Content/trigger warning: discussion of ableism
If you’re active in the Autistic community, you’ve probably heard of Puppetgate. If you haven’t heard of Puppetgate, the gist is that some asshole who thinks he’s an expert because he has served as a carer for Autistic people thought it was a brilliant idea to write a play (it’s called All in a Row) about paaaaaaaaaaaaarents institutionalizing their young Autistic son, Laurence, and have Laurence be represented by a terrifying grey-faced puppet.
Yes, if you look up “dehumanizing” in the dictionary, you might as well see a picture of that puppet.
Anyway, many denizens of Disabled Twitter have said more eloquently than I could have why Puppetgate is fucking gross (@crippledscholar especially, but also @vrolijk5, @slooterman, @challahwithjam, @ebthen, @AutisticMadeArt, and plenty of others have at least one incisive tweet about the issue), so my contribution is going to be a guide on how to write an Autistic character without being an ableist shitpile. If you’ve been reading my blog, there’s going to be some information you’ve seen me discuss before, but I wanted to frame the guide as something that can be shared, used, and understood by people who have no familiarity with my blog.
Here we go.
What autism is
Autism is a neurological/developmental disability. The Autistic community rarely discusses autism by calling it, well, autism, because it is not a disease but a lifelong neurodevelopmental difference. Autistic people exist not so much on a spectrum but a ball of wibbly-wobbly, stimmy-wimmy, speaking-nonspeaking stuff, and we have a massive variety of traits from the veritable constellation of traits that make us who we are. It is not something to be cured, but rather understood and celebrated.
What being Autistic feels like
In a nutshell, that meme “everything happens so much” is a pretty good descriptor. We often feel very, very intensely. This includes physically and emotionally. We are often very sensitive. Aside from that, our experiences are incredibly diverse.
Ah, stimming. I love stimming. Stimming, short for “stimulation”, is the repetition of a sensory activity. Stimming can be auditory, visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, kinesthetic…pretty much related to any sense you can think of. It can be done as an expression of joy or stress, to help with focus, or just because we feel like it. The most well-known stims are hand-flapping and rocking back and forth. I was stimming by smelling my hair when I wrote this, because I use argan oil on my hair and it smells amazing. I have a lot of olfactory stims. I also stim by tapping my nails, rocking back and forth, flapping, spinning, smelling scents I find soothing or pleasant, singing, doing vocal warm-up techniques, running thin objects underneath my fingernails (often done with the chain of a necklace), chewing/biting stim toys, getting tight hugs or lying under a weighted blanket, and listening to certain songs on repeat. When writing an Autistic character, figure out what their favorite stims are and when they tend to stim. Some of us favor happy stimming, some only stim when we’re upset, some stim all the damn time…you have plenty of options.
When writing about how stimming feels, happy stimming feels exhilarating and freeing. It is a very consuming feeling; when happy stimming, we tend to be quite focused on it and how good it is making us feel. Stressed stimming can be self-injurious, like hitting oneself or walls, but pain isn’t usually on our radar at the time and may only be felt later. Hand-flapping and rocking are well-known stims because they are often seen under times of stress. Stressed stimming feels like a relief, or a release from something terrifyingly overwhelming. It can also be comforting; lying under a weighted blanket gives me a feeling of immense calm. And remember, stimming is repetitive. Whatever your character does to stim will be done a bunch of times!
Your Autistic character may carry something stimmy with them at all times. Stim jewelry and stim toys are becoming more and more popular. Since I love olfactory stimming, I always carry my three favorite perfumes with me.
Autistic special interests
Many of us have special interests. We aren’t very good at liking things casually. When we have a special interest, we eagerly devour any information we can find on the thing, and we seek the thing out and can focus on researching it or engaging in it for hours. Special interests can be pretty much anything. When writing an Autistic character, make sure you give them special interests that make sense for their personality. Don’t pick a stereotypical special interest like trains or calculus because that’s what you’ve seen in the media. If your Autistic character is really feminine, give her a special interest in ethically sourced makeup. If your Autistic character likes history, give them a special interest in a particular time period, like the Ottoman Empire. If your Autistic character is very attached to his dog, give him a special interest in dogs. We also almost never tire of talking about our special interests or engaging in them. If an Autistic character has a special interest in a movie, they could probably watch it three times in a row and love it every time.
Look, meltdowns suck. But they are a normal part of being Autistic in a world that does not accommodate us and as such triggers meltdowns. A meltdown is, essentially, a fight-or-flight response. During a meltdown, the brain behaves as if the Autistic person is in mortal peril. During a meltdown, you feel like you can’t breathe and that the world is closing in on you, and everything around you is just too much to handle and you just Can’t. During meltdowns, an Autistic character will probably lose the ability to speak and may cry or scream. Meltdowns are infamous for being self-injurious thanks to terrible parents who think it’s okay to film meltdowns and post them online, but not all meltdowns are self-injurious. If they are, the self-injury may manifest as striking one’s head, body, or fists against a wall or by hitting oneself. Meltdowns will pass after the Autistic person has gotten all the stress out of their system, often leaving the person exhausted. Some of us feel really sore after meltdowns even if we weren’t self-injurious. Sometimes instead of meltdowns, an Autistic person will have a shutdown, which consists of the brain basically switching itself off to avoid having to deal with whatever caused the shutdown. A shutdown feels like a “mute” button has been hit on a giant remote that controls the world.
An important part of writing meltdowns is to know why they happen. Allistic people tend to think that meltdowns are ~mysterious and have no cause, but really they don’t bother to understand our stressors. An Autistic person will not have a meltdown in order to get what they want, like a tantrum; something stressful will set off the meltdown. Meltdowns are often caused by sudden startling sensory input like a motorcycle revving or fireworks. Sometimes they are caused by something small in a long series of stressors; for example, if an Autistic person is tired and hungry and has been away from home a long time, they may go to a restaurant for dinner and the thing that pushes them into a meltdown is the restaurant being closed. I once had a meltdown because I do badly in the heat and had to be out in it for too long.
Another important thing about writing meltdowns is that they are way worse for the person having the meltdown than anyone who might be around. Writing the meltdown like it’s something terrifying to the bystanders and ignoring the Autistic person’s experience is ableist. Don’t do it.
Some Autistic people are non-speaking (the preferred term is non-speaking, not non-verbal). Some Autistic people are hyperlexic chatterboxes. And everything in between exists too. Some hyperlexic Autistic people lose the ability to speak when under high levels of stress. Many non-speaking Autistic people use assistive technology like AAC communication boards or iPads in order to communicate through words. Some non-speaking Autistic people can sign. Many non-speaking Autistic people are capable of mentally forming words, but there is a disconnect between those words and being able to voice them. For me, ordinarily being able to speak and losing the ability to speak due to stress feels like a connection between my mouth and my brain has been severed. I may repeat words or stress-stim while I try to process the words I am attempting to say, or I may go completely silent and have to sign or write/type.
Scripts are key to Autistic communication. We learn to navigate social situations by figuring out (or being taught by friends) which scripts are appropriate for which situations. When Autistic people have trouble with social situations, it is often because we don’t have a script for the situation or because we don’t know which script to pick. I like to describe my social awkwardness as “error 404: script not found”. Use of scripts means your Autistic character may often use the exact same words in similar situations, especially when telling stories of something that happened to them or responding to common social situations like accepting a gift or being invited to a social gathering.
Your Autistic character may be able to speak all the time, be entirely non-speaking, or only be able to speak when not under stress. Keep in mind the stressors listed above when trying to figure out what might cause your Autistic character to stop being able to speak. On the other hand, Autistic chatterboxes often have good vocabularies and will love to talk endlessly about their special interests (infodumping).
Autistic people supposedly have low empathy. However, there isn’t just one type of empathy. The type of empathy Autistic people most often struggle with is called cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand other people’s perspectives, mental states, or motivations, and to be able to intuit what another person would think in a certain situation. An Autistic character may often make mistakes when trying to figure out what someone else is thinking or why they are doing what they’re doing, and may be confused at other people’s behavior or logic.
Affective empathy is the kind of empathy Autistic people often don’t have according to harmful stereotypes. Affective empathy is the ability to sense and/or understand other people’s emotions. We supposedly don’t have good affective empathy because while we may be able to understand that someone is feeling a certain way, we often don’t have the necessary scripts to respond to the other person’s feelings. Many Autistic people are hyperempathic for affective empathy and take on others’ feelings as their own; this gets very overwhelming. So an Autistic character might be able to sense other peoples’ distress and want to help but not be able to, or be able to sense someone else’s frustration but not know what to say to make the person feel better, etc.
Some Autistic people do indeed have low affective empathy. This trait is frequently demonized. If you do write any neurodivergent character with low affective empathy, be extremely careful you are not inadvertently making them look evil or wrong because of their difficulty reading and understanding people’s emotions. A good example of a character with low affective empathy written well is Rose Quartz from Steven Universe.
Autistic people are like cats in that we feel threatened by eye contact. We’re not trying to be rude when we don’t make eye contact; it upsets us. Your Autistic character may not care whether or not people know they aren’t making eye contact or may fake by looking at the person’s eyebrows (like I do) or looking in the general direction of the person’s face and looking into the middle distance. Your Autistic character may be unaware of what color eyes people have because of this.
Many Autistic people have auditory processing disorder, sensory processing disorder, echolalia, prosopagnosia, elopement, dermatillomania, and/or trichotillomania. Auditory processing disorder usually involves not being able to parse the sounds in words into said words and not being able to distinguish background noise from something right near you. It often means having really sensitive ears and being easily startled by loud noises (hi).
Sensory processing disorder is very common in Autistic people and involves sensory input not being adequately processed; usually not fast enough. Sensory processing disorder often presents itself by being unable to tolerate certain textures (especially in food!), noises, or grooming products. SPD is why a lot of Autistic people have trouble grooming ourselves. (My SPD acts up when my skin produces a lot of oil, which means showers are a wonderful relief from sensory hell for me, but I’m weird.)
Echolalia is key to how a lot of Autistic people think. It often involves repeating words that we have just heard, but often we retain phrases or words we hear that appeal to us and we will repeat them. Sometimes we repeat them as part of scripts, and sometimes we repeat them because it is fun. Echolalia is an imitative behavior, meaning we get these things we like to vocalize from other places. This can be books, movies, other people, songs, whatever; when I’m stressed, my echolalia kicks in and I speak mostly in movie and song quotes. (So echolalia can also become part of scripts.) Your Autistic character may have certain sources of echolalia that they like, such as people who they respect, or they may get the stuff they repeat from varying sources.
Prosopagnosia is also called face blindness. Autistic people with prosopagnosia are, in essence, crap with faces. This can mean just bad at reading facial expressions, completely unable to distinguish different faces, and everything in between. Having prosopagnosia often feels like seeing faces as disorganized collections of features instead of faces as a whole.
Elopement is when an Autistic person feels overwhelmed or threatened and leaves a situation. This often involves leaving a house, but can also be running from a social situation. Allistics like to call this behavior ~mysterious as well, but elopement is caused by stress. When we want out because of a sensory issue or because we don’t have a script for something or whatever, we may feel threatened, and we get out. It’s that simple. Your Autistic character will not elope for the hell of it. They will run from something if they feel like they are in danger.
Dermatillomania and trichotillomania are similar. Dermatillomania is skin-picking and trichotillomania is hair-pulling. Both are often done as stress-stims, and most Autistic people who do them try to re-channel that harmful stim into a different stim. So if your Autistic character does either, they probably are doing it unintentionally but may try to actively do a different stim when they catch themselves doing one or the other. Important note: neither is usually done as deliberate self-harm.
Be critical of yourself when writing an Autistic character. With every one of their traits, make sure you think “Why am I writing this?” and if the answer is “Because I’ve seen it often in the media”, reexamine your motivation. There are a lot of harmful stereotypes out there, many of them perpetuated by so-called charities like Autism Speaks. Common misinformation includes that meltdowns, elopement, and self-injury don’t have causes, stimming must be stopped, that Autistic traits must be suppressed, that there are more Autistic men than women or non-binary people, and that only children can be Autistic. If you believe any of those, read more books and blog posts by Autistic people before writing your character. Recommendations include the book Loud Hands by Julia Bascom, and the blogs Autistic Hoya by Lydia Brown and Non-Speaking Autistics Speaking by Amy Sequenzia. (Temple Grandin is a pro-ABA Aspie supremacist I do NOT recommend her work for research on how to write Autistic characters.)
In light of Puppetgate, I would think I wouldn’t even have to say this, but apparently I do: if you’re not Autistic, don’t write a non-human character as Autistic unless most or all of the characters in the story are not human. We’re already dehumanized enough. Don’t write an android as your only Autistic character on a starship full of humans, don’t make the lone lawful good orc in your fantasy realm your only Autistic character, and DEFINITELY don’t represent a human Autistic character with a fucking puppet (unless you’re the Muppets, because having puppet characters is kind of their thing).