Before I start off this post, I would like to point out that one of the subjects of the New York Times article “Navigating Love and Autism,” which I harshly critiqued in my very first post, left a very thoughtful comment on that post. I think anyone who has been following the series ought to read her response with an equally thoughtful and open frame of mind, in the interest of respectful dialogue. Reasonable behavior in the face of disagreements and misunderstandings is a very rare thing on the Internet.
Now, to the topic at hand:
Of course one doesn’t have to go finding autism in popular fiction—it’s the subject of intense cultural fascination right now, so it’s just there, everywhere. In novels like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Jodi Picoult’s House Rules; in films like Mercury Rising, Mozart and the Whale, Adam, and of course Rain Man; and in television shows like Parenthood and Alphas. But I do believe that, in my latest post, I exhausted my personal list of autistic characters whom I—as an autistic consumer of fiction—enjoy and whose stories I find compelling. Someone in my position might just have to go looking for autism to find more autistic characters with whom to relate.
I do not mean nor wish to suggest that, for a person to relate to a character, said character must be like the reader or viewer in every way. Of course one could identify with characters who are very unlike oneself. But fiction is a very powerful force. It influences the way we see the world and ourselves. When there is a glaring lack of characters with certain traits, or existing representations fall into harmful tropes, it hurts.
Autism is a collection of behavioral signs, so it is relatively easy to read into characters. There is a tendency among autism advocates to map autism onto real historical figures, a pratice that I, personally, don’t really approve of. For one thing, while people with traits that are now considered “autistic” have always existed, “autism” as a concept has not. There are times and places where “autism” as a construct just does not fit into the cultural context. Also, one simply cannot accurately diagnose the dead.
When “diagnosing” fictional characters, on the other hand, there is no harm in potential “inaccuracy.” Mainstream discourse currently does offer speculation about whether certain popular characters are on the spectrum. Community’s Abed is never given an official diagnosis in the show but many viewers accept that he has Asperger’s. Likewise for Lisbeth Salander, though I’ve already enthusiastically welcomed her into the fold. The young protagonist of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is spoken of as if he has Asperger syndrome, though no diagnosis is mentioned in the book or the film. There is speculation that The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon is on the spectrum, as well as Bones’ Temperance Brennan, and even the much older, beloved character Sherlock Holmes.
I believe that, unfortunately, stopping short of giving a character a diagnosis like autism allows writers greater flexibility, because the tropes and stereotypes that govern autistic characters are so deeply entrenched. For example, Bones would be a very different show if Brennan were diagnosed. Her relationship with Booth wouldn’t be about an awkward eccentric and a hot-headed extrovert, it would be about a disabled woman and a “normal” man. The show would suddenly have that taboo to hurdle in portraying Bones and Booth as romantically interested in each other.
Because autists need fiction as much as anyone else, and because portrayals of characters like us are so restrictive, speculatively “diagnosing” characters becomes a way of finding ourselves. We can create our own heroes and heroines in a culture that overwhelmingly portrays us as plot devices.
So where do you see “unintentional” or unlabeled autistic characters?