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.