Is This Character ‘Quirky’, or is She Just Autistic?

Exploring the relationship between autistic coded fictional characters in media and womanhood in a patriarchal world built for neurotypicals.

Introduction

Growing up, I was always drawn to fictional girl characters that were a bit odd, perhaps graceless at times, fanatic about their interests, who sported a goofy but loveable demeanour. Although I was unaware at the time, I saw something reflected in them that I hadn’t yet quite discovered in myself. I can now see that these characters were quite clearly coded as autistic, even if they weren’t explicitly scripted as such, and that my undiagnosed autistic self at the time was seeking comfort and answers in something that was left unexplained to me for most of my childhood. 

Why I turned to TV shows to help with my autism 

As many autistic people will tell you, I live inside a glorious, richly illustrated, fantasy world that allows me to be oblivious to reality. In my 12-year-old bedroom, you could find stacks of comics and manga, DVDs of 90s and noughties classics such as Clueless and Legally Blonde, and many felt tip scrawlings of the inner workings of my mind littering that space. Fuel for my imagination. 

My obsession with cartoons, anime and “chick flicks” probably developed from my need to attach myself to an idealized version of reality I could relate to, but also in part because of the fact that these shows are animated and narrated in a way that’s very easy to decode. As someone who struggles to read and differentiate between changes in tone, facial expression, body language as well as decipher context in a wide range of communications; anime, cartoons and other fictional works were my go-to indulgences.

How did autism impact me?

When you’re autistic, the psychological weight of existing in a world built for allistic, neurotypical people is extremely challenging and difficult to grapple with. Outwardly, I may have appeared social and bubbly, but inwardly, I had a deep and inexplicable longing to just be left alone, and I wasn’t able to express that. 

It was simply easier for me to derive pleasure from fictional worlds than from interacting with real people — who can be unpredictable, elusive and overbearing. However, these fundamental aspects of myself were simply seen as “weird quirks”, instead of quickly disabling traits of a neurological difference. I came to be known as that child that spends all their time daydreaming, an unserious “girly” girl who was “bright” but didn’t apply themselves enough, a frequenter of detention and a pet that exists solely for entertainment purposes. Different enough to be excluded, but not different enough for psychological intervention.

It’s no wonder I felt a sense of community and comfort when I came across fictional characters that think and function exactly as I do. My favourite fictional characters can be ones that are described as klutzes, airheads, anxious and unique, these autistic qualities that existed in me were demonized in reality, but not to the same extent on screen. In small moments, I could exist peacefully with behaviours that I deemed bad.

As a child, it felt like I didn’t have much of an identity, so I turned to fictional characters to fashion one for myself. Little did I know, I was adopting aspects from characters who were actually exactly like me.

Autism, media and representation 

As a Black autistic person that experiences misogyny, representation of my identities in the media is often few and far between, an experience that likely gave birth to the “headcanon”.

The media presents an ideal of autism that reinforces negative stereotypes about the neurotype but is still palatable enough for our screens. Autistic people on screen are tokenized, exploited and infantilised and their humanity is denied and robbed from them, while the lived realities of a majority of people on the autistic spectrum are never showcased. Pop culture has personified autism as being a socially awkward, rude, and hyper-intelligent guy unable to express empathy, such as the pernickety Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory or the religiously observant Sam Gardner from A Typical. 

It becomes much tougher for neurotypical people to recognise the full spectrum of autism when autism becomes synonymous with this one idea when in reality traits of autism can present differently in non-men because of the way we are socialised into the gender binary. 

My favourite autistic characters 

Somehow I could relate more to Elle Woods from Legally Blonde; an ultra-feminine Harvard Law student whose extensive knowledge of fashion and penchant for the colour pink could knock Barbie out the park; and Starfire from Teen Titans, a happy-go-lucky Tamaran alien who likes food hotter than the surface of the sun and has a temperament to match, than Rain Man or Mr Robot

The free-spirited Hay Lin of W.I.T.C.H. is another character I hold dear to me. She uses her power over the air to soundproof rooms and turn invisible, and sure it’s a plot device and an attestant to her whacky personality, but I see it as no different than me throwing on some noise-cancelling headphones and retreating into the depths of my room to manage sensory overload. 

Starfire’s literal way of communicating can be brushed off as intergalactic mistranslation and failure to adapt to earth’s customs, but she radiates a familiar discomfort in these interactions that’s also present when I find myself being overstimulated by conversation, trying to conceal my thumbs that couldn’t stop awkwardly twiddling. 

Hay Lin’s all night fixation on creating a beautifully ornate Chinese kite for a simple homework assignment which her teacher failed her for on the assumption it wouldn’t fly, might be nothing more than a high school teen fiction show trope on the surface but is a deep frustration I share when neurotypicals fail to respect the value of in one’s special interest. 

The audience is supposed to chuckle at dumb blonde Woods when she swaps her signature pink attire for a more muted number, donning glasses and a tie in an attempt to “look the part” at Harvard. But the distress of leaving her hometown in which she cultivated social, cultural and symbolic capital through careful study, and being presented with the overwhelming task of having to learn a new set of social cues and norms to blend in with these elitist students, is very real. Her journey was reflective of many transitions I’ve faced in life but is regretfully lost on some as satire. 

Women like Elle Woods usually go undetected because their traits are seen as socially acceptable, and even a requirement of women. Strict adherence to gender norms may help one to exist and survive in neurotypical society, but this results in autistic women being flattened to just being good mothers, good housewives, good sisters and overall very devoted individuals whilst their autistic traits are ignored. 

Autism and Womanhood

Autistic women may be creative, fashionable and dedicated individuals, yet when we express these interests we are labelled as conceited, self-absorbed and vapid. We can’t exist as anything else, even when we use our strong pattern recognition to solve complex problems like Elle:

 “Isn’t it the first cardinal rule of perm maintenance that you’re forbidden to wet your hair for at least 24 hours after getting a perm, at the risk of deactivating the ammonium thioglycolate?” or express empathy in such nuanced, non-judgemental ways like Starfire “I did not know you before, so to me, you are normal.”

We’re never afforded the privilege of being blunt, careless, distant or off. We’re expected to be social beings who are always taking care of the needs of others and always maintain a happy, unbothered facade. Any deviance from this lands you in an inescapable realm of mocking and ostracisation. Autistic women are seen to not be performing womanhood correctly, but how can we when the definition of womanhood under the patriarchy excludes anyone that’s disabled?

Conclusion

When you think of autistic representation in media your mind may drift to Big Bang Theory or Atypical. But autism is far more expansive than that, and perhaps now you can see Teen Titan’s Starfire or Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods are also accurate, and even more positive portrayals of autism. On-screen, neurodivergent women’s personalities are flattened, and this shapes how we view neurodivergent women in society. I hope that bringing light to these qualities will restore humanity to that which is routinely demonized by neurotypicals and shift away from the idea that autism is a deficit. 

Autistic women may be written out of media, but if you look hard enough, our stories are in abundance, and they are light, joyous, and worth reading.

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