Ruby Nation

Ruby Nation
Ruby Nation: The Webcomic

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How To Write Autistic Characters ( With Examples From Ruby's World )

Much has been made of the " autism epidemic " in the media, either as a consequence of more precise diagnostic methods, or some overblown, unsubstantiated consequence of vaccination poisoning. As a result, autism has become a more frequent issue in fiction, be it the popularity of the novel " The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time ", the recurring Aspie kid Max on the new family drama Parenthood, an autistic man being the main character i the movie " Adam ", or Jodi Picoult using autism as set piece for her latest legal family melodrama " House Rules ". There are certainly more examples to recite, especially if we factor in isolated episodes of procedural shows ( like the episode of House where the doctor has a lower-functioning autistic boy as a patient, and it is speculated if House himself has Asperger's-- though it's later concluded that he just wishes he did so he would have an excuse for being an antisocial jerkass* ).

Unfortunately, most of these portrayals of autism as the hot topic for fiction forget to develop one little part of the situation-- the individual with autism. Many of these stories focus on the families of the autistic character as tragic figures, giving their all to function for a developmentally stunted morality pet. The autistic character, on the other hand, is displayed by the Rain Man stereotype, having talents that are portrayed as math genius parlor tricks, and being completely ineffectual in every other area. Rarely do you see autistic characters as major players, and if you do, it's often as a storytelling gimmick.

For example, Jacob Hunt in House Rules, the autistic boy suspected of murdering his social skills tutor. In this story, we see that Jacob is obsessed with criminology to the point of watching the same Crimebusters episodes over and over ( and always taking notes as if he didn't know how it would end ), obsessed with dinosaurs, a genius with computers to the point where he can do Hollywood hacking, incapable of eating foods that don't suit a corresponding day/color combination, repetitively listens to the Bob Marley song " I Shot the Sherrif ", incapable of understanding human emotions, incapable of lying ( except in the case of sins of omission ), incapable of understanding non-literal idioms, uses movie quotes to express emotions he can't communicate, and is prone to catastrophic meltdowns. Certainly real people on the spectrum would show one or more of these characteristics, but not all of them at once. This is like having a Jewish character who's a thrifty greedy neurotic hypochondriac devout Kosher sarcastic Hollywood executive. And it's certainly not helped by the fact that Picoult's other characters all spout extremely narrow-minded opinions about autism that are confirmed by Jacob's existence.

But Jodi Picoult and her ilk don't seem to notice that, instead perpetuating the notion of the autistic people themselves being helpless victims, with their families given martyr status ( despite the fact that Jacob's mother, as many critics have wisely pointed out, has infantilized him to the point where he never even had a chance to function independently ). Since the positive representations of autistic characters, especially those written by autistic authors, are so few and far between, I'm taking it on myself to write a primer on how to write autistic characters as actual characters. The examples are from my webcomic Ruby's World which has two prominent autistic characters in the ensemble cast, and an overall disability rights message. I use examples from my own work being specific only to this particular topic, because there's so little material that would offer a positive representation of autism in fiction**, especially by creators on the spectrum.

Here are the five simple rules that I hope are obvious...

1.) Don't Get Hung Up On Labels




There are plenty of words that are used to describe autism spectrum disorders. These are mostly fine as diagnostic criteria. They are, however, extremely poor at describing a person in their entirety. Unless you want a flat character like Jacob Hunt, writing a character with autism requires going past the stereotypes and thinking of what other characteristics they have-- or, at the very least, to portray the stereotyped behaviors associated with ASDs in a unique way.

The two autistic characters in Ruby's World are Jiro Sasaki and Alexis Deveraux. Both are science fiction characters who portray the " Organic Android " Trope ( Defined well here by NightStorm ), but do so in unique ways. Jiro is the mechanical side of autism, as a cybernetically enhanced being, but he's completely aware of his condition and often bemoans the limitations of his computer brain ( mostly due to internalized prejudice, the belief that he can't move past his label ). Alexis represents a more organic side, a hyper-empathic character with psychic abilities that defy explanation, even in a world of genetic engineering and nanotech-- her issue is with not fitting into any category, and feeling isolated as a result ( she's also bi-racial, with no idea who the non-white father is ). It should also be noted that while I intended both characters to be autistic, I didn't confirm either as being on the spectrum right off the bat-- it took me until Chapter 9 for Jiro, where it just slipped out in a conversation.

Language is inherently limited, but that shouldn't prevent you from stretching it as far as it can go to make a character seem three-dimensional. I should also note that if you do write a story with autistic characters, you shouldn't feel the need to mention every aspect of the condition, especially the vaccination debate ( as it suggests that the anti-vaccine side has a leg to stand on )

2.) Acknowledge the Character's Feelings About Their Condition



Just because autistic people tend to be very internalized doesn't mean they aren't aware of what they're " missing ". In some cases, the internalization may make them even more likely to dwell on their challenges. Characters like Jacob and Christopher Boone in the Curious Incident tend to be portrayed as so emotionally cut-off that they have almost no idea how their actions come across, or even enough self-awareness to associate feelings with their responses. Unless your character is extremely " low-functioning ", they're not going to take being autistic for granted, not when they're reminded of it via the challenges they face every single day. And even if they are " low-functioning ", just because someone can't communicate doesn't mean they don't have something valid to say, especially when it concerns the way they're being treated.

In Ruby's World, Jiro is a unique case because though he has always been autistic, he used to be on the " lower-functioning " end ( As seen in the backstory ). Thanks to some medical testing he volunteered for, he was upgraded to a bio-mechanical body, and his abilities far surpassed normal humans. But he still has all the experiences of being treated as disabled, and still maintains his old personality ( right down to the nervous tics as a stress response ). He's got a lot of bitterness about his condition, which is entirely justified; just because he's able to catch flies with his fingers doesn't mean he forgot about the time when his coordination was poor, or the way people treated him.

Autism is a neurological condition, but disability is a social construct. And even a person who can't read others well is going to pick up on being treated as persona non grata. If you're the writer, you have the opportunity for them to voice their dissatisfaction.

3.) Connect Their Problems To The Basic Human Condition



The worst stereotype seen in fictional autistic characters is the Oblivious Sociopath, the character who has so little understanding of human society that they can't tell right from wrong. House Rules presents this, and while it doesn't actually make Jacob the murderer ( he was covering for his brother, the one and probably only saving grace of that wretched book ), it still establishes him as someone who doesn't think about his motivations and their ethics, living simply for rudimentary human needs ( made worse by him being portrayed as unable to take care of himself ) and a steadfast adherence to routine. We don't get much about what Jacob wants to do with his life, we don't hear him talking about any plans to better himself, and only in extreme cases do we see him show sympathy for anyone else.

Just because it's hard for someone to understand and express the basic emotional needs that human beings have-- love, acceptance, success, honor, etc.-- doesn't mean that they aren't there. I use this scene from Ruby's World where Alexis is talking to her friend Jens about the notion of them having casual sex as an example-- she isn't really thinking about the consequences such an act would have, and expresses it just as a pragmatic release, but is responding to her need for connection. For a person on the spectrum, the problem is often that they want what other people want, but they're comparatively ill-equipped to acquire it from others.

The metaphor of autistic people being space aliens is a commonly used one, but that implies a completely different nature, so much so that they don't even belong to the same species paradigm. A better one might be to think of an autistic person's brain as a Mac, with the neurotypical brain being a PC-- same basic principles, but different architecture that often but not always leads to compatibility problems. ( This would also suit the " thinking in pictures " trope associated with autistic people, and why I've always felt more comfortable working with the interface-heavy Macs ).

4.) Do Not Treat Them As Saints



For anyone who gets the impression that I want to read about, and thus write, infallible characters on the spectrum, nothing can be further from the truth. My tastes in fictional characters tend towards the damaged, the characters who have problems and make mistakes on a regular basis. Just because a character is autistic doesn't mean they're not responsible for their actions. Everybody will act favoring their impulses over their conscience now and then ( though some more than others ). Autism may make certain impulses much harder to control, but to treat a character as helpless to their compulsions is just as wrong as treating them as being inherently selfish and irredeemable for having those compulsions.

This grisly scene involves Jiro and one of the main villains, Pierre Buzarde'. Buzarde' has just savagely attacked Jiro and Ruby ( the star of the strip and Jiro's girlfriend ), and they barely managed to fight him off. Now that he's had all his bones broken, the heroes need him for evidence against Beagle Labs and their vivisection, but that doesn't mean he's going to be treated humanely. Jiro stopped Ruby from killing Buzarde', but he's not going to stop himself from torturing the bastard. What Jiro did is best left to your imagination, other than the fact that it was extremely painful to Buzarde'. And while it was something Buzarde' certainly had coming, it was an unethical act. That Jiro is autistic doesn't excuse it; it's just spite, something that people on the spectrum and neurotypicals all feel.

Perfect characters are boring. Portraying a character in a minority group as being flawed has its risks, even if at the end of the day they're basically a good person. But if your story is safe from controversy, it's probably not worth the effort.

5.) There Are No Rules For Writing Autistic Characters

While this may seem like a cop-out, it's a basic summary of the previous four points, in that writing an autistic character shouldn't be any more exotic than writing any other kind of good, engaging, three-dimensional character. If you're writing an autistic character, you certainly will be informed by real-world diagnostic criteria, but if you're doing a good job you won't be using the DSM-V as your only reference. Racial, cultural, gender, and even neurological backgrounds only go so far. The rest is up to the writer to do something creative and sympathetic.

I close with the following panel from Ruby's World, with Jiro and Ruby in the heat of passion...



Ruby isn't autistic, but she is nine-foot-two-inches and two-hundred-seventy pounds of genetically engineered super-weapon, and no stranger to hardship herself, so they are able to understand each other well. Which I think as a good metaphor for the most important task of the writer; being able to humanize a character from a different background by relating your experience to theirs.

* ( In a note related to the comic-reading audience of this blog, I should mention that Reed " Mr. Fantastic " Richards of the Fantastic Four was speculated as being autistic in Grant Morrison's mini-series 1234. He fits the criteria excellently, and he would be a positive representation of an autistic character if he achieved the diagnosis-- a superhero, a genius surpassing even other Marvel geniuses, and a man capable of being a loving friend, husband, and father despite taking the absent-minded professor trope further than his cosmically-irradiated body can stretch.

A recommendation would be Elizabeth Moon's excellent sci-fi novel The Speed of Dark, about an autistic man who actually does subject himself to an autism cure. Possibly the best treatment of the subject in genre fiction yet.

14 comments:

  1. Incredibly thoughtful and comprehensive. A must read for any one interested in this complex subject.

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  2. Anonymous II:

    Brilliantly written and done with a firm grasp of the issues at hand (no pun intended!). Although the writer considers this a primer, I believe strongly that this literary gem needs to be expanded into a book for publication.

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  3. Absolutley fantastic. Thank you again for more insight that I can use in my own writing. I have much to respond to here so I am going to do it in a word document and send it in an email. I love reading you!!!!

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  4. Really enjoyed Speed of Dark when I first read it.

    Point 3 is an important point.

    And I was writing autistic characters long before the DSM affected by consciousness.

    Avoid the Oblivious Sociopath where possible.

    The whole "take care of your brother" rule: look where that led Jacob. Too sad. That's probably the saddest part of that book.

    The illustrations go really well with the text here.

    Nightstorm's Tikaani is great too.

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  5. Thank you everyone, and especially thank you Adelaide. It hadn't occurred to me that Jacob was only protecting his brother because it was a rule his mother set up, which makes the reading even worse ( in no small part due to the fact that his brother was a whiny, duplicitous little bastard ).

    I'd be interested in seeing whatever autistic characters you've written.

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  6. And the way Jacob was portrayed as not being able to see a priority to the rules (for instance "Tell the truth" might ride over "Take care of your brother"...)

    I did see Theo as whiny in the extract, at least. And the one from his perspective.

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  7. "either as a consequence of more precise diagnostic methods, or some overblown, unsubstantiated consequence of vaccination poisoning."
    Really, a more precise diagnostic method? Do tell. I am still struggling with the nebulous diagnostic methods that all doctors and non doctors and educators and average parents are using to diagnose this spectrum of conditions. And the DSM V is now widening the net, using a very vague and broad set of criteria, because of the missing attention to high functioning autism and Aspergers . . . As for the vaccination debate, I agree, it was over for me long,long ago.
    "the recurring Aspie kid Max on the new family drama Parenthood,"
    What do you think of Max? Is he also stereo typed and overblown? I do think that he is being sainted and the family is the one the stereotypical story is being written around. But still, exposure is exposure. I was interested by the scene with grandpa trying to teach him basketball and “man him up”.
    forget to develop one little part of the situation-- the individual with autism.
    As we spoke about on the phone, I feel so guilty tring to develop this individual, as I am not an individual with autism. Given the nature of the disorder as I have come to know it, it is possible that my conclusions will quite possibly be totally off the mark. And yet, as a writer and researcher I guess that is the literary license I can take after doing adequate research. And after 20 years working in the field with people with autism, I think my research is valid. Experiential, but valid.
    "tragic figures, giving their all to function for a developmentally stunted morality pet."
    You are referring to the family as the tragic figures and the person with autism as the pet. And do you mean a pet with stunted morality? If this is your perception then there is certainly room for outrage at this point. I find that while morality is sometimes not measured as neurotypicals would measure, many people I know with autism have heightened morality – or a wonderfully refreshing outlook on what is moral and what is not.

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  8. Unless you want a flat character like Jacob Hunt, writing a character with autism requires going past the stereotypes and thinking of what other characteristics they have-- or, at the very least, to portray the stereotyped behaviors associated with ASDs in a unique way.
    This sentence is the most instructive to me. While I would hope I would never create a flat character or an overblown character with all of the stereotypes rolled into the same person, this is a wonderful instruction that you have given. Go past the stereotype, what else is unique about the character. Thank you for this recommendation.
    I didn't confirm either as being on the spectrum right off the bat-- it took me until Chapter 9 for Jiro, where it just slipped out in a conversation.
    I like this too. My colleagues and I often have debates over whether a student is really on the spectrum or not. There is such leeway inside a diagnosis and it makes me wonder how much labels matter. Sometimes professionals say that the diagnosis drives services and therefore anything is justified if the kid is getting help. I sometimes even experience something akin to guilt when I bring a an ASD possible diagnosis. As if I should never jump to that conclusion. As if I should look at all other angles first. But I am fairly knowledgeable and was trained in diagnosis and assessment of many different types of disabilities. So this should be something I should confirm as a good lens through which to look for interventions and supports. Right?
    portrayed as so emotionally cut-off that they have almost no idea how their actions come across, or even enough self-awareness to associate feelings with their responses.
    Emotionally cut off. First I ask the questions, are the people I know, even the more “classically” or low functioning people with autism cut off emotionally? I don’t always think so. One thing I see consistently is a wonderful sense of humor. Hysterical laughter at some inner world joke is a common characteristic. And I try to find out the joke, to share the laugh, to join the person with autism right where he or she is. So first of all, emotionally cut off doesn’t mean void of emotion. And cut off – who is cut off? The person with autism or the others around him or her.

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  9. Do give your character a strong moral life.

    It will be reflected in reality, and probably be a strong source of dramatic conflict as well as a source of strength for the character and those around him. (or her).

    I also like the idea of a good belly laugh or a head laugh.

    Absurdity is often a good device/trope, but it can be misused.

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  10. Neil,

    Just stumbled on this article, and I enjoyed reading it. You show a pretty strong grasp of this issue, which is sadly something I don't see very often. In fact, I'd consider this a textbook example of how to approach these characters. Nicely done!

    Unfortunately, I think most writers "write what they know" when they treat the subject of autism. Except that what they think they know doesn't reflect reality too well. This, in turn, reinforces the negative stereotypes and tropes that are all too prevalent in popular fiction.

    Have to say, I've been intrigued by The Speed of Dark since a while, as it actually looks fairly well researched from what I've seen so far. Will have to read that when I have some time available.

    Good stuff. Will read more as I can.

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  11. If you want to read a story with a (fairly) well written Autistic character, I recommend The Strange One. I think I did so well portraying my Autistic character because I didn't even bother with what I can find online about Autism, but instead drew on my personal experience as an Autistic.

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  12. This is fantastic! Very helpful. As I'm going into writing an autistic love interest, I was wondering if I was making her too neurotypical...too many independent thoughts and desires, too much complex planning, too few tics. I'm realizing now that I was actually just avoiding the ASD stereotypes all along. I really hope I can do her justice. People deserve to see reality in what they read.

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  13. This is fantastic! Very helpful. As I'm going into writing an autistic love interest, I was wondering if I was making her too neurotypical...too many independent thoughts and desires, too much complex planning, too few tics. I'm realizing now that I was actually just avoiding the ASD stereotypes all along. I really hope I can do her justice. People deserve to see reality in what they read.

    ReplyDelete