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:
- The character is now less autistic, and this is, apparently, a good thing.
This ties in with the highly problematic disability cure trope.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.