Hi there! I'm not sure if you've answered something similar to this, but I'm wanting to write an autistic character. She's very severe, and has trouble communicating (slurred speech), her personality is also very spacey and oblivious. Any tips, or things to learn about writing an autistic character when I myself am not autistic? Thank you! Take your time!
Thanks for your question, love! I apologize for the wait, but I’m happy to finally get to answer this :)
So first, I’ve got a a note on what you’ve described about your character. For one thing, it’s preferred among most autistic people that there be no “sliding scale” of severity – because there are so many different symptoms and combinations of symptoms, and “severity” seems to only relate to symptoms that bother allistic people most. Here’s a masterpost on how to handle this topic.
So now that this is out of the way, here are my official tips for writing autistic characters!
How to Write Autistic Characters
So it took me some time to prepare for this question, primarily because I saw so little information out there for writing about autism! And that’s understandable, since it’s such a complex topic – after all, no two autistic people have exactly the same symptoms and coping mechanisms. Plus, since autism is basically a top-to-bottom different living experience, it’s difficult for allistics to identify with.
But I’m going to discuss this in a few different parts: symptoms, coping mechanisms, positive qualities, and stereotypes to avoid. I’ll try to keep it as brief as possible without sparing any information :)
Symptoms of Autism
There are many different symptoms of autism, although the mental/emotional aspects of the disorder is most often overlooked by the general public. It’s important to recognize that every autistic person’s experience and symptoms are different. Some people have few social problems but they can’t handle the sensory experience of a restaurant; some have few physical problems, but they struggle with OCD and can’t maintain a conversation. The only difference between symptoms is that some are talked about and some are not, which makes them seem “uncommon.”
- Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) – SPD is defined as the struggle to process different sensory input – visual, auditory, tactile, taste, olfactory, proprioception, vestibular and interoception. SPD causes hyper- or hyposentitivities to certain sensory stimuli (e.g. certain clothing textures, food textures, scents, and lighting – especially fluorescent lighting. Ugh.)
- Dyspraxia – A result of SPD, dyspraxia makes it difficult to control one’s physical movement. It creates problems with planning and executing actions, as well as speaking or judging spacial proximity.
- Sleep Disorder – Many autistic people struggle with sleeping for various reasons – hypersensitivity seems to be the greatest cause. Offensive sheet fabric, noises, or lighting can cause sleep problems, as well as racing thoughts or anxiety.
- Lack of Energy (or Spoons) – Often caused by sleep problems or SPD, a lack of energy intensifies normal symptoms. Understand that when an autistic person engages in a stressful or energy-consuming experience (prolonged socialization, insomnia, bad sensory environments, anxiety, etc.)
- Nonverbal Communication – This type of communication is used by nearly one-third of autistic people, either because they aren’t able to use language in a meaningful way, because it requires an excessive amount of mental/social energy, or because they suffer from a learning disability. Some people go temporarily nonverbal in times of stress to conserve energy. Most nonverbal autistic people learn other means of communication, like writing, sign language, or scripting/echolalia.
- Executive Dysfunction – This dysfunction makes it difficult for some autistic people to start, finish, and quit tasks; to make decisions and switch activities; and/or create, organize, and follow through with plans. This should not be confused with procrastination, as it is not a decision – it’s a result of low energy.
- Alexithymia – Alexithymia can cause autistic people to struggle to identify their own emotions, or separate physical feelings from emotional feelings. It’s closely tied with lowered interoception, which is defined as the struggle (or inability) to define and assess physical sensations like hunger, thirst, tension, etc.
- Meltdowns – Meltdowns are an emotional response to overstimulation and stress, causing some autistic people to “lose control” of visceral emotional responses (e.g. shaking, kicking, crying, shouting, etc.). There is another type of meltdown called a shutdown, which causes an opposite reaction: dissociation and lack of external response. It’s a flight reaction rather than a fight reaction.
- Increased Likelihood for Other Mental Disorders – Since the world isn’t exactly built for autistic people, there are plenty of everyday challenges and stressors (as well as difficulty maintaining supportive relationships) that can cause other comorbid disorders, such as OCD, anxiety, and depression.
- Learning Disability and Late Childhood Development – While autism itself is not classified as a learning disability, it’s often comorbid with different types of learning disabilities. Autism can also cause late development of speech and motor skills, among other things.
- Hyperempathy or Low Empathy – On two ends of the spectrum, autistic people often struggle with the “right balance” of empathy – being either unable to identify, express, and empathize with emotions, or unable to shut off or control their own emotions as well as to separate themselves from other people’s emotions.
- Impulsive Behavior – Because of a (sometimes) weak understanding of social rules and/or imbalanced empathy, an autistic person may struggle to stop and think before they say or do something impulsively. This can cause interpersonal issues, as impulsive speech may offend or hurt others, while impulsive actions may feel too “out-of-control” or “hard to manage” for loved ones.
- Difficulty Interpreting or Expressing Social Cues – Autistic people often struggle to understand facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, sarcasm, flirting, or figures of speech – and because of this, they can often come off as “oblivious” or “simple” (although this is inaccurate and contributes to a lot of misrepresentation). It can also be difficult to express social cues, which is why some autistic people can appear to be awkward, clingy, aloof, or uninterested in friendship/romance.
- Social Anxiety – Social situations can be especially stressful for autistic people, due to the amount of thinking it requires – to interpret cues, to “pass” as allistic, to express themselves clearly, to curb impulses, to handle sensory challenges – and this leads to social anxiety.
- Social Isolation – As a result of social anxiety, some autistic people experience isolation, as they may feel more comfortable in their own environment, alone. This is an unfortunate result of ableist culture, and may be worsened by executive dysfunction which can make it difficult to reach out to others.
- Struggle with Change – Whether in routine, environment, appearance, or the natural changes of life (such as graduation, moving, marriage, death in the family, new job, etc.), change can cause great stress for some autistic people. This is why many autistic people enjoy comfort objects, old music, childhood memories/interests, or specific, consistent colors, styles, or textures for their belongings.
Coping Mechanisms for Autistic People
There are many methods of coping with the negative aspects of autism, but there are a few that are most popular:
- Behavioral & Occupational Therapy – Therapy (often combined with medication) is a continuous process of reducing symptoms, coping with stressors, and learning how to function in an allistic world. (The most common method of behavioral therapy, ABA, has reports of being abusive, so be mindful of this if you’re researching/writing about therapy!)
- Stimming – “Stimming” or self-stimulating is a physical coping mechanism for sensory overload and similar stress. Stimming can be healthy or unhealthy depending on the action involved (some unhealthy stims include skin-peeling or hitting one’s head), and it can be conscious or subconscious. It’s often seen as “weird” or “bad” by allistics (especially parents), so some autistic people train themselves out of the habit from a young age.
- Special Interests – Special interests are half a coping mechanism and half a natural part of autistic people’s lifestyles. It’s defined as a devoted interest to one or two subjects or activities – special interests can reduce stress, help focus, and provide motivation against executive dysfunction.
Positive Qualities of Autism
Now that we’ve gotten all the bad stuff out of the way, I’m gonna list a few common positive qualities of autistic people. Remember that these do not apply to all autistic people, but may be a natural consequence of autistic traits:
- Divergence (from trends and social expectations)
- Uncritical nature
- Attention to detail
- Good memory
- Logical reasoning
- Active imagination
- Understanding of what it’s like to be judged or left out
- Skilled with children
Autistic people, of course, have many other great qualities, and may struggle with many of the above. Creating a character with all these qualities will yield you a stereotype, so be mindful!
Stereotypes of Autistic People
Finally, there are a few popular stereotypes of autistic characters, which should be avoided at all costs:
- Autistic People are Psychic – We get this courtesy of shows like Touch, where the (usually nonverbal) autistic child suddenly starts speaking because they see ghosts or are somehow connected to “another world”. Autistic people joke about themselves being “aliens”… but allistic people really shouldn’t.
- Autistic People Need Caretakers – While some autistic people do struggle to manage their lives alone, it’s a pretty harmful stereotype in media considering the lack of positive representation autistic people get. Plenty of autistic people (whether you consider them high- or low-functioning) lead successful lives on their own, and they deserve representation.
- Autistic People are Burdens – The most stereotypical portrayal of autistic people is that they are the weight pulling on their parents’ ankles – that they destroy parents’ sex lives and make teachers crazy and their friends need a “night off” from their autistic friends.
- Autistic People are Childlike – While many autistic people enjoy activities geared toward children, and while meltdowns can resemble an allistic child’s temper tantrum, autistic people are not childish or unintelligent. Autistic adults are adults, no matter their struggles.
- Autistic People Look Different – Autistic people don’t all look a certain way from birth – this is a myth that has been debunked time and time again, the same way that the Vaccines Cause Autism myth has been debunked, time and time again. Don’t perpetuate these myths in your writing.
- Autistic People are Like Robots – Autistic people may not express their feelings well, but they have feelings. Being nonverbal, being dissociative, being aloof or awkward – none of these things make an autistic person unfeeling or non-human. Be mindful to show the emotional side of your autistic character, even if they struggle to express it to others.
Resources for Researching Autism
A lot of these are courtesy of @anonymusauthorin, whom I thank very much for her information and deep connection to the autistic community!
- Ballastexistenz’s blog (on her personal experience with multiple disabilities and autism). [NSFW language]
- Yes, That Too (blog on the personal experience of an autistic person with other neurodivergencies).
- Aspects of Aspergers (specifically about Asperger’s, which is now called Autism Spectrum Disorder).
- Disability in Kid Lit (discussions of disability representation in children’s/YA literature).
- @scriptautistic is an active advice blog for writing about autism.
- @autism-asks is an active blog that takes questions about autism.
- @undiagnosedautismfeels is an active blog that receives submitted anecdotes about autistic struggles, some specific to being undiagnosed/self-diagnosed.
- @autisticheadcanons is an active blog that receives submissions of characters that actual autistic people headcanon as autistic. You can find some common submissions (e.g. Lilo Pelekai, Newt Scamander, Sherlock Holmes) and check them out for examples!
Final Note: You may notice that none of these links are affiliated with Autism Speaks, which is for a purpose. Autism Speaks has a long history of promoting eugenics, abusing autistic children and adolescents, silencing the voice of actual autistics, and promoting a “find a cure” narrative that’s harmful to the minds of both autistic people and potential parents of autistic children. When doing research, I’d advise you to refrain from using their resources.
Anyway, this was hugely long but I wanted to really go into it, since I didn’t see many other extensive guides on writing about autism. Note that while I, myself, am autistic, this is only the perspective of one autistic person. Either way, I hope this helps you with your character! If you have any further questions, my inbox is open and waiting :)