Double Rainbow: Finding Autism in Popular Fiction

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?

Previously: Autism and Horror, A Peek at Autism Speaks


by Caroline Narby
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I write a little bit in the areas of embodiment and autism. I am very disappointed that Bitch Media has announced their intent to discriminate against people with disabilities in the hiring process for an executive editor. 

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12 Comments Have Been Posted

unlabeled autistic characters

Henry Higgins. So clearly Asperger's. Also an entitled jerk, but the Aspergerness is unmistakeable!

Speed of Dark

One of the few positive examples of autism in fiction that I have read is "Speed of Dark" by Elizabeth Moon. The main character is Lou Arrendale, a high-functioning autist. The book is told in first person, and he narrative style is very similar to readign Temple Grandin's prose. Quite compelling. The whole book is about Lou debating whether or not he should take a treatment (it's a near future sci-fi book) that will make him a normal person.

I've also heard the autism label placed on the main character in "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." I've not read it mainly due to my discomfort with canine deaths. Damn you, Old Yeller! Damn you! back to point... for anyone who has read that book, how well is autism played in that novel?

katesune, phD
A color-blind, confused, high-functioner among a bunch of aspies

In my opinion "The Curious

In my opinion "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" is a really fantastic book. The main character is very easy to relate to and his insights into the world are spot on. I do not know very much about autism so I cannot speak to the accuracy of it's portrayal in the novel. I would recommend this book to anyone who has the time to think through the deeper social messages that are brought up. Christopher, the main character, is an autistic savant and it clearly shows, he is constantly referencing other works and mentions math quite a lot. This book actually came to my attention because at my old middle school it was banned. The censorship of books is awful and, to try and make my point I read the book. To my surprise I loved the characters and felt saddened by the events that happen to them. Later I found out that the reason it was censored was because it said "fuck". This is among the most ridiculous reasons to censor a book (not that books should be censored at all), the funny part to me was that the word in question was practically shouted in the hallways. Regardless, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" is a book that I highly recommend even though it says "fuck".

P.S. The death of Wellington (the dog) is the catalyst for Christopher's story and it is not really central to the plot after twenty pages or so. :)

I don't like the curious

I don't like the curious incident. the main character seems to be a representation of what NTs think autistics are like, not an actual autistic character. as someone on the spectrum, I have a full range of intense emotions and I'm aware that other people do too, the only issue is with communicating them (and I'm self aware enough to put extra effort into this). christopher doesn't seem to have or understand any emotions apart from his own fear of change.

there is also a whole chapter on why he won't touch or eat anything that is yellow or brown. I could accept these as sensory issues, but christopher is able to give a long list of "reasons", so it's clearly not that (also, he eats chocolate, so it's not consistent)

Asperger character

The brother in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (very rewarding novel btw).

Spencer Reid of tv's

Spencer Reid of tv's 'Criminal Minds' is pretty clearly Asperger's or PDD-NOS. It's been speculated a lot by the characters on the show.

Oh yeah, can you imagine

Oh yeah, can you imagine Bones with an official diagnosis and then the pregnancy?
I don't think they would be able to do reality justice.

The Westing Game?

I believe there's an autistic character in The Westing Game. Although I could be remembering that wrong. It's been a long time since I read it last.

Book - juvenile/ya character

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd came out in 07. The main character has Aspergers, but I don't think they every actually call it that in the book. It was written for older kids and young adults, but I quite enjoyed it. It is interesting to see more books being written with characters that are not 'perfect.'


The character Barb/Fraa Tavener in Neal Stephenson's <em>Anathem</em>. He's never labelled as such by anyone in the book, but the main character definitely notices Barb's fixations and the different way he processes information. At one point in the novel, Barb's unrelenting pursuit of total understanding indirectly helps out the main character to catch up on some details of his own education that he hadn't fully absorbed.


Hey catch the Australian movie, Mary and Max.
It's nothing short of sensational!

A few possible autistic people

I read Alanna from the Song of the Lioness Quartet, Dina from Dumbing of age, and Emily from Questionable Content as autistic, and suspect quite a few of Alanna's family members from the first series.

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