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Writing autistic characters

Discussion in 'Articles' started by mashers, Aug 7, 2017.

By mashers on Aug 7, 2017 at 5:16 PM
  1. mashers

    mashers Contributing Member Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Writing autistic characters

    Discussion in 'Articles' started by mashers, Aug 7, 2017.

    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.


    Summary
    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 :)
     

Comments

Discussion in 'Articles' started by mashers, Aug 7, 2017.

    1. Trish
      Trish
      This post it stunningly informative and well-written, in a way anyone should be able to understand. :love: Thank you for taking the time to write this out.
    2. mashers
      mashers
      Thank you Trish! I really appreciate that. There is so much I could say about autism that it was hard to choose what is most relevant to writers. I hope what I chose to share helps and inspires some writers :)
      Trish likes this.
    3. Trish
      Trish
      You're welcome, and it's well deserved. I often try to explain these things to people in reference to my son, and you've done it so well. I'm in awe. :)
    4. Wreybies
      Wreybies
      This was gorgeously created, Mashers. Cheers, mate!
      Trish likes this.
    5. mashers
      mashers
      I’m glad it helped :bigwink:

      Thanks buddy :-D
      Wreybies likes this.
    6. SethLoki
      SethLoki
      I get immediately cynical, whenever I read something on this subject (I'm close to a source and fiercely protective (ref. too my son))—but must say that's a fine article Mashers. Well thought through and presented.
      Trish likes this.
    7. mashers
      mashers
      Thanks dude. I know what you mean - there is a lot of misinformation out there about autism. That's why it's always best to get information about autism from people with autism. A really good example of this was when Sigourney Weaver was cast in the role of an autistic person in Snow Cake, she came to England to spend a week with Ros Blackburn, who is a very well known autistic adult who writes and speaks about autism. Her portrayal was very good, but I did think that some of the characterisation in the writing let it down a bit.
    8. Bill Chester
      Bill Chester
      As an Aspie, I could relate to everything in the post. Now, could you write a post from the other perspective--how do we Aspies write neurotypicals?

      I was walking with my wife's best friend the other day and she asked me, "Couldn't you just fake it?" Makes me wonder about my characters. Are they all Aspies, too?
      Odile_Blud likes this.
    9. mashers
      mashers
      I'm really glad to hear that Bill. Aspie here too :)

      That's harder. Creating a character who is truly distinct from yourself is an act of empathy. You have to take that person's perspective and consider how they feel, what they think and what they know in any given situation. Taking a character's POV will be harder for aspies/auties than neurotypicals. I find it helpful to work backwards. What do you want the character to do? Then, what would cause them to do that, and what would they need to know or understand in order to do it? That way you're not stuck trying to empathise with a character who you don't know well, but can work it out logically. Which is often the best way for our brains :)

      I might actually try to expand this to another article, as I know of a few aspies here on the forum. There are probably more too.

      Possibly. That depends on how easy it is for you to shift your perspective from yours to theirs. But if they are, does it matter? As long as what they are doing makes sense, it doesn't matter whether they are neurotypical or not.
      Bill Chester likes this.
    10. ladyserenity
      ladyserenity
      As an autistic individual, I agree with a lot of what this post said. However, I want to add something. I've heard someone say once that "if you've met one person on the autism spectrum, you've met one person on the autism spectrum." This means that autism is a highly individualized experience, so if you have two characters on the spectrum in your story, be sure to give them lots of differences.
    11. mashers
      mashers
      That's a great point ladyserenity. Thank you for adding this. You're right - two people with autism are just as different from each other as two neurotypical people. It's important to highlight their individual characteristics (which kind of ties in with the "Don’t make everything about the autism" paragraph).

      By the way, I think it was Temple Grandin who said the line you quoted :)
    12. I.A. By the Barn
      I.A. By the Barn
      I too am autistic and I agree so much with this! I'm so fed up with autistic people being shown as wide eyed children or selfish and shut off adults. I really enjoyed reading this and I hope lots writers take this advice on board!
    13. mashers
      mashers
      Thank you :) I'm really happy that other autistic members relate to what I have written. You're right about the stereotypes in media. It really limits people's understanding of autism and in many cases creates unrealistic expectations.

      I'm just proof-reading another article about autism which I will be submitting very shortly.
    14. Tenderiser
      Tenderiser
      Stunning article!

      I really enjoyed The Rosie Project, in which the narrator has ASD. He's an undiagnosed man in his late 30s/early 40s. I was struck by what ladyserenity said, because I remember reading a review from an angry person with ASD saying the character wasn't realistic because he has typical ASD traits. I got the impression she thought the character should present the same way as her [the reviewer].
    15. mashers
      mashers
      Thank you :) I'm glad you enjoyed what I wrote. I can kind of understand what the critic you are talking to might have meant. She might have been trying to imply that the character was too stereotyped and therefore seemed unnatural--that autism is more subtle than was presented. But that's not necessarily true. Some people do fit the stereotype.

      Also bear in mind that some people with autism won't be able to see other people's points of view about autism, so will find it difficult to conceive that other people who are also autistic will think and behave differently. That would explain your sense that "she thought the character should present the same way as her".
      Tenderiser and izzybot like this.
    16. Odile_Blud
      Odile_Blud
      This is interesting, and I've always wondered about it the other way around (autistic people writing neurotypical characters).
      I was diagnosed with Aspergers as a teen, and I've always wondered if any of that shows in my characters. Most of my characters have been neurotyocal so far. It's not something I'm deeply concerned about, but I know that as a person with Asperger's, my way of thinking is a little different from others. Do you think that stands out in my characters? I dunno. Just something I always thought about.
    17. mashers
      mashers
      It will no doubt affect the way you write your characters, but whether they would be neuro-atypical depends on how much of yourself you put into them and how much you can understand a neurotypical mindset. It doesn't really matter in my opinion, as long as the characters make sense.
    18. izzybot
      izzybot
      I know that for me, having almost exclusively consumed media with NT characters and been around NT people, my own characters have seemed to default to NT themselves. It's only been recently and purposefully that I've started writing autistic characters (and lord, the stress of worrying now that non-autistic people won't be able to relate to them :dead:). But since you were diagnosed earlier on, you might've been more likely to let it leak into your writing, even without noticing? Could be interesting to dig into, for sure.
    19. mashers
      mashers
      I felt the same way. But I think as long as your characters' actions are clearly explained it will be fine. So if your character does something out of the 'ordinary', make sure it's clear what led them to do it. That way the reader should understand, even if they don't recognise that response in themselves.
      izzybot likes this.
    20. Link the Writer
      Link the Writer
      I don't have autism, so this is very informative.

      Few questions, and yes, these will sound ignorant.

      When you said the example about the police siren, is it that to the brain, it literally drowns out all other noises so the siren is the only thing the person hears, or is it more like "I can hear you, but that thing IS SO FRICKIN' LOUD THAT ITS THE ONLY THING I'M PAYING ATTENTION TO! OH MY GOD, MAKE IT STOP!!!!"?

      Hypo/hyper sensitivity. I am aware that not everyone who has autism experience it the same way, I'm just wondering if they work in conjunction with each other? In other words, if that siren is going off, they're going to focus on that, and the sight of Daisy's ugly '70s wallpaper will not even register on their 'priority' list?

      Speaking of the wallpaper, is it like the brain assigns the wrong priority at the wrong time? So if Daisy is trying to say something, they're too busy looking at the wallpaper because their brain basically said, "Focus on this"?

      Am I correct in assuming that if the person sees that Daisy is upset, they know that she looks upset but their brain might not guess the specific reason why?

      Again, I know they sound ignorant, these were just the questions that popped in my head when I read your blog. :D
    21. mashers
      mashers
      @Link the Writer
      Your questions don't sound ignorant at all. I'm happy to answer them :)

      WRT the siren, it varies. For me, something like that consumes almost all of my processing, so although I can be aware that somebody is talking, I won't be able to understand what they are saying, if they are talking to me, or sometimes even who is speaking. For others, they may cease to be aware of anything at all, which would be your example of it literally drowning out everything else (other sounds and other senses). It's not so much that it drowns it out like a loud noise masks a quieter noise, it's more that it prevents the person from processing (and thus being [fully] aware of) other things.

      Hyper-/hypo-sensitivity definitely do interact. It varies from person to person. Sometimes they 'stack', so a combination of several stimuli to which the person is hyper-sensitive will cause more distress or disturbance than one on its own. For others, the highest priority sense (usually sound) is processed and others get suppressed subconsciously, and might register later. In the case of mixed hyper- and hypo-sensitivity, the person will become even less aware of things to which they are hypo-sensitive. In my case, I am quite hypo-sensitive to proprioception, particularly in lower arms and legs, so move them a lot to gain that feedback. If I was extremely distressed by something to which I was hyper-sensitive (in my case noise) then it is very possible that I would have difficulty being aware of my arms and legs at all, which can make coordination harder. This experience also tends to persist even once the aversive stimulus is gone.

      I'm not sure about the assignation of priority. I think all brains are drawn to patterns of some time, and while neurotypical brains are particularly drawn to patterns in social behaviours and communication, autistic brains are more drawn to patterns which are visual or movement-based. So yes, I suspect those things are just more highly prioritised in an autistic brain, and even knowing that you're supposed to be paying attention to something else doesn't afford control over it. Generally I will just tell people I need to move so the distracting thing isn't in my eyeline. People who know me understand the reason for this (that I won't be able to focus on what they're saying).

      Seeing that somebody is upset: again, this varies. Some autistic people would struggle to understand the facial expression at all, so might not know that it meant she was sad. This can be taught, but faces are really complicated and it's not straightforward to teach. Lots of expressions can mean 'happy', 'sad', 'angry' etc., and there are subtleties of emotion between and across. So it can be hard to recognise what the facial expression means. For me, this isn't really a problem - I can generally look at a face and know what it means. The difficulty for me and others similar to me is knowing the reason why, or the more subtle facets of what the person is feeling. I also struggle when there is incongruity, such as a particular expression in an unexpected context, at which point I would be unable to tell what the person is feeling.


      Please don't feel that your questions are ignorant. I wish more people thought of questions like these.
      Link the Writer likes this.
    22. Link the Writer
      Link the Writer
      I think I'm starting to understand.

      So when you say 'processing', it's that you're dimly aware but it hasn't registered yet? Using your limbs, as you described... I guess a part of me is thinking you literally forget you have limbs and they do things? It isn't like me sitting in a chair in one position for a long time and lose sensation in my legs and have to move them?
    23. mashers
      mashers
      Sorry, "processing" is a word which is used so frequently in my line of work and in the autism community that I took it for granted that people would understand.

      By processing, I mean the cognitive processes which result in awareness of sensory input, decoding of that into meaning (i.e. understanding) and determining responses to it (if any).

      Impaired processing can affect any of those things. So you could have reduced, or zero, awareness, or impaired ability to make sense of things even if you are aware of them, or difficulty identifying an appropriate course of action. Any or all of these can be impacted upon at times of sensory overload, and to varying degrees depending on the individual and the situation.

      To go back to the example I gave, for some people yes it could be that you literally lose any awareness that you have limbs and that they can be used to move you away from the stimulus. That's not how it is for me. It's more in the planning stage. So I get over stimulated, but it becomes harder to do anything about it (physically).

      I hope that makes sense. It's hard to explain it.
    24. EstherMayRose
      EstherMayRose
      Thanks so much for this. I don't have autism, but I'm writing about a girl who has Asperger's, and I'm constantly thinking "Am I doing this right? Will this offend someone?" and it gets harder since my book is set before the discovery of Asperger's, so no-one knows she has it.

      Is it OK if I PM you with questions at random points?

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