So you want to write an autistic character.
Wait, what? Why would I do that?
I have two main answers to that question.
- We exist! We’re part of natural human diversity! It is estimated that around 1% of people are autistic (and the number may be even higher). That may not sound like a lot, but 1% of 7.5 billion people is 75 million people! Which means that there are more autistic people than there are French people in the world. So if you want to write diverse characters, an autistic character is something to consider seriously!
- Good, accurate representation of autistic people in media helps autism become more well-known by the general public. If people see us as humans when they read about good autistic characters in books, they are more likely to see us as humans when they come across one of us in the real world, and to treat us accordingly. So by writing an autistic character, you’re helping autistic people everywhere, in your own way.
OK, I’m convinced. But what is autism anyway?
Let’s start with what it is not! Autism is not a mental illness. This means this is not something you can somehow get later in life: you can start having depression at any stage in your life, but you are born autistic. Moreover, while depression and some other mental illness can be cured or be temporary, you are autistic for your whole life.
So what is it? It is considered a developmental disorder. This means that you born autistic, and that every stage of your development (baby-> toddler->child->teenager->adult->elderly person) is affected by autism, and will happen differently than that of a non-autistic person.
It is also considered a disability: there are things in of life that non-autistic people can do that are difficult or impossible for autistic people.
Finally, it is what we call a neurodivergence: this means that our brain is wired in a way that is different to that of most people. While it can make life harder for us in some regards, we are in no way lesser to non-autistic people, just different. We also have abilities and positive traits that others lack. And most the problems we encounter in our daily life are not because of autism per se, but because of a lack of awareness, understanding, and accommodations from others.
It is important to note here that autism is something that is still being researched, and not everyone agrees with all of the above definitions, but we’ll get into this discussion in another post!
So tell me, what are autistic people like?
First of all, there is a very important thing to keep in mind: We are all different. We are all our own person, and we are just as diverse (or maybe even more so) than non-autistic people are. We all have a mix-and-match assortment of autistic traits, traits that are not typically autistic, and personal quirks. All of these can have different expressions, different intensities and different triggers depending on the person, but also on the context and on the moment. So there is not one way to be autistic, but as many ways as there are autistic people (that is, a lot.)
With that in mind, I will list here some common autistic traits that we will be expanding on in future posts: this may serve as a table of contents of sorts.
- Difficulties with everything social: understanding social rules, understanding non-verbal cues and conversational rules, and using them correctly is very difficult for most of us. We often struggle with making friends and finding romantic partners.
- Difficulties with typical communication: a lot of autistic people have trouble with communicating verbally (this includes sign language), and some are sometimes or always non-verbal. A lot of us prefer alternative means of communication such as typing. Even when we do talk, we may do so oddly.
- Sensory differences: We can be hyper- or hypo-sensitive to different sensory inputs. This translates to a lot of us as struggling with things like loud noises, bright lights or being touched.
- Stimming: You may often find us flapping our hands, rocking back and forth, twirling our fingers, playing with our hair, pacing… or even things like hitting our heads or biting ourselves.
- Meltdowns and shutdowns: When we are very overwhelmed, we can have violent meltdowns which can include shouting, crying, and self-harming stims, or shutdowns in which we completely stop reacting and responding to our environment.
- Special interests: Most of us have one or several topics which we are very, very interested in. They can change with time or be lifelong. We can spend hours researching such topics and talking about them. A special interest can look obsessive to outside observers.
- Need for routine: We often need to have our days planned in advance following a routine, and we can be very upset if there is a sudden change to that routine or if something unplanned happens.
- Executive dysfunction: Getting started on an activity, figuring out and following all the steps which it involves, switching activities and making decisions can all be difficult things for us.
There are other common autistic traits which we’ll talk about later, but these are the main ones.
This will be all for an introductory post. If you have any question, our ask-box is open!