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.