Happy Endings and Overcoming Autism

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Often, autistic characters’ happy endings center around them “overcoming” their autism.

Jessica Corra highlighted several examples in her post about trends regarding autism plots;  an in-text example can be found in Colin Fischer by Zack Stentz & Ashley Edward Miller. Colin’s aversion to touch is an important trait. Yet, at the end, these lines occur (edited to prevent spoilers):

Then Colin felt a strange sensation. He realized Melissa was holding his hand. In fact, she most likely had been holding it for the last few seconds … He did not recall her touching him.

Colin reached out to help.

[Character’s] outstretched hand froze an inch from Colin’s, suddenly uncertain. He’d never seen Colin touch anyone on purpose, and the consequences of unwanted physical contact were well documented. … Colin splayed his fingers, reaching further.

[Character] grinned. Colin grinned too. He was not mirroring [character], and he was not following a script. He felt JOY.

Colin’s parents stood together at the kitchen window. They watched in silence, struck by the effortlessness of their son’s play and the ease of his connection to [character]. The sight was unprecedented.

Mrs. Fischer smiled. “He’s really gonna be okay, isn’t he?”

Another example: at the end of the movie Mercury Rising, Simon—who didn’t initiate physical contact with anyone throughout the film, even his parents—gets up and unexpectedly hugs Bruce Willis’s character. And in the movie Silent Fall, the autistic character never uses his own voice … except in the climax and denouement, in a moving development.

Basically, in a lot of fiction featuring autistic characters, that autism appears to be the primary conflict. The plot revolves around the character’s differences causing some kind of fundamental conflict, which then needs to be resolved.

The popularity of those plotlines is understandable. Autism can be complicated, after all—a lot of people struggle with either the condition itself or people’s lack of understanding. It’s important to write about those struggles honestly. What concerns me is when authors see only one possible resolution: a “softening” of autistic traits. The character learns a valuable skill and their life improves.

Even in books where the plot doesn’t revolve around the character’s autism, this can be an outcome, often manifesting as a sign of character growth. A character who struggles with touch spontaneously hugs someone. A character who struggles with friendship adjusts their behavior and makes a friend. A character who relies on scripts or a schedule loosens up.

All characters must evolve throughout a novel, of course. Such is the nature of character development. Autistic people learn, change, and cope like anyone else. However, when a character is autistic, many authors appear to see only one route for character growth: effectively making the character less autistic.

Whether the plot revolves around this change or it’s only a byproduct of character growth, this trope can be framed in one of three ways:

  1. The character is now less autistic, and this is, apparently, a good thing.
     
    This ties in with the highly problematic disability cure trope.
     
  2. The character is not less autistic, but because they’re learning to adjust/cope/fake it, they manage to appear more neurotypical.
     
    This approach is much more realistic. Learning certain skills can be beneficial, and it makes the character no less autistic. However, there’s rarely any acknowledgment of the complexity of learning neurotypical traits.
     
  3. The character is not less autistic, but they’ve simply accepted this one person/situation.
     
    This certainly happens in real life, but the framing is often iffy: it’ll be heart-rendingly touching in inspiration-porn fashion, or it’ll be used to signify how special that person/situation is, which reduces the autistic character to some kind of litmus test of character worth.
     

There’s an awful lot to unpack here. Let’s explain some of the issues involved, particularly with regards to the first two points.

  1. It sends a troublesome message when autism is the fatal flaw the character must rise above, and this is portrayed as touching or inspiring.
     

    In this trope, autism is the bad guy, the obstacle to be overcome. It’s not seen as just a difference, but as something to be fixed and mitigated in a way that other, supposedly “normal” character traits aren’t. It’s difficult to be an autistic person in a world that views autism so negatively. For many people, autism is such an inherent part of their personalities that, regardless of any struggles they may have, it’s exhausting and damaging to be constantly told that they must change in order to be a full, accepted person.

    Storylines that present autistic traits as something to be fixed reinforce those views, and their implications affect autistic people every day. Parents encourage “quiet hands.” Teachers restrain kids to their chairs. Doctors pressure people into uncomfortable—sometimes painful—eye contact. Therapists force kids into speaking even when it supplants their more natural methods of communication.

    But autism can’t be cured, and isn’t a series of superficial behaviors to be mitigated. Some people can manage behaviors, if they choose, but those behaviors aren’t innately bad. Autistic people have reasons for behaving the way they do. Routine is often used to keep anxiety at bay. Stimming and self-soothing do exactly that—stimulate or soothe. Why should anyone be forced to tamp down on harmless behaviors, when they may be their best method of communicating or coping?

    If a character screams in pain, the solution shouldn’t be to stop their screaming: it should be to understand why they’re screaming, and address that pain, instead.

    Presenting a character’s minimized autistic traits as unquestioningly healthy, positive character development tells readers that is the desired outcome for autistic people.

    Please don’t reinforce these notions for the sake of a pat ending.

  2. Character development centering around “resolving” an autistic trait is done an awful lot.
     

    The popularity of this plotline sends the message that this is the only conflict autistic characters can have. While autism can certainly affect many conflicts, it doesn’t need to be either the source or the resolution of them. Autistic characters can have all the same conflicts neurotypical characters can.

    Make your character grow, yes. But consider whether they really need to “overcome their autism” in order to do so.

    If authors do want to center the plot on their autism, let’s read about a character exploring and learning to understand their own behavior. Teach them self-acceptance, self-advocacy, and coping skills. That would be nice to see for a change.

  3. Don’t “soften” autistic traits as easy shorthand for meaningful growth.
     

    Sometimes, a character “overcomes” certain autistic traits, but it’s not something they actively aimed to achieve throughout the novel. Take for example the sections from Colin Fischer I quoted. The character never practiced touch or working without scripts. He received therapy to improve his social skills, yes, and was puzzled when interacting with people, but he didn’t seem to care an awful lot on a personal level. So why is the resolution quoted above a happy ending?

    If “overcoming autism” isn’t the character’s goal, then such a development only makes sense from a non-autistic person’s understanding of what would make an autistic person happy. People see autistic traits as flaws, so surely, autistics suffer from them? Surely, they’d be delighted if those traits are somehow magically resolved as a result of whatever adventure they experienced?

    That may be the case for some autistic people, but many are perfectly content the way they are and insulted when told otherwise. Passing as neurotypical is not always a number one goal; employing that kind of character development without any build-up relies on blanket assumptions of what constitutes a happy ending for autistic people.

    Make sure your ending makes sense for the individual character’s goals and concerns.

  4. Many of the struggles autistic people have relate to their environment, the people around them, or their lack of understanding of themselves. I would like to see more books where that’s addressed.
     

    Instead of a character learning to deviate from their routine, how about a character learning about why that routine is so important to them?

    Instead of a character learning to accept touch, how about others learning not to touch them?

    Instead of a character learning to tolerate the noise of the school bus, how about their parents or school making accommodations so they don’t have to deal with the school bus at all?

    It’s dangerous—nay, it’s cruel—to shift the responsibility of autistic behaviors onto autistic people alone. Helping characters cope with extra input is fine and dandy, but when that’s presented as the only possible way for such a plot to resolve—when it’s often strenuous, flat-out impossible, or results only in people hiding their discomfort rather than working through it—it’s problematic. Those plotlines absolve those around the autistic person of responsibility and pressure the autistic person to accept situations that aren’t necessarily in their best interest.

  5. Some autistic people can learn neurotypical behavior, but authors must understand the context.
     

    For one, even if autistic people can learn certain skills, they’re just that—learned skills. They can help, but they’re not the be-all end-all they’re often made out to be. Some autistic and mentally ill people who struggle with their condition embrace the idea of therapy as a “cure.” It can be heartening to believe it’s possible to triumph completely over the negative aspects of a disability; it’s logical for a character to desire that same thing, and for an author to present it as a happy ending.

    But being able to “manage” autism doesn’t make it go away. Learned skills don’t come automatically or easily, and they don’t change underlying thought processes or experiences. They just allow people to adjust certain behaviors. Certainly, learning social skills and strengthening one’s communication skills is often helpful, but it shouldn’t be glossed over that these learned skills can require immense, exhausting effort. In a worst-case scenario, that effort can destroy functioning in other areas and can lead to burn-out, stress, depression, and anxiety.

    It’s not uncommon to hear from autistic adults who were forced into certain behavior early in life and who are now trying to un-learn that, as it’s not their healthiest or natural state of being. Some autistics wish they could stim to release tension or energy, but aversion therapy has turned their stimming into a trigger for trauma.

    Don’t present learned skills as an easy fix.

    For another, many autistic people are given therapy to learn neurotypical behaviors, without understanding their own autistic behavior first. Neurotypical behavior is presented as the only desirable option. Autistic people are rarely given the opportunity to learn why they do what they do, what triggers or what soothes them, and that there’s nothing wrong or shameful about being the way they are.

    In other words, there’s immense social and familial pressure to accept therapy and change their behavior.

    So, while learning neurotypical skills can be useful, it should be presented as a choice, without pressure, and with the autistic person given a full understanding of the politics, downsides, and alternatives.

    I’m not anti-learning/anti-therapy—I myself wish I’d learned certain skills sooner in life. I’m just pro-understanding the complexities.

    Finally, these therapies are often dangerous.

    Healthy therapy presents learned skills as tools to use when they’re advantageous to the autistic person, something they can turn on and off. It’s in addition to, not instead of, intended to help autistics navigate situations within the confines of their limitations and abilities. Instead, therapy is often designed to fully replace existing behaviors, even if those behaviors are harmless to others and helpful to the autistic person.

    At worst, therapies used on autistic children and adults can be classified as literal torture.

    I say this not to lecture people or scaremonger; it’s just that every time an autistic person speaks out against therapy, neurotypicals will tell us it’s for their own good and that they’re shooting themselves in the foot by rejecting help.

    The truth is, therapy isn’t always designed to help autistic people. Often, the focus is on making them easier to deal with for their environment, without their environment bothering to make itself easier to deal with in return.

When I sigh at yet another instance of “overcoming autism” as character development, it’s not because I don’t think autistic people shouldn’t be allowed to triumph over autism-related difficulties, and it’s certainly not because I don’t want autistic characters to change and grow. It’s because this issue is more complicated than many people realize. However good an author’s intentions may be, when they show a character merrily shedding some or other autistic trait and improving in life, it’s hard to reconcile that with the real-life context and implications.

I won’t lie—it can be difficult to pull this off as an author. I ran into this issue again and again with my upcoming book, as its autistic protagonist does struggle with her autism a lot, yet I didn’t want to write the autism as The Enemy, or have her “beat” it at the end. But since autism is so weaved into our entire being, a lot of different kinds of character development could be interpreted as blandly “overcoming autism” even when not intended as such. It took a lot of effort to frame this the right way.

That’s what this comes down to: Don’t be afraid of having your autistic character grow as a person. All characters do.

Simply pay attention to how you frame that growth.



About Author

Corinne Duyvis

A lifelong Amsterdammer, Corinne Duyvis spends her days writing sci-fi and fantasy. Otherbound, her YA fantasy debut, received four starred reviews; Kirkus Reviews called it “original and compelling; a stunning debut,” while BCCB praised its “subtle, nuanced examinations of power dynamics and privilege.” On the Edge of Gone, her second YA, is about an autistic girl during the apocalypse and received three starred reviews. SLJ said, “Insightful, suspenseful, and unsettling in its plausibility.” Her next book is Guardians of the Galaxy: Collect Them All, an original novel set in the Marvel Universe.

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13 Comments

  1. In real life, neurotypical people commonly mistake “appearing more neurotypical” with actually being more neurotypical. Fiction is fiction, so it can portray appearing as actually being, which portrays the effort as nonexistent. That’s frustrating, since fiction is a prime opportunity for showing what’s actually going on with people!

    I would love to see a book where an autistic kid has an older autistic mentor who helps them learn self-acceptance and coping skills. Or where they go online and learn similar things from autistic peers, which is increasingly common in real life and seems like a major missing narrative.

  2. The articles these past few weeks have been helping me so much as a writer and as a student set to work with the autistic population. My TBR list is growing by leaps and bounds!

    This one has brought up a bunch of questions. So much character growth in sci-fi and fantasy is just “Be brave” and facing your fears. Could an autistic character do that without it seeming like she is “overcoming” her autism if those fears have a basis in her autism? At what point does she move from “showing bravery” to “acting more neurotypical?”

    Taking the example of a character that can’t stand to be touched, would it make a difference if he wanted to be able to touch? Would finding situations where he can handle touch and situations where he can’t, be an acceptable plot thread?

    This has all just set my mind a-whirlin’ with scenarios.

  3. As a person on the spectrum trying to write a novel about a person on the spectrum, this is probably what I fear the most. I’ll have to do my best to stay on the lookout, I suppose. Thanks for the article!

  4. This is an amazing piece, Corinne! It’s given me a lot to think about, both for writing and how I’ve dealt with those so-called “therapies” in the past. And Elizabeth, mentorship by older (and younger) people on the spectrum is something that I haven’t seen a lot of in books, and it’s so important in real life. I know I’ve made a lot of connections online and hope that I’ve paid that support forward in my visits to schools.

  5. Carolyn Ogburn on

    This is perfect. It reminds me of a recent article I read about GLBT* characters in fiction, the way that their narratives almost always (at least at one point in time – I think it’s changed, but what do I know?) were required to involve a struggle to accept their sexuality, resulting often in despair, heartache, etc. When can we just have a story where a character is gay – and the story is about something else? where a character is autistic – and the story is about something else?

    • Elizabeth Walsh on

      Or where the main character is a person of color, but the narrative is about something else. The reading landscape is very centered towards cis, neurotypical, white people. Even when the main character is described otherwise, they often end up whitewashed and “mainstreamed”. And unfortunately a lot of that is because the publishing industry isn’t adapting well.

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  10. You know, some autistics (like me) have found phrases like “you should be willing to grow as a person” as highly uncomfortable, even triggering, and I believe associating personal growth in an autistic with becoming “less autistic” or “more neurotypical” is THE main reason why. After all, for years I couldn’t look at such phrases without hearing “you should be willing to learn to sot being so much yourself”.
    The sooner we stop associating personal growth in autistics with looking or becoming more neurotypical, the better.

  11. Rachel Samuels on

    THere are interventions that “normalize” “autistic behaviors” that are worthwhile. I am a lot more functional after my physical therapists made me work on balance and strength. As someone who loves sewing and writing, the fine motor-instruction I had in OT was worth it.
    On the other hand, I get kind of angry at constantly being told to speak up. I don’t have a problem if someone wants to look in my eyes while they are talking to me, Do they have to have a problem if I want to talk to them without having to look?
    My point was actually that therapies can be very helpful. I got sidetracked.

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