Why write autistic characters?
Recognition of autism is improving as society learns more about what it means to be autistic. We now recognise that autism is prevalent throughout many aspects of society, and are understanding more and more about both the challenges and advantages it brings. It is statistically likely that everybody knows somebody with autism, whether that person knows they are autistic or not. And it is for this reason that I think there should be more autistic characters in literature. Autism is part of the human experience, bringing a unique and sometimes quirky perspective and novel ways of solving problems. These factors alone create the potential for autism to influence character and plot in interesting ways.
What is autism?
Autism is a congenital neurological difference which results in altered perception and information processing. This might sound very different to other descriptions of autism, which often focus on impairments, disabilities and social difficulties. However, these difficulties are secondary to the main difference in autism. Think of the brain as a computer; there are inputs (keyboards, mice, touch screens etc), which are akin to the senses, and there are outputs (displays, speakers and hardware devices) which resemble human communication, movement and action. Between the input and the output is the processor, which is what makes sense of the input and decides on the most appropriate output.
In autism, the inputs (i.e. the senses) work differently. Some of them are more sensitive than usual, some of them are less so. This can mean hyper-sensitivity to certain senses, such as finding light over a certain brightness or noise which is relatively quiet very overwhelming. Conversely, hypo-sensitivity can lead to things like not noticing certain sensations and therefore craving them in order to feel regulated; this is often associated with the need to spin around or flap limbs, which are due to reduced vestibular and proprioceptive senses.
The effect of all this is that information is processed differently by the brain. Things to which the person is hyper-sensitive is given a higher priority, because it is the most demanding of attention. Things to which they are hypo-sensitive is given reduced priority, because it is unnoticed or not considered to be important. And the processing of information, which is required in order to understand it, is slowed down or altered by the overwhelming amount of stimulation which is bombarding the person at any given time.
The reason why this affects social interaction is complicated. First, in this whirlwind of sensory information, social behaviours from other people may simply not be noticed. I don’t see that you are angry because my visual cortex is burned out trying to ignore the patterns on the wallpaper. Or I can’t take in your tone of voice because the police siren down the street is too distressing. As children, this means that autistic people often miss opportunities to learn about social interaction by observing it in others. Furthermore, people are often very unpredictable, and in a world consisting of overwhelming sensory information, autistic people tend to be drawn to things which are consistent and safe. This is the reason why autistic people often withdraw from social situations. The sensory onslaught is overwhelming, and the social demands too great to cope with. This leads to huge amounts of stress, fatigue, and ultimately shutdown.
That all sounds terrible. Why would I want to include an autistic character in my writing?
The same aspects of altered sensory and information processing which cause a lot of turmoil for autistic people also brings many gifts. Sensory hyper-sensitivity can lead to amazing attention to detail, noticing things that others wouldn’t (or couldn’t). Hypo-sensitivity can be more of a challenge, but at times can work well, such as by filtering out irrelevant stimuli which might be distracting to other people. This can help massively with focus. On the subject of attention, it tends to be single-channeled in autism, rather than multitasking. This means that autistic people can focus strongly on one thing at a time, and with such strong focus to the exclusion of all else they can accomplish more in a shorter space of time. Interests for people with autism tend to be narrow, and this allows them to learn huge amounts of information and develop amazing skills within these interests. This is partly due to the search for safe consistency previously noted, and partly because once a motivating interest is found it tends to become a passion. In childhood this looks like obsessions (such as loving a particular cup and spinning it round and round over and over again), and in adulthood it tends to mean a narrow focus on particular topic areas.
For these reasons, autistic characters in fiction can provide an interesting perspective. They will notice things around them in ways which other characters don’t. Some things that the reader might expect them to be aware of will go unnoticed, and this will cause confusion and misunderstandings for the characters. They will read different things in to other people’s intentions, and will solve problems in different ways. They will interpret situations differently, and can present these interpretations in ways which can intrigue readers and make them think about their own perceptions of the environment around them - not to mention the people within it.
How to write a good autistic character
I am by no means claiming to be an authority on writing. Far from it - I am an amateur at best. But I am a specialist in autism by profession, know many autistic people, have autistic relatives, and am on the autism spectrum myself. So I do know a lot about autism, what it is, and more importantly, what it is not. So here are my tips on how to portray autism in a way which will accurately reflect the truth of its differences, while at the same time allowing your reader to empathise with the character.
Meet real people with autism
Characters in fiction will portray their surface behaviours, and perhaps some of their inner monologue and thought processes. But they won’t really explore the processing that is going on under the surface. So you might see that a character is covering their ears when a train goes by, and they might even say that the sound is unbearable, but you won’t necessarily get deep insight into how that affects that person at the time (e.g. that when they are experiencing am overwhelming stimulus in one sensory modality they are unable to process information from other senses). Also, they probably won’t explain how this experience affects them moving on from there, i.e. the time it takes for the sensory system to return to baseline. You might also see the social difficulties they have, but not necessarily the reasons for them. It is important to understand not only what’s going on on the surface, but also the processing differences which are associated with them. And the best person to tell you about those things is a person with autism.
Read autobiographies about autistic people
Wenn Lawson, Ros Blackburn, Clare Sainsbury, Jim Sinclair, Zaffy Simone... these and other autistic adults can tell you, from a first-hand perspective, what it is like to experience the world as an autistic person. Reading their accounts will help you get inside the mind of an autistic person and take their POV.
Beware of stereotypes
Rain Man has a lot to answer for. As does The Big Bang Theory. These are catchphrase characters who portray stereotypical autistic traits. Outside of fiction, we are bombarded by historical figures who are posthumously diagnosed with autism. Mozart, Einstein, Lewis Carrol and Alan Turing are all touted as autistic, and all on the grounds of genius or prodigious abilities and/or an aloof manner with people. Yes these can be characteristics of autism, but not necessarily. Focusing on these traits and basing ostensibly autistic characters on them risks giving a stereotyped and two-dimensional view of autism. So don't write a character who flaps his hands and hums to himself and repeats the same phrases over and over again. Yes some autistic people do those things, and yes your character might do them at some points. But if it's all they do, and if you don't explain why they are doing, your character will seem shallow. This is unfulfilling for readers, deprives them of an opportunity to learn about autism in an enjoyable way, and is annoying for people with autism!
Get empathy right
It is a myth that people with autism lack empathy. There are two main types of empathy: cognitive, and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand other people’s thoughts, feelings and perspectives, and affective empathy is the ability to share in and reciprocate others’ feelings. In autism, affective empathy is intact, but cognitive empathy is harder to achieve due to the information processing differences. So autistic people care about other people’s feelings but often have difficulty working out what those feelings are. The opposite scenario (being aware of others’ feelings but not caring about them) would be a sociopathic presentation, not autistic. In short, autistic people do care about others, but struggle to understand them well enough to know what to care about. Getting this right when writing an autistic character is crucial not only in accurately portraying them as autistic, but also in correctly writing from their POV. Difficulties with cognitive empathy affect what you know, or more accurately what you can hypothesise, about other people. So you will need to bear in mind what information your autistic character will be able to work out from other people and from the context, and what will remain unknowable to them.
Explain behaviours which will seem unusual to the reader
Autistic characters will misunderstand things. They will say the wrong thing and upset people. They will fail to notice certain important things. They will behave in ways which seem odd or even selfish. If you don’t make it clear to the reader why they are doing those things, then they will come across as unpleasant. The reader needs to know what is causing them to think or behave that way. Just telling the reader that the character is autistic isn’t enough. Not everybody understands autism. Furthermore, it is entirely possible for autistic people to do unkind or unpleasant things intentionally, i.e. not due to their autism but out of choice - just like a non-autistic person can. So you need to differentiate when your character has done something unusual or unexpected because of something related to autism, and when they do it for another reason.
I have found when writing an autistic character’s POV chapters that inner monologue features heavily. A lot of this consists of describing the character’s experience of the environment - what is distracting him, what is overwhelming to him, what does he understand? It is also useful for showing his intentions. For example, he knows that another character is showing an ‘upset face’, because he thinks back to a time when he learned the meaning of this expression. He goes through a process of trying to work out the reason for this reaction from the other person, but cannot do it. His response is inappropriate, because he misjudges the other character’s state of mind. Without the explanation of his thought process he could appear uncaring. But showing that his intention was to understand will help the reader to empathise when he gets it wrong.
Include the sensory experiences of the character
This is something which would go without saying for any other character - you write about what they can see, hear, smell etc. But for an autistic character, the sensory experience will be very different. Before you start writing, you should devise a sensory profile for the character. What are they hyper-sensitive to? What are they hypo-sensitive to? The hyper-sensitivities will be at the forefront of their experiences as they will dominate their consciousness. The hypo-sensitivities won’t be noticed by the autistic character, so should not be mentioned. However, they can be alluded to in the character’s interactions with the environment and people within it. For example, bumping into things they haven’t noticed, eating something poisonous because they have limited sense of smell/taste, misunderstanding people due to lack of awareness of their face etc. You need to establish these things before you start writing in order to ensure your character is consistent. In reality, these things wax and wane - nobody is hyper- or hypo-sensitive to the same things all the time. But in fiction, it might be better to stick roughly to the same set of things, or at least indicate the reason why it has changed (e.g. somebody who is now in a safe, quiet place where they can regulate themselves could become more aware of things to which they were hypo-sensitive when previously overwhelmed and overstimulated). A really good example of describing sensory issues is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. I strongly recommend reading it to anyone who wants to write an autistic character.
Use close first or third person POV
There are things that autistic people will feel and experience that they can’t explain, or that they won’t feel are important to communicate to others. For example, a person with autism might feel incredible sadness about something, but not tell anyone about it if they do not perceive that doing so will change this situation. To put it another way, the act of sharing their feelings with another is functional, not social. If there is no functional reason to do it, then they may well keep their feelings to themselves. When autistic people do express their feelings, they might do it in a way which is different to other (non-autistic) people. For these reason, you will need to be able to report what the character is feeling. First person perspective means you can report this directly, but brings with it the complication that the character themselves may not understand what they are feeling. Close third person allows you to report the sensations they are experiencing and how they interpret them, but not necessarily what it is they are “actually” feeling. There are pitfalls to both, but the main thing to bear in mind is that it is even more important to avoid an omniscient POV. You cannot report everything about what the autistic character is thinking and feeling, because that will not all be accessible from their own POV. Similarly, you can only report things about other characters of which the autistic character would be aware; you can’t switch to omniscient POV and start talking about other characters’ feelings, because this would circumvent the issues of cognitive empathy present in autism.
Don’t make everything about the autism
Autistic people are people just like any other. And just as it would be a bad idea to make a character whose every thought, word and action was all about their gender, race or sexuality, it would be really tiresome of an autistic character was written this way. There should be aspects of the character which are not related to their autism. If not, the character will seem two-dimensional and under-developed.
Like in real life, autism can either be a burden or an enriching alternative to the usual way of seeing things. The difference is all in how you see it, and how you understand it. Getting inside the POV of an autistic person isn't easy for people who aren't autistic, but if you can achieve it you will find that the experience will open your mind to new ways of seeing the world. And if you can include that effectively in your fiction, I believe it can add an interesting new element for your reader.
I might come up with other ideas for writing autistic characters, and will update as and when I do