When it comes to writing neurodiverse characters, there may be a lot of anxiety or worry about properly portraying them without going to the problematic stereotypes that are present in our society.
Before we start, I would like to say that both my sister and I have autism (both at varying degrees), and this is based on both of our experiences in my point of view. Everybody is different, and that should bring us together and help us grow as writers as we explore those differences in our creations. You do not have to take all this advice, as it is just my opinion, but please do your own research about this topic to help you. Here are a few things to look out for when writing characters with autism.
I cannot speak for people who were diagnosed as an adult, since both my sister and I were diagnosed around 2 years old, but here is the diagnosis process we both went through:
I was ahead on all my milestones - I had a full set of adult teeth at the first grade, I spoke a few months earlier than I should, I was walking when I was meant to be half way through crawling. Seems pretty normal, right? However, my social skills weren't the best. I didn't socialise, and when I did it was often awkward and I couldn't keep the conversation going. I just didn’t understand how to. My mother took me to the doctors, noticing the lack of social knowledge.
I was diagnosed with Aspergers at the age of 2. Aspergers is a high functioning subcategory of the autism spectrum, which means that some of the signs and conditions may not be as intense or apparent. The diagnosis of Aspergers now usually comes with the label of autism as well, rather than a stand alone diagnosis. I went to the doctor again at 14, still having high functioning autism.
However, that was not the case with my sister. She didn't talk until she was 6. All of the close family learnt sign language to help communicate basic needs with her. She didn't walk for a while, and most of her milestones were pretty behind schedule. My sister is low functioning, meaning that some of the conditions of autism are more intense for her. Right now, she goes to OT and speech therapy to help with her severe stutter and difficulty with certain social situations.
Here are a list of stereotypes that some media use that I believe should be talked about
Special interests are hobbies - most of the time, special interests are mentioned in writing posts talking about autism. They talk about having a hobby, such as collecting photos or having a love for painting. This is good, but it is helpful to remember that not everyone likes a hobby. My sister LOVES dragons. She has watched How to Train Your Dragon so many times, and has books on them on her shelves. She has dozens of HTTYD toys. For me, history is a special interest that I have just recently discovered a year ago. Sometimes, special interests are hobbies, but they can be other things as well - whether it be a hobby, a subject at school, a person (and PLEASE don't make them creepy stalkers if it is a person), a time period. It can be anything. HOWEVER. I CANNOT stress this enough - special interests are a safe place. They help us make sense of the world, or at least they are the only thing that makes sense. Don’t have a character mock the interest and paint that belittling in a positive light.
Autistic people lack emotions - no. They have emotions, alright, but whether they know how to communicate that is a different story. Don't paint autistic people like they are robots and that they don’t have feelings. They are still human, so please don’t treat your autistic characters as inferior.
Autistic people lack empathy - yes, and no. Some autistic people have what is called 'hyper empathy'. This means that instead of having not much, there is… A lot of it. They can be extremely empathetic. However. The advice I am going to give is the same as the previous point. When writing a character with autism who doesn’t experience much empathy, please treat them as humane as any other character, and don’t separate them into their own boxes.
Autistic people cannot form meaningful relationships with others (typically neurotypical) - Don’t be that one guy that falls back on this. Although it may be difficult to communicate to others, or to fit in, that does not mean that they cannot form meaningful relationships. Me and my sister have very little friends, but the ones we keep usually stay. I have been friends with one for five years, and my sister has been best buds with her friend for six. We *can* form meaningful relationships, even if it is difficult. If you’re going to write an autistic character, defy what writers normally do and give them people to talk to, whether it be a classmate, teacher, or a friend that is there to support them. Write the change you want to see in the world, and write the change that the world needs. Stop the barrier and give your autistic characters someone to talk to.
Remember - People who have autism are, well, people. Yeah, we think different, and act different sometimes, but that shouldn’t stop you from writing about us! Give them a personality, and don’t forget that they are just as human as your other characters are. Something I wish to advise is not to seperate the two characters by that label. You may want to take extra care, but make sure that this character is equal to all of the other characters, and that they too are fully developed.
Sources I believe that are good (or bad) to go to about neurodiversity:
Special books by special Kids - They have a youtube channel dedicated to interviewing those with cognitive and physical disabilities. It’s a good source to look for if you’re struggling, and may give an insight on the mind of those with extra challenges you may want to write.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime -This book was suggested to me by a friend last year, and it nearly made me cry. A lot of the experiences, I feel, can be exaggerated, but are handled beautifully. It’s about a 15 year old boy with Asperger's syndrome trying to uncover the mysteries of a neighbour's dog being killed, and though it's simple, it has a really good plot.
When writing about autism, please do not use Autism Speaks as a primary source or paint them in a good light. This is often a message repeated when representing autism, but it's one that deserves to be repeated for the sake of good reputation. It wrongly shows autism as something bad, like a disease that will ruin marriages, and that parents are victims if their child is autistic. Autism Speaks dehumanises those who actually have autism, and speaks over us instead of advocating. They search for a ‘cure’ rather than help with funding regarding health care, therapies, and family services. So again, please do not use Autism Speaks.
Adding characters with autism is often looked over in fear of not doing it right, but trying your best to properly represent our community is a wonderful way to grow as a writer! It could be any character, whether it be the main character, their sibling, their friend, their classmate. It’s your world to create. Do your research, and remember to question the credibility and information that is spread from stereotypes. Nobody will stop you, because it's your story. I hope this has helped you understand what to look out for when writing about autistic characters, and that it encourages you to expand your horizons.
Follow Hayden on Instagram: @foreverlaughing.writer