Adding characters with autism or any kind of disorder in your worldbuilding is an amazing way to not only make the world more realistic but also give visibility and representation to people with these disorders. It is common however to be unsure of how to approach such character traits or feel apprehensive in the way that you should portray them. So, to help you with that, we interviewed Jonathan Fesmire, who is an autistic author, to talk about how to write characters with autism!
Listen to the interview on Spotify or Youtube!
What is autism?
First things first, it’s very important to know the definition of autism in order to achieve a good understanding of what it entails. A medical definition describes autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as:
a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by a broad range of unique behaviors and experiences across many different areas of functioning, including but not limited to, socialization and communication, repetitive behaviors, sensory sensitivities, talents, passions and executive functioning.
It’s significant to note that there is a lot of variance in experiences. There’s a spectrum of what aspects of the disorder an individual has and to what degree. As Jonathan said, “If you know one person with autism… you know one person with autism”—there are things that can be similar but everyone has different experiences. A common trait among autistic people is a special focus on a hobby or interest, which means there’s a lot of overlap between autism and fandoms. Think of autism as running a different operating system: it’s not a tragedy and most autistic people don’t want a cure, they’re happy how they are!
Misconceptions about autism
Autism hasn’t always been well-understood, and before it was properly defined autistic people were just considered eccentric. So a lot of misconceptions appeared around them. One of them is that people with autism don’t understand what’s going on in the world, but have amazing abilities much like Rainman— from the well-known 1988 movie by the same name.
Another classic misconception about autism is its cause. For example, vaccines cause autism, which is completely false. In reality, it’s neurodevelopmental and it develops very early on, so in essence you’re born with it. There’s also a genetic predisposition, so very often autistic people are related to other autistic people.
Is autism a superpower?
There are things individuals with autism can do that neurotypical people can’t do. For example, Jonathan’s son has an incredible memory for dates, events, and names. He could also read fluently at 4 or 5 years old—although he couldn’t understand most of it. Jonathan himself is very analytical. He can feel that a situation or a relationship might be off or dysfunctional when neurotypical people don’t see it. It has to do with both instinct as well as analysis in the moment and in retrospect.
A typical thing you see with autistic people is that they have a special interest or a few special interests. Their ability to dive into something just because they’re passionate about it can make them specialists! Another common ability has to do with sensory sensitivities. It’s often considered a problem, but it can be used to analyze sounds, smells, etc. This could be a very useful and cool trait for your character!
Many conditions considered “negative” by many actually have hidden superpowers! Check out how to write one-eyed characters for an example.
Does gender and age make a difference in autistic characters?
As it turns out, yes they do! Girls especially are harder to diagnose because they learn “masking”, which means mimicking neurotypical people. At an early age they think to themselves something like “My friend’s face looks like this when she says that, so I’ll make my face do the same.” Girls also learn to read facial expressions quicker because traditionally in our society, women are expected to conform to certain behaviors more than men.
As for age, kids and teens are more likely to have meltdowns but they tend to be less likely as you get older. A meltdown can happen when an autistic person can’t handle or understand something. It can be sensory overload, changes in routine, or something similar. Some people think meltdowns look like tantrums, but they’re completely different things. Adults usually develop coping skills and tools, while kids might not have learned them yet. Letting a kid know what you’re feeling is important, and even more so with autistic kids. Showing a parent telling their kid how happy they are that they’re holding hands could be a really sweet scene and a great representation of positive parenting!
What challenges might autistic characters face?
It’s important to understand that autism has positive effects—but being different from what society considers “normal” has its challenges. Jonathan gave us a couple of examples from pop culture! For instance, in Guardians of the Galaxy, Drax’s whole species seems to be autistic. They never get innuendos and they don’t understand non-literal meanings. Of course not all autistic people are the same as we have already established—many autistic people understand metaphors, but others don’t.
Another example he gave us is that everyone in Big Bang Theory except for Penny seems to be autistic. Sheldon is the most obvious one, but they’re all having a hard time understanding neurotypical people and find certain things they do ridiculous.
Listen to the full interview!
Want to learn more about autism and how to write autistic characters? Check out the full interview on YouTube and Spotify!
Who is Jonathan Fesmire?
Jonathan Fesmire is a happy author of speculative fiction. While he loves a variety of genres, including high fantasy, hard sci-fi, and superheroes, the niche steampunk western genre has a strong grip on his imagination. Hence, the Creedverse was born. As an author, one of his goals is to write and publish at least one novel per year, and with “Bodacious Creed and the San Francisco Syndicate,” he’s come close. Check out his website and Facebook page for more!
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