but they can’t, and if they can then they’re clearly high functioning. /sarcasm

/sarcasm: A way to communicate sarcasm in text-based communication, as autistic people may struggle to identify it. Also, as an autistic person, my sarcasm can often be more subtle than that which NTs use, making it a useful identifier for them too.

Anti-vaxxers: People who believe that vaccinations cause autism. They don’t. The guy who said that they did turned out to be a fraud. They have conducted numerous studies which debunk his. They even removed the elements he said were harmful from most Western vaccines. They were preserving agents, not so important for those of us with fridges everywhere.

They also believe that the risk of deadly disease is better than risking autism, which no one who argues with them really addresses outside of the autistic community.

Vaccinate your damn kids, whether it might cause them autism or not. Autism is still preferable to death.

Cure Culture: The cultural belief that autistic people would be better off if they were “cured”, leading to a large majority of research money looking for cures and causes, rather than services. The search for a cure is unlikely to lead to results, and at this point is mostly concentrated around looking for genetic factors. The end goal of finding these genetic factors is a prenatal genetic test, so that parents can be given the option to abort their autistic child. This isn’t popular with autistic people, for reasons that should be obvious. Especially when the money being poured into looking for the genes behind autism could be better spent improving the lives of autistic people, removing any argument for the genetic test in the first place.

Ableism/Disableism: Ableism and disableism are the terms for discrimination against disabled people. “Ableism” is largely used in the United States, whereas “disableism” is often used in the UK.

Medical Model of Disability: The medical model of disability views disability as a problem with the disabled person to be fixed with a cure.

Social Model of Disability: The social model of disability views disability as a problem with society. If the world was built specifically for people in wheelchairs, for example, tall people might suddenly find themselves disabled. Why would doorways be built tall enough for them? Who are tall people to ask for special treatment? Do you know how much doorways cost?

Person First Language: Person first language would be saying “person with disability” or “person with autism”. This is popular within most American disability communities, as it doesn’t define the person by their disability. The two most notable exceptions to this are the Deaf and Autistic communities. These two communities subscribe to the social model of disability and see their disability as an integral part of their identity. The social model of disability originated in the UK, so most disabled people in the UK also reject person first language. I am Autistic and British, so I will not be using person first language.

IRL, it’s always polite to use the language the person you’re referring to prefers. If someone prefers “person with autism” or “autistic person” it’s not an allistic’s place to correct them. A fellow autistic person may ask them about their choice, but it is a personal decision and it is theirs to make.

A$: An abbreviation of the controversial charity Autism Speaks. More on them here.

ABA: Applied Behavioural Analysis. This is the only form of treatment/therapy that medical insurers have to provide in the United States. Because of this, many therapies for autistic people in the US call themselves ABA for insurance purposes even though they aren’t. True ABA has the same roots as gay conversion therapies and is largely considered abusive by the autistic community. More on it here.

Spoon Theory: Link to the full thing here. It’s basically the idea that everything in life, from showers to making food, costs “spoons”. Disabled people start the day with a limited number, and so must factor in things abled people would never think twice about, like showering, into their daily spoon allowance. When someone refers to being “low on spoons”, this is what they are referring to.

Stimming: Engaging in self-stimulatory behaviour. I mean, it’s basically fidgeting. It does the same thing, though stimming is more conspicuous, and is more necessary to an autistic person’s mental health. Stimming can improve concentration and prevent meltdowns (see below).

Stim Toys: Any object which is used for stimming. Some can bought from shops, such as chewable jewellery, while other people make do with DIY stim toys like glitter jars or a toy with soft fabric (I have a soft Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man on my backpack).

Special Interest: A topic which fascinates an autistic person, usually to the point of obsession. Many autistic adults pursue careers around their special interests, though not all special interests are long-lasting or life-long, with some only lasting a few weeks. They also aren’t always socially acceptable or pleasant. The horror game Five Nights at Freddy’s was my special interest for a few months and I had nightmares the entire time. I don’t even like horror games. I drew the line at Bioshock. That’s how much I don’t like horror games.

Speccing: Engaging in activities related to a special interest. (This isn’t in wide use, but has been catching on lately.)

Sensory Processing Disorder: A condition comorbid with autism. Can you feel your socks right now? I bet you couldn’t until I mentioned it. Our brain filters out tons of sensory information all of the time. For someone with SPD (Power Rangers to the rescue! I will not apologise for my echolalia – see below) their brain either focuses too much or too little. It can vary depending on the time of day, or which sense is being used, and it often varies from person to person.

Comorbid Condition: When a condition exists alongside another condition in a person.

Sensory Overload: You know in Man of Steel, where there’s that scene of a young Clark unable to control his super-hearing and he has to hide in the cupboard? It’s basically that.

Meltdown: A point at which an autistic person essentially experiences a system crash and the attempt to recover can be seen outwardly (excessive stimming, self-injurious behaviour, sudden crying, etc.). This is often caused by sensory overload.

Shutdown: A point at which an autistic person essentially experiences a system crash and the attempt to recover causes them to withdraw into themselves. This can often involve being non-verbal, unable to more, or unable to process sensory information around them. This is often caused by sensory overload.

Non-verbal: When an autistic person has no/limited ability to speak. Some autistic people are permanently non-verbal and others vary. Some will never have a non-verbal episode, and some will only have them every few years, or if they experience burnout.

Autistic Burnout: This is sometimes referred to as “autistic regression” but the autistic community tends to prefer “burnout”. It refers to an increase in meltdowns, non-verbal episodes, visible stimming, echolalia, executive dysfunction, and other autistic traits that many neurotypical passing individuals suppress. This usually follows a period of high stress in the autistic person’s life, when they have been unable to look after their needs. It can often resemble depression.

Echolalia: Using repeated phrases to communicate, often taken from TV, though it can also be an autistic person repeating a question back to answer it. This is sometimes mistaken as being meaningless. Just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t make it not communication. I don’t speak Mandarin. It doesn’t mean that those who do aren’t communicating when they use it.

Echopraxia: Using repeated body language or facial expressions to communicate. It’s essentially the body language equivalent of echolalia.

Specific Learning Difficulties: The term used in the UK for conditions which only affect a specific area of learning ability. A few are listed below but I only give a VERY brief overview of the main difficulty caused by each – you’ll have to research them individually to know more.

Dyslexia: A specific learning difficulty which affects the ability to read and write (usually a difficulty spelling).

Dyspraxia: A specific learning difficulty which affects fine and/or gross motor skills.

Dyscalculia: A specific learning difficulty which affects mathematic ability.

Dysgraphia: A specific learning difficulty which affects the ability to write.

ADHD/ADD: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder/Attention Deficit Disorder. Specific learning difficulties which affect the ability to concentrate.

A Note of my use of autistic vs. Autistic – I’ll admit, I’m often sporadic over whether I capitalise the A or not. I, personally, like it, so I will usually capitalise it when referring to myself. When referring to autistic people in general, I tend not to. Why? Who knows. Because different people have different opinions, mostly, and because there’s no real consensus on the capital A.

A Note on These Terms – Language evolves and changes. As of September 2015, these are the terms which are most commonly used within the community. I will probably update this post if anything drastic changes, and I will indicate the date of the change, but, seriously, potential readers from the future, pay attention to the changes in language. Especially if one of these terms falls out of use or is abused by allistics to the point of being considered offensive.

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Writing Autistic

Writing Autistic – Autism is Not a Character Flaw

So, you’ve written a Mary-Sue. Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us.

But now you’re looking for a character flaw to give them. Something to overcome.

They’re a genius, so you decide to take away their social skills.

And, hey, Autistic characters are pretty popular right now.

Why not go the whole hog?

Nope, stop. I’m here to tell you why you can’t just do that.

I mean, maybe this isn’t your exact situation, but let’s face it, as an Allistic writer, you’re probably viewing autism as a character flaw. Something that your character will overcome by the end of their arc.

Even if you’re not going into your story with the view of your Autistic character growing out of their autism, you’re probably going to find your story going in that direction. Especially if you’re treating it as a character flaw.

But that’s fine. You don’t know any better. That’s what these blog posts are for.

But L.C., you say, it’s a disorder. Surely that makes it something to overcome?

Okay, so, as Cheryl Klein says in this episode of the Narrative Breakdown, autism is a value-neutral trait. (Hey, fellow Autistic readers. First of all, how are you doing? I hope you’re enjoying this series and feel that I’m doing the subject justice. If you think I’m missing anything, just let me know. I’m more than happy to revisit older topics. Secondly, you probably don’t want to follow the link. I mean, no one’s outright malicious, but it is three people who (I assume) have no personal experience with autism discussing its use as a character flaw. It can get icky.) Actually, Allistic readers too, the Narrative Breakdown is a good writing podcast and I highly recommend it (along with I Should Be Writing, Writing Excuses and Ditch Diggers, as long as I’m recommending stuff), but some of the discussion of autism in that episode is misinformed, so I’m not recommending it as an overall source of how to write an Autistic character, but I felt it was important to reference since I first heard “autism is a value-neutral trait” there and I’m just agreeing with that single point.

So, what does that mean? Basically, it’s not positive or negative. It’s just different.

It’s not something to be overcome.

Partially because it will give your character (if you’re writing it properly) strengths as well as weaknesses. You can’t have one without the other.

And partially because it can’t be overcome.

There is no cure for autism. (And many of us believe that there shouldn’t be – I’m looking at you SF/F writers.)

There is no sudden, tidy epiphany that an Autistic person can come at the end of the book to magically make then Allistic.

There are no therapies which get rid of autism. Many, such as ABA, focus on making Autistic people act Allistic and that’s its own set of problems.

Okay, I see you walking away from the idea as you realise it’s not the quick-fix you were hoping for. But fear not! I have a list of autism-related things you can use as flaws/obstacles for your character.

But L.C. I didn’t write it as just a character flaw. It’s the whole plot. It’s an inspirational story about a young boy who bravely struggles with autism and by the end, he overcomes it, and finally hugs people, and it’s beautiful, and it will make you cry and win me awards.


Kill it with fire.

Take your laptop, build a pyre, and set that thing alight.

Okay, you done?

Good. Now I can tell the assassin to stand down.

For now.

I will also cover external autism-related things to overcome in case you are incapable of leaving autism alone.


Now, this one gets tricky. I’ve used it myself in a fanfiction (which I wrote 3 years ago and so it’s not my best work), but I am both Autistic and have anxiety, so it was easy for me to make a realistic portrayal of learning to overcome anxiety. Anxiety can be overcome on its own, but that usually takes a long time and a change of circumstance. Usually it requires therapy, possibly something like CBT (this can sometimes be tricky for Autistic people and can require programs specifically designed for us), and possibly medication. And sometimes learning to live with it and minimise its effect on our lives is the best we can do.

But L.C., everybody can have anxiety, I hear you say.

I nod, sagely, taking a puff from my bubble-pipe.

Here are a couple of examples of how anxiety can be specifically autism related:

Social Anxiety – Turns out, if your social responses are atypical, you get bullied. Who knew, right? And, it turns out, if you get bullied, you might develop a fear of socialising. This fear is particularly difficult to overcome because it’s not irrational. You could majorly mess up and people could shun you. The trick is learning not to care.

Exam/Test Anxiety – If questions on exams/tests are too ambiguous, Autistic people might struggle with them. If not given appropriate guidance on how to approach these questions, exams/tests might become a source of anxiety.

Any situation which causes sensory difficulty – If crowds are a deeply unpleasant sensory experience for the Autistic person in question, over time they might develop a fear of crowds. Any unpleasant sensory experience can cause this issue over time, especially if the Autistic person is given no choice but to do it. Again, don’t magically have your character get over their sensory issues. But you can have them learn to manage them, like having them wear headphones in noisy places, and then they can work to overcome their anxiety.

Self-Esteem Issues

Again, something I touched on in that fanfic, and something which ties into social anxiety. If you’re constantly exposed to the idea that you’re “broken” through ableist/disablist ideas about autism, or you’re not diagnosed and so are bullied with no idea of why you can’t communicate properly with your peers, it’s possible that you would develop self-esteem issues.

A character with self-esteem issues might struggle to take the initiative and might rely on others to take the lead, or only take the lead for as long as necessary before withdrawing. This flaw can be tricky to write, however, without making your character annoying.


So, remember that story I told you to burn? You actually probably could have just rewritten it.

My bad.

So, I spend my entire life being told that the way I think and act is wrong. That I am broken. Not to be all

I Hope it Doesn't Sound Arrogant When I Say

That I am the Greatest Man in the World

[gifs of Denholm saying “I hope it doesn’t sound arrogant when I say that I am the greatest man in the world!”]

but do you know how difficult that is? And do you know how even more difficult it is to face that, stare it down, and give it the finger?

So, yes, you can rework that story. Have your character change themselves to seem less Autistic. But don’t let that be the end of the story. Let that be the second act, where they’re broken and defeated. Then have them pick themselves up and dust themselves off and have them flap their hands and make chirping noises in the face of it all!

There’s your tear-jerking inspiration.

(Also, if you rework it into a SF/F YA bloody revolution of some kind, you would probably make all the money. You can definitely have mine.)

Further Reading.