A Call for Better #Autistic Representation in Fiction

List of Fiction Genres, all crossed off with Disability? written next to itAs a woman and a writer, I’m often hard-pressed to find good literature—novels, short stories, or even comics—that portray women as round, real, empathetic human characters rather than as any number of decidedly anti-empowering archetypes. As an autistic woman, the task is significantly harder. Back in high school, I conducted an independent research project on the portrayal of autistic characters in fiction. After reading well over thirty-five novels of all genres written throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it became readily apparent that few, if any, characters explicitly identified as autistic (either in the novel itself or in discussions by the author) were much more than an amalgam of autism-related stereotypes. Too often, they were also essentially props for the non-disabled protagonists, existing for the sake of the protagonists so they could grow a sense of empathy toward people with disabilities or other “differences.” To say it was a disappointment is an understatement.

Recently, a wonderful disabled activist friend pointed me to a project on Horror Tree, a resource for horror authors that shares the latest calls for submissions from horror anthologies and publishers. The project, Fractured Realms, is a charity anthology to benefit an autism fund. It seemed well-intentioned at first, but a few paragraphs in, I found myself once again disappointed and frustrated by the same tired tropes. Perhaps I should have taken the deployment of the fear-mongering statistic of “1 in 88,” intended to evoke a sense or crisis or urgency, as a warning. The language in the call for submissions moves at once from the outdated stereotype of autistic people as broken and caged by our own minds to the stylings of inspiration porn, treating autistic people as somehow “special” and existing for the inspiration of non-disabled people.

““Is Autism a disorder, or is it a gift?”

Fifteen special authors’ stories will be selected for this anthology, along with three poets. We are looking for a combination of science fiction and horror between 3000 and 6000 words long (with the exception of poetry).

Really put yourself into the metaphorical shoes of a broken psyche, a misunderstood soul, a mind so beyond brilliant that the world they are in makes no sense. Write something unlike anything you’ve done before, outside of the box and unique. Help the reader become lost inside your special character as they ride a ray of light reflected off that broken shard, taking us inside a fractured realm…”

While none of these ideas are new, they continue to proliferate public discourse as well as the more insular realms of speculative fiction and fandom.

To better explain the reasoning behind my objections to the language, let me highlight a couple of examples. The anthology description says that autistic people have “at times suffered enduring isolation from being trapped inside their own minds.” Autistic people have been pushing back against this stereotype for decades. To suggest that we are somehow locked inside our minds is highly offensive and dismissive of the multiplicity of ways that we communicate, socialize, perceive the world around us, and participate in community. We are as much a part of the world as anyone else. When we experience isolation, stigmatization, and social ostracism, consider—is it because we are autistic or because of the ways that our societies treat people who are autistic? Our neurological condition does not produce isolation, but social attitudes about disability certainly do.

As a second example, autism is referred to as an “immense obstacle blocking [autistic people’s] path,” and known or suspected autistic public figures are referred to as “inspiring individuals [who] have pushed forward, refusing to be victim to a statistic.” This, too, falls into the trap of forcing disabled people to conform to the narrative of the “overcomer” in order to be taken seriously or seen as valuable or worthy. Being autistic does not block my path toward personal or social success, but employment discrimination, refusal to provide accommodations in the classroom, and violence targeting people with disabilities very well may impede my ability to enjoy happiness, inclusion, equality, and access.

I should not be inspiring because I happen to be alive while autistic, but if I am inspiring, let it be for my work to advance a future of full access, equality, inclusion, and justice for all. If my writing is inspiring, let it be inspiring because it connects on a deep, empathic level with my readers, or because it spurs my readers to action or self-examination, not simply because I happened to write while also being autistic.

As quoted above, writers submitting work for consideration to the anthology are asked to “put yourself into the metaphorical shoes of a broken psyche,” later referring to the autistic character in these submissions as “your special character.” One of the prevailing messages of the movement for autistic rights and the broader neurodiversity movement is that we are not broken, defective, deficient, or disordered. Yet, given the environment of social exclusion, discriminatory policies, and practices aimed toward disabled people and the pervasive reality of violence and abuse in the lives of autistic people, this exhortation to presumably non-autistic writers to put themselves into the shoes of autistic people seems hollow and lacking in context.

I’m not arguing that non-autistic people have no right to write about autistic characters or that it is somehow impossible for non-autistic people to write meaningful and nuanced representations of autistics. I am arguing for the nuanced, meaningful, and contextualized representation of autistic characters in fiction. I’d like to read stories, comics, and novels populated by diverse, compelling women, queerfolk, trans*folk, disabled people (including autistics), people of color, migrants, and multiply marginalized folks. I have taught creative writing workshops, so questions about how to accurately, sensitively, or appropriately portray autistic characters are nothing new to me. But my response has always been the same—don’t think of this character as “the autistic character.” Don’t reduce any person to a single nexus of identity or experience.

By all means, include autistic characters in your work. But is your autistic character also a student? A worker? Who are they? What do they do, and what are they like? We are the sum of our identities and lived experiences, not merely one alone. And if fiction should mirror life, then well-developed characters should also reflect multiple points of experience and identity. The danger of reductionist writing (e.g. “This is the autistic character”) lies in the facility with which it turns into nothing more than a collection of stereotypes and generalizations.

Recognizing stereotypes about autistic people would be a good first step in changing the landscape of autistic representation in fiction. In this call for submissions, the editors could have easily achieved this first step through consulting with autistics to promote a message significantly more inclusive, accepting, and welcoming to autistic people than the current call for submissions. The desire to benefit autistic people is appreciated, but it is imperative for those who want to support autistic people to learn about the causes that matter most to our community, and to represent us in an empowering rather than disempowering, sensationalist, or reductionist manner.

It is my hope that the creators of this anthology, Suzie Lockhart & Bruce Lockhart 2nd, and their publisher, Horrified Press, will consider rewriting their call for submissions to address these concerns. In the end, we all want to see an amazing book with thrilling stories and engaging characters that truly represent the diversity of autistic people in the world. I, for one, would look forward to it.

Lydia Brown is a multiply-marginalized disabled activist who focuses on a number of issues related to violence against disabled people. She blogs at Autistic Hoya.

Image of Library Sign that lists Fiction Genres such as Adventure, Fantasy, Ghost Stories, Romance, Mystery etc. all crossed out with “Disability?” handwritten beside the list.  Image by Enokson with edits by the Lead On Update staff

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2 Responses to A Call for Better #Autistic Representation in Fiction

  1. Paul Yotsuba says:

    Too bad. Take your Magic Retard archetype and like it, unless you want to see more spaz characters like the main guy in Drive.

    • It is certainly interesting to think that there are already characters that are on the autism spectrum being portrayed in mainstream media and film. The jury is still out on whether Hollywood or mainstream society is ready to acknowledge — and in some cases as with Drive — even cheer for these characters. Much like that film there may indeed be debates on the motivation of these characters as some viewers may not be used to seeing different forms of emotional expression laid out on the screen. As you referenced the idea of the supercrip/”magic retard,” magic Negro, sassy ethnic, or noble marginalized character is proving a high hurdle for Hollywood to clear.

      And speaking of film archetypes, dude “Retard” is NOT the preferred nomenclature…….

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