“Is That Supposed To Be Me?”: an Autistic Perspective on Representation

Over the past few years, the topic of representation, specifically the representation of particular marginalized identities or groups in media has been a rather hot topic and one that’s seen a lot of changes. For example, it was incredibly rare just a few years ago to see an LGBT character in any fashion on a TV show, movie, or cartoon, and now it seems like every new piece of media comes out has a character of that kind in some form or fashion, sometimes even in a leading role. And more and more on social media, you see groups of people pushing for themselves to be represented more across all media, and even criticizing some representation they do get for not being enough or even being offensive. In general, the idea of particular groups of people being represented in works has been a rather prominent one.

Which brings me to today’s topic: autistic representation, specifically my experiences with autistic representation in media. Now I’m not going to launch into a grand history of every autistic portrayal across all media because we’d be here all day, but rather, just the things I’ve experienced that seem to portray autistic individuals, whether intentionally or not, and my thoughts and feelings and experiences with them. I wish to talk about these experiences because I’ve noticed a running trend of autistic portrayals I’ve come across fitting into a very specific “mold” of what autistic people are supposed to look and sound and be like–a mold that I just don’t fit into. As such, I wanted to get my experiences out there not just to provide the perspective of an autistic person looking at autistic representation, and not just of an autistic person who happens not to fit the societal expectations of an autistic person, but also to see if anyone else shared in these experiences

The first one that comes to mind is the movie Temple Grandin. Now, this was one of the first times I explicitly saw an autistic person portrayed in any form of fictional (or semi-fictional) media. Granted, I know most peoples’ first exposure to it is through something like Rain Man, but since I’ve never seen that movie (to this day even. Though its specter still hangs over me from time to time), this was my first real exposure to how it would be portrayed on the silver screen. For the most part, I thought it was generally done well, telling the story of Temple Grandin quite well, portraying her autism with a good amount of sensitivity and understanding, and helping to give a good idea of who this woman is and why she’s so important. Having met her, I can also say that the movie is incredibly accurate with the way this woman seems to come across. However, for all the good I can say about it, and my positive feelings I held about it way back when I saw it in 2010 at age 13 (and those I still hold at age 23), there was always that feeling of…weirdness I got from it. Not from anything the movie did wrong in particular, but rather the fact that what was portrayed in the movie as autism and the autistic experience….weren’t my experiences with it at all. Granted, I understand that it’s because of the time period and how little autism was understood back then, but even outside of that..I couldn’t help but feel like this was something I couldn’t truly relate to as an autistic person. Again, it did an excellent job with the material and helped communicate her story and the basics of autism to the audience…but the autism it seemed to represent wasn’t what  I had. It also didn’t help that, through no fault of the movie’s, it seemed to reaffirm the stereotypical image of autism that I had come across time and time and time again…one that I just didn’t fit into. It represented autism for sure, but didn’t represent me.

Now on the opposite end of the spectrum is a little book called The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon. This was a book I was assigned to read in 10th grade English class and one that the teacher professed to be an “accurate depiction of autism”. The book claims to be a “mystery story” about a child finding out who killed his neighbor’s dog, but in reality it comes across more like a book written by someone who hates autistic people wanting to express exactly how much he hated autistic people, because the book’s protagonist, Christopher John Francis Boone comes across as the most blatant, offensive stereotype of autistic people imaginable, running the gambit of every single autistic cliche including being a math wiz, having no idea how the actual world works, being obsessed with logic over emotions to the point where others view him as a “robot”, having meltdowns (that are portrayed more like temper tantrums) and actively ruining the lives of every person around him. And I remember looking at this portrayal and I remember thinking that if this is what the teacher thought was an accurate portrayal of autistic people, and that this is what the author thought of autistic people, then the common conception of autism was far, far worse than I imagined. I know the author has gone on record as saying that the book’s protagonist isn’t meant to be autistic, but I find it hard to believe considering the autistic stereotypes present in the protagonist’s behavior as well as the blurb on the back cover even mentioning autism/asperger’s by name. I had this contrast with Temple Grandin because while both works are ones I felt didn’t really represent my experiences with autism, the former at least was able to accurately and carefully depict a person with autism and all the good and bad that came with it, showing the autistic individual as one not defined by their stereotypes and as one deserving of respect, autonomy, and love. Temple Grandin’s portrayal of autism was one based in reality (as it should be) and was clearly thought out and researched. The Curious Case  however is a depiction of autism that is outright derisive, mocking, and honestly offensive, depicting autistic people as little more than emotionless burdens on those around them, and not as individuals worthy of respect, autonomy, and especially not love. Now I know it could be argued that the former was deliberately trying to portray an autistic individual while the latter did so incidentally, but I find that incredibly hard to believe, and even if it was just incidental, it doesn’t change the fact it’s an incredibly bad portrayal. It honestly baffles me how a book like this could receive so many awards and accolades specifically for its portrayal of autistic people and autism in general. Perhaps one day I’ll dedicate an entire blog solely towards ripping this book apart, but the idea of reading this again sounds less pleasant than sandpapering my fingers off.

There are but two more examples of representation I want to talk about, and one of them comes from a relatively obscure sprite-based adventure game called To The Moon, a game I happened to stumble across during my freshman year of college, a time where I was very unsure of myself or my future, had no friends, and was craving something to sink my teeth into–and a time where I really needed the kind of positive affirmation that good autistic representation could afford. The game sees you playing the part of two researchers who go into the memories of a dying man to fulfill his last wish, which is to go “to the moon”. But as the game goes on, you find out that there is much more going on than initially anticipated. It’s a very simple game, but I wanted to bring it up because one of the main characters, River E. Wiles, while not explicitly denoted as autistic within the game, is very obviously autistic and actually acknowledged by the developers as such (and most of the revenue from the game went towards autistic orgs as well). Now, like Temple Grandin, it is rather unique insofar as portraying an autistic woman (actually, there are two in the game, though one is a minor character), and not just that, but one that ultimately ends up living a relatively “normal” (if unfulfilled due to reasons explored within the game’s narratives) life. In addition, her autism isn’t shown through her being an abject burden on those around her or her being a gigantic math freak, but rather someone who sees the world differently than other people and has trouble communicating with others in a way that makes sense, and she’s often frustrated by this inability to communicate, to “get” other people. Playing the game, I found myself greatly relating to this character more than I did with Temple Grandin or Christopher of The Curious Case because of that, but also because of the relative autonomy and “normalcy” that she experienced in her life, being able to live independently and function in society, but at the same time found it difficult to do so, something which I could greatly relate to (at least at the time). While she does meet a sad end (something that is obvious very early on), it’s one that, while partially due to issues pertaining to her condition, isn’t explicitly because she’s autistic, but rather other circumstances. Within the narrative, she’s treated as more than her condition, while also having her condition not simply be overlooked or stereotyped or anything along those lines. It’s hard to really put into words exactly why River works as autistic representation in my eyes, or why I related to her so heavily over the course of the game’s narrative, but I did, and to this day I maintain that she’s one of the best examples of autistic representation I could find. I can certainly tell you that back when I first played it, the game made me cry, not just because of how well River was done and the feeling of finally seeing an explicitly autistic character I could look at and say “This is what an autistic person looks, sounds, and acts like! These are my experiences!” but for other reasons as well (such as the game’s final act).

The game itself is 9.99 on Steam and is just a few hours long, but it’s well worth the time and money investment so if you’re curious to see why I hold To The Moon and the character River in such high regard in regards to representation, I’d recommend picking it up.

The final character I want to talk about is one that, unlike the other examples, isn’t explicitly autistic (Temple Grandin, River) or heavily implied to be autistic (Christopher) , but rather one I read as autistic, and it comes from a rather unlikely source: a free visual novel from a bunch of 4channers called Katawa Shoujo, which sees you dating (and doing other, 18+ things with) a variety of disabled women. Despite being a free visual novel developed by literal amateurs, the game’s handling of its disabled characters is nothing short of incredible, treating them less as props and objects of scorn/pity and more as full fledged human beings deserving of love and respect that have thoughts, feelings, flaws, strengths, and desire all their own, showing them as people, nothing more and nothing less. And nowhere is this more evident in my eyes than with the character of Rin Tezuka, the game’s most peculiar character who was born without arms–but is also seen as “weird” and “eccentric”. Her route in the game is one of the hardest to access and one of the hardest to really parse, and this is meant to be reflective of the strange ways in which she views the world and interacts with others–ways which I found incredibly evocative of my own and of other autistic people I had met. She’s not explicitly said or even implied to be autistic, but given her behavior and attitude (which included bouts of self-isolation, a general desire to be alone, and difficulty in relating my emotions to others, something which I also greatly related to when I had first played the game in my Junior year of high school), it was hard not to read her as being autistic. Honestly, it’s hard to go into detail about the specifics of why I read her as autistic without going into massive spoilers (and I really, really don’t want to spoil this, or really any of the things listed because I want people to be able to experience them for themselves) but Rin was a character I found myself greatly relating to, and her good ending was one that also had me cry. Despite not being explicitly autistic, Rin and her story resonated deeply with me because of how much I related to it, and how much I read my own experiences of autism into this character, how much more she seemed to fit the mold of what I experienced when it came to my condition than other works in which autistic people were portrayed. I think this kind of representation, where the individual can read representation into a work where it isn’t explicitly present, is an important one to talk about, because I think it says some rather interesting things about what it means to be represented, especially as a neurodiverse individual I don’t think there’s much else I can say other than play Katawa Shoujo, it’s a good game and has some of the best disabled rep you’ll ever see.

I guess the point I’m trying to make here in regards to my experiences with autistic representation is that the examples I like the most, and the ones I most closely relate to, are ones that rely more upon portraying the autistic individual as a multifaceted human being with a variety of likes, dislikes, thoughts, feelings, desires, etc that just so happens to be autistic than as a walking collection of stereotypes (like with The Curious Case) or even someone outright defined by that disability, even if that’s the entire point and it’s objectively done really well (like with Temple Grandin. It’s also funny to me that out of all of the examples I’ve listed, the ones I’ve related to most are the autistic (or autistic-seeming) women, as opposed to the single autistic male of the group in Christopher. Perhaps that also speaks to how it’s more important to me that portrayals of autism and autistic representation be complex and multifaceted and accurately represent the nuances of the condition rather than them simply looking like me. But I suppose I would need a larger pool of examples to back up such a claim, so I digress.

But as I said prior, this was not meant to be a comprehensive, exhaustive, in depth study of autistic representation and every example of autism represented in media ever, but rather moreso personal ramblings on my experiences with the notion of “autistic representation”. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially given the fact that it seems like autistic representation is actually becoming more common, whether it be with shows like Dating on the Spectrum  or Atypical, which center around autistic people, video games like Overwatch which have explicitly autistic characters, or even cartoons like She-Ra which have explicitly autistic characters as part of the main ensemble. I also wanted to use this as a platform and discussion space to see what other autistic people think about autistic representation, whether it be stuff they’ve experienced or hope to experience.