Who Gets to Stay Autistic?

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Here in the real world, everyone autistic stays so, though attempts to make us act out imitations of neurotypicality are the norm. Those of us who cannot maintain the act often face segregation—special education classrooms, special boarding schools, group homes, and the occasional “outing” where staff herd us through community settings without truly permitting interaction. That is, the world does its best to remove our autism from the mainstream narrative of life, hiding either it or us whenever possible.

In the world of fiction, we often see these same attempts. Sometimes a character is pushed to imitate neurotypicality while retaining their autistic neurology. In Cynthia Lord’s Rules, Catherine, the narrator, is a non-autistic sibling who pushes her autistic brother David to imitate neurotypicality, all the while wishing there was a pill he could take to wake up without autism. Even harmless (if odd) actions like reading the backs of movie boxes, opening doors, and using book quotations to communicate embarrass her and make her wish for a normal brother. Their mother also pushes for an imitation of neurotypicality, encouraging David to initiate conversation and worrying over his echolalia. In the end, there is a hint of increased understanding, but this is the end: we don’t see any effects of this understanding, or of Catherine reducing the pressure on David to imitate neurotypicality.

In other stories, removing a character’s autism from the narrative requires removing the character from the vicinity of the other characters. This is what happens in Rain Man, where the disabled character often presumed to be autistic is sent to a home, and this is considered a happy ending.  In Lois Lowry’s The Silent Boy, the (silent) boy with the unnamed disability similar to many fictional portrayals of autism is eventually sent to an institution, removing him from the narrative and the world at large after others learn from the experience of interacting with him.

This sort of removal from the narrative also happens in special episodes of shows where a disabled character of any kind is only in town just long enough for the episode.  Arthur’s “When Carl Met George” (season 13, episode 6) is one such example, though this is harder to accomplish in non-serialized, written works.

Others are somehow “cured” of their neurotypes through means non-existent today. In the original, 2002 publication of Diane Duane’s A Wizard Alone, Darryl McAlister makes use of his autistic focus and “perseveration” in a conflict which is ongoing for much of the book. He also shows signs of being badly overloaded—understandably so considering everything going on in his life at the time. However, it is stated that autism is something which was inflicted upon him by the same power responsible for entropy and death, and when given the opportunity to do so, he is excited to leave his autism behind.

In all of the cases where a character’s autism is somehow removed from the story, or where other characters are attempting to remove it from the story (successful or not), the attempted removal of autism from the story comes with a lesson learned, with some sort of character growth for the neurotypical characters. Catherine from Rules supposedly learns to care less about normalcy (though the effects of this on her relationship with her brother are not shown). The abled brother from Rain Man becomes more enlightened. Katy, an abled character whose father interacted with Lowry’s silent boy, becomes a doctor. It’s implied that the choice relates to her experience with said silent boy. Viewers and characters alike learn about autism from When Carl met George. Darryl grows from his “cure,” and will now have to learn to be normal, as well as how to be a wizard. Everywhere, we see character growth stemming from the (attempted) removal of autism from the narrative, but not for a character who gets to stay autistic and stay around.

There are, of course, exceptions. When Diane Duane updated her Young Wizards series to deal with many issues including a dysfunctional timeline, Darryl’s story became one of these exceptions. Darryl is still offered the chance to leave his autism behind, but in this edition he chooses not to. When Darryl appears in later books and retains his autistic traits, needing to take time to recover from sensory overload, we get another rare gift: he is not a single-use character for the literary equivalent of a very special episode, but a recurring part of the cast with important skills, while staying autistic.

The notability of this exception contrasts strongly with the traits and arcs for characters who are not stated to be disabled. Autistic readers often recognize ourselves in characters who are not officially diagnosed, and the treatment of those undiagnosed characters is very different from that of canonically autistic characters. Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most famous example here, with references to his autistic traits made in the New York Times, on Psychology Today, and fan sites galore. Disability Studies Quarterly has even discussed the implications of reading Doyle’s Sherlock (and contemporary characters inspired by him) as autistic. His skills at recognizing details and patterns alike earn him renown as a detective, and it is stated outright in some adaptations that his unique skills are the reason his ambiguous (lack of) legal authority is tolerated.

Other characters found by representation-seeking autistic readers may be less often discussed. Returning once more to Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, we meet Dairine Callahan. In both the original and New Millenium editions of the series, Dairine is known to be highly gifted. She can also be read as autistic: her statement, “I don’t tell anybody anything,” backed by Nita’s remembered examples, resonates with autistic readers who have difficulty initiating communication or bringing up problems in both editions. Her ability to understand and attempt to solve the problems of a single-celled organism’s civilization is a fantastic parallel with viewing everything as alive in its own way, as Mel Baggs described. Her learning of social skills by rote rather than nature matches the described experiences of many autistic people. Early self-taught reading, a mind focused like a laser (if only in certain areas), pushing past her limits without realizing it (then collapsing)—these are all common autistic experiences. And—this is important—unlike Darryl, who is cured in the older edition but retains his autism in the New Millenium Editions, the never-diagnosed Dairine retains her autistic traits in both versions of the story. No rewrite was needed for her to stay autistic.

Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet (and to a lesser extent, all Tortall universe books set after the quartet) also displays a heroine who, while never stated as such, can be read as autistic by those seeking representation. Alanna of Trebond is known for stubbornness and her dislike of social situations. She is quiet and finds it difficult to ask for things, but when she is angry enough, her outbursts have made her known for her temper. Like Dairine above and many real autistic people, Alanna has a tendency to push past her limits, then collapse, spending days unconscious afterwards at least once. And it’s stated that she likes rules, because they make life simple—she knows what she has to do, and it’s usually simple enough at each step, even if the resulting social dance is complicated. Alanna often feels uncomfortable with her differences—hiding her gender for years leaves her worried that she cannot be accepted for who she is- but she is cared about. She is even told that her friends like her because she is different, that her differences are a strength.

Reading stories where characters display autistic traits, we find that these traits are a unique strength and intriguing aspect of the undiagnosed, but something the narrative typically seeks to pathologize and eliminate in those who are directly stated to be autistic. Who gets to stay autistic? Only those of us who are passed off as quirky, weird, or odd, rather than disabled.



About Author

Alyssa Hillary

Alyssa Hillary is an Autistic writer and activist who blogs at Yes, That Too. In addition to blogging, sie writes short fiction, typically with disabled characters, and analysis of neurodivergent representation in other people's fiction, both canonical and fan-recognized. Sie has presented at the Society for Disability Studies annual conference and at Debilitating Queerness. When not doing disability stuff, Alyssa is also working on a masters degree in mathematics and enjoys playing Ultimate Frisbee.

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20 Comments

  1. This is an outstanding post. The problem you write about in literature is a reflection of the same very large problem in the world. We are fortunate to live in a world filled with diversity. This diversity is to be embraced and appreciated. For those who do not respect and feel thankful for all of the varied qualities and talents in others, including but not limited to each person’s neurology, the only change that may be made would be if that person chooses to make changes individually, which might include personal growth, broadening one’s own mind to recognize the beauty and gift of humanity and all life. From a medical standpoint, those who focus on changing others, including forcing all to act and behave in the same manner, may have this based on insecurity, self doubt and lack of enough appreciation of self and hence others for the diversity of being which makes our lives fantastic. May we reach out with empathy and assistance to those who yet have the strength to look at themselves in the mirror and see that change is something we do for ourselves, a process we achieve within our own selves to be a person who has love and respect for one’s own self and others.

  2. Michael Cohn on

    Your insights about the specific effects of naming a character as autistic are interesting. Perhaps the authors involved see the inability to adapt to or deal with situations as a defining trait of autism. Thus, being able to act agentically and play a continuing role in the story inherently disqualifies characters for that label, even if they show what we consider clear autistic traits. If that were true then it wouldn’t imply anything about what kind of characters get to participate in stories, only about what they were called. But it’s obviously bad for people who want to identify as autistic, and bad in terms of making it clear how closely related one person’s “disability” can be to another’s “quirk.” Most seriously, it makes the ability to function in different situations into an intrinsic trait rather than acknowledging that it’s a skill and that most people have the potential to get better at it through learning, experience, and support.

    I thought _The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time_ was an interesting example — Christopher figures out how to deal with the larger world, and he even does it by using his autistic characteristics rather than “overcoming” them (e.g., envisioning his environment on a map, looking for regularities that help him decode the subway system). Except that the author and publisher never refer to him as autistic — and maybe your post helps explain why.

  3. The not-officially-autistic characters, like undiagnosed real-life autistic people, also lack access to accommodations (although in fiction, they aren’t shown as needing accommodations – unlike many real-life autistic people). I think that’s part of the difference; if your autistic differences can be reduced to personality quirks, you’re less likely to be seen as needing to be fixed. The pressure to fix people is more likely if someone needs accommodations or support that their environment doesn’t want to provide.

  4. I completely agree with this article and hope more people read it. However, the Arthur creative team deserve credit for having Carl appear with a speaking role in 2 other episodes, Buster Spaces Out and Go Fly A Kite, in which he continues to have the traits shown previously. He’s also separately shown to be in the little league baseball team and appears in the background of another 2 episodes.

    He’s friends with George rather than the other kids and I think he goes to a different school, so it kind of makes sense that he isn’t in the show very much. It would of course be much better if he got to have an episode that was focused on him and from his perspective though, where Carl gets to learn something rather than be someone the other characters learn something from. That’s the conspicuous difference between Carl and other characters so far.

  5. This is an excellent article, which really made me (as an autistic young woman) realise just why I am so inclined to headcanon characters as autistic. BBC Sherlock’s titular character was the first one who fully resonated with me after I was diagnosed, yet some NT’s argue that it’s harmful, reductive or even dangerous to label him and other similar characters as autistic.
    Just out of interest, what do you think about Cat Chant from Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series? He’s one the series’ protagonists and is author-confirmed as autistic, although not in text.

    • My current thoughts are “Oh, that’s one for the reading list” because I haven’t actually read that yet.
      Especially because in one of my writing projects, there’s a couple characters who are going to be author-confirmed but not in-text-confirmed because of setting reasons. (The diagnosis won’t actually exist, though the non-speaking one is still pretty obviously disabled and faces ableism like WOAH.)

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