If we know anything about autistic people, it’s that they’re stone-faced, genius, antisocial assholes who are really good at math and see numbers and diagrams floating in the air every time they need to solve a problem. If they’re not that, they don’t talk or make eye contact and just walk around flapping their hands and then screaming when their Longsuffering Loved One tries to get them to leave the playground or put on a coat they don’t like. They probably won’t eat their dinner if any food on their plate is touching any other food.
Obviously. We know all this stuff. Every single autistic person is that and only that.
Now, to be clear, all of those things really are traits of some autistic people. (Except for the numbers-and-diagrams thing. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t happen in real life.) But when I say “some,” I mean some, and in many cases I mean barely any. Only about ten percent of autistic people have savant syndrome, which is where the human-calculator/human-calendar/human-[some other nonhuman thing] thing comes from — but that fact hasn’t stopped writers from assigning every single autistic or autistic-coded character some kind of autism-related mental superpower.
Stimming is a thing. (That’s what it’s called when an autistic person flaps their hands or rocks or does some other repetitive motion — stimming.) Meltdowns are a thing. (That’s what it’s called when an autistic person reacts to an overload of stress and stimuli by, well, melting down. It’s not a tantrum.) A flat affect can be a thing. Not making eye contact is definitely a thing, and struggling with social interactions in a way that might make one seem like a less-than-pleasant person can be a thing. Sensory issues that can make certain clothing items uncomfortable, or make certain foods unpleasant to eat, are a thing. Not talking can be a thing, and having an intellectual disability can be a thing.
But none of those things ix universal, and they certainly aren’t the only traits autistic people have. They’re just the only traits autistic people on TV have. Somehow, everything that might make an autistic person moderately three-dimensional often seems to end up on the cutting-room floor. Here are a few exceedingly common traits that filmmakers and TV writers somehow manage to miss.
I’m starting out with this one because it pisses me the hell off more than anything else on this list. Autistic characters are never portrayed as even vaguely empathetic. We see detectives who are assholes to crime victims, and teachers who are assholes to students, and doctors who are assholes to the family of their patients. Once again, they’re not humans, they’re automatons, being excited that a kid is diagnosed with some horrible disease because now they can be used as a research subject, or something. And it’s fucking slander.
Do we ever see a doctor who struggles to talk to that kid’s parents because when Mom starts crying, the doctor can’t not also cry? Do we ever see Detective Deadpan get into their squad car and tell their partner, “I could barely hold it together out there. I can’t even imagine what that family is going through”? We do not. And autistic people actually do have empathy, people. We feel people’s feelings. It’s just that because we’re not so great at figuring people out, we don’t always know what to do with those feelings. But I’ll be damned if I’ve ever seen that represented in media. It’s all Robot Doctor Cannot Compute.
Did I mention that having a flat affect can be a thing? It certainly can. Also a thing? Not having a flat affect. Some autistic people are extremely animated, in face and voice. Why? Because we know that quote-unquote normal people make facial expressions and modulate their voice, and so we make ourselves do it, too. We don’t always get it right, because it’s hard to intentionally do something most other people do naturally, but we do it.
I’m waiting for an autistic character — I’m going to say a woman, because masking behaviors like that are extremely common to autistic women — who smiles and frowns and nods and says mm-hmm and has a non-flat voice and makes eye contact that’s just a little bit too long. Because she’s doing her best, goddammit.
(Oh, my God, I want the Stereotypical Perky Forensic Scientist to be autistic. Do it, writers. I’ll let you get away with making an autistic character a Science Genius if you’ll make the perkiness a result of masking.)
Slow mental processing
When I say “slow mental processing,” I’m talking about the fact that some autistic people’s brains have a harder time taking in and using information. The library is bursting, but the librarian is a sloth with sciatica. Taking verbal instructions, making decisions, producing facts on the fly, dragging things into your working memory before they disappear entirely — it’s all about putting new information in and wrestling existing information out, and some brains are quicker at it than others.
So for every Sherlock Holmes scanning a room for clues and swiftly deducing the answer, there’s a Sherlock… SomeoneElse taking notes, reviewing their notes, reviewing their notes again, asking the witness a question the witness thinks they already answered but they didn’t already answer because the question is subtly different, saying they’ll have to think about it back at the office and walking for the door, and then halfway to the door figuring it out and saying, “Shit!” and turning back and deducing the answer. Which actually sounds like a potentially fun character.
We do see this sometimes, but it’s almost exclusively in the context of that young, nonspeaking boy (always a boy) who screams when his mom tries to put his coat on him. It’s never, like, a young woman who never wears bracelets or long-sleeved tops because she can’t stand anything touching her wrists. Or a guy who always wears headphones in the office because the noise bothers him so much. You never see a bunch of friends/coworkers who don’t go to bars a lot because one of them has issues with noises and crowds (and no one makes a huge deal out of it or acts like it’s a huge burden). TV Land only has what have to be the world’s scratchiest parka ever.
Anything they just don’t make a big deal about
And then there are the other things that we do see represented on TV — stimming, obsessing, adhering to set routines, avoiding physical contact, not making eye contact — but always for the purpose of making a big deal about it. Always to set the character apart, show how alien they are, show what a Huge Burden this Horrible Disorder can be. Look upon this weirdo and the challenges they face (or present to their Longsuffering Loved One)!
Believe it or not, though, autistic people are more than the sum of our quirky traits. While each autistic person experiences their autism differently, and it affects their lives to different degrees, and some face a lot more challenges than others, the thing most egregiously ignored by popular media is that people living with autism are living with autism. The traits that make us Odd and Fascinating and sometimes Pitiable to writers and viewers are, for better or worst just parts of our life, and the life of those around us.
How about a character who rocks, or flicks their fingers, or something, and no one says anything about it or tries to get them to stop? How about one who goes a little overboard talking about a given area of interest and one of their friends says, “You’re doing it again,” and the character says “Oh, sorry,” and that’s it? How about a character who’s last to the staff meeting because they’re getting their coffee, because they always get their coffee before the staff meeting, and everyone knows it and no one is bothered by it? One who always gets fist-bumps when everyone else gets hugs, and no one comments on it? One who always looks at someone’s right elbow when they’re talking to them, and no one scolds them to make eye contact?
(Not that I personally know anything about talking to people’s right elbow, or anything.)
I mean, a character can have food restrictions, and order a slice of pepperoni pizza and no one says anything, instead of having a slice of the group’s spinach and mushroom pizza and then rushing dramatically to the bathroom to throw up because they can’t eat slippery foods. Social problems, math skills, intellectual disabilities, soft hearts, whatever — you can portray an autistic person authentically, in any of multitudinous ways autistic people actually experience their autism, without reducing them to an asshole genius or a nonspeaking burden.
Ooh, how about a character who’s obsessed with fonts, but they’re an art director at an ad agency and all the other art directors are obsessed with fonts, too? Or a person with sensory issues who manages a nudist colony? And don’t forget Stereotypical Perky Forensic Scientist. You need to get on this shit, Hollywood, and I damned well better get an executive producer credit for doing all your work for you.