It is well known that representation of marginalized groups in fiction matters. We have made progress towards having more representation of Black, gay, female, and trans characters in fiction, to name just a few examples.
While it’s still not perfect, and cis white males are still overrepresented in fictional protagonists, it is better than fifty years ago, and having more representation so that marginalized children and young adults can see people like themselves in fiction is a good thing.
Unfortunately, disability is an area in which mass-market fiction (which I define as Hollywood movies, bestselling novels, primetime TV, Netflix originals, and other works of similar popularity) is not doing much to address representation.
Indeed, so many movies and TV shows with disabled characters do more harm than good for the disability community, such as Me Before You taking the stance that death is better than disability, The Accountant’s wildly inaccurate and stereotypical portrayal of autism, or countless other movies exploiting disabled people’s struggles to generate unrealistic “inspiration porn” stories showing disability as something to overcome through hard work and extraordinary talent.
However, there is another, less well-known problem with disability representation in fiction, one that is specific to autism. Sometimes, there are characters who are easily identifiable as autistic but never explicitly called “autistic.” The writers tiptoe around the word like the way parents and doctors whisper about a child’s cancer diagnosis within the child’s hearing.
This simultaneously reinforces the perception that autism is something dirty or shameful, and gives the writers an excuse not to do actual research and hold themselves accountable for whether they get things right in their depiction of autism. In fact, Bill Prady, one of the co-creators of The Big Bang Theory, has said that not wanting to have to get things right was one of his reasons for not explicitly calling Sheldon autistic.
In the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, when disgraced Starfleet officer Michael Burnham is transferred to the starship Discovery, she is assigned to be roommates with a character named Sylvia Tilly, who previously had her own room because she had “special needs.” It did not take long for me to figure out from Tilly’s quirky behavior patterns and difficulties with social norms that she is autistic.
At first glance, the portrayal of Tilly was better than most fictional portrayals of autism. She was portrayed positively and sympathetically, and was shown having the deep and intense empathy that we tend to experience. She was smart, but in a realistic way, not the savant-level intelligence of Shaun Murphy from The Good Doctor. She was one of the few fictional depictions of a non-male autistic character, which is something we desperately need more of.
And perhaps most importantly, Star Trek: Discovery showed that autism is a part of humanity’s future. The fact that a society capable of teleporting people instantly and traveling thousands of light-years either can’t or doesn’t want to “cure” autism indicates that the writers of Star Trek: Discovery see autism as a form of diversity to be celebrated and embraced, as much a part of the Federation’s cosmopolitan utopia as its acceptance of human diversity on Earth and of the nonhuman species who live in harmony with humans in the Federation.
The inclusion of autistic people in a positive depiction of the future could have been an excellent statement in favor of the neurodiversity movement… but instead, the word “autism” or “autistic” is not uttered once in the entire series.
Why is it that in a tolerant, utopian society where progressive ideals have become the norm that, instead of taking pride in the word “autistic” as we do at The Aspergian, Tilly is afraid to describe herself that way? Perhaps the latest installment of the franchise that aired television’s first interracial kiss is afraid of being too political?
This problem is not limited to Star Trek. Abed Nadir from Community has very intricate special interests, weak understanding of social cues, and very elaborate routines, and has so many autistic traits that his possible autism is even mentioned on the fan wiki for the show in the first line of his personality description. However, the show never takes a stance, even referring to him as “Abed the Undiagnosable” in one episode.
Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory is one of the most recognizable autistic characters in modern media, but he is never canonically confirmed to be autistic in the show. There are many autistic people who are bothered by the show’s constant jokes at his expense, and while I only watched one or two episodes of the show, I once had someone call me “Sheldon” as a nickname and insist on it, which was not fun. While I do have some things in common with Sheldon, I am not a caricature like he is.
Indeed, the show has at times endorsed a cringey, “I don’t see labels” view of autism, which is directly harmful to us. In my case, being afraid of the word and not seeing myself that way caused me to internalize my difficulties in social situations and at work as my own failings, not as problems with the social structures built by and for allistics, to the point that when I violated a hidden social rule at my first job and got my hours cut, I blamed myself and wished I was dead.
After learning to label myself as autistic and accept it, I have learned to appreciate the friends I have rather than wishing I had as many friends as the typical allistic person. I now commute to a college within driving distance of my home and feel much more comfortable doing so than I did trying to live with allistics I had never met before in student housing to chase an elusive dream of college life that was never meant for me.
Also, Community and The Big Bang Theory point to a general problem with the portrayal of autism in comedy. While autistic people can be just as funny as anyone else – any of my friends who laugh at my endless puns would agree – autism is not a joke. It is a serious and important thing that should be treated sensitively.
Plenty of people who laugh at Sheldon would be aware of the problems with making any other marginalized group into a stereotype with constant jokes at the expense of their race, culture, gender, or sexual orientation. Avoiding labels gives writers a shield to make their behavior more palatable.
To any fiction writer reading this piece, don’t be afraid to call your characters autistic. It is one of the best things you can do to support neurodiversity. If you are scared of getting things wrong, leave a comment on this article, and I will respond and answer any questions you have about how to write autistic characters.
Don’t be like the writers who deny us the feeling of having our identities represented explicitly. Whether they do so out of unconscious biases against us or out of fear of being held accountable if they get things wrong, the end result is that they hurt us. Autism is political, and denying us the word autistic to call ourselves by avoids that inescapable truth.
“Abed Nadir,” Community Wiki, https://community-sitcom.fandom.com/wiki/Abed_Nadir
Crippledscholar, 6-17-2015, “Mayim Bialik’s Take on Sheldon Cooper and Autism is Wrong,” crippledscholar, https://crippledscholar.com/2015/06/17/mayim-bialiks-take-on-sheldon-cooper-and-autism-is-wrong/