Shattering Stereotypes: How To Reimagine Autism Narratives in Literature

We all love a hero that shatters stereotypes and defies expectations! Read more about how we can enhance the portrayal of autism in our narratives!

Book Culture Opinions
A man and woman holding a sign that says "autism awareness day" and books stacked next to them.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has been getting more attention in books lately. Pretty cool! A lot of this stems from, most likely, the massive increase in individuals getting diagnosed with ASD. But as much as we’re seeing progress, there are still a few misunderstandings floating around — some good representation and some… not-so-good representation.

A little girl choosing a smiley face over sad face while laughing.

Now, we’re all humans, and sometimes we make simple mistakes because not everyone fully grasps aspects of ASD. I also know that the majority of these narratives are trying their best to highlight an accurate portrayal of the community. Personally, I think the more we learn, make mistakes, and learn from them as a whole, the better we are at growing our angel wings and flying toward an inclusive and diverse paradise. However, as much of a hopeless romantic as I am, I’m also someone who’s studying psychology, particularly ASD, and I’ve noticed a few things we could all keep in mind when writing about it.

Autism is a Spectrum

A little boy playing with a wide variety of colored blocks

The DSM-V made some big moves in the psychology world, essentially umbrella-terming previous categories (like Aspergers) under one encompassing term, Autism Spectrum Disorder. This, however, is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis, and individuals with autism exhibit varying degrees of social, communicational, and behavioral traits. They also range in severity/intensity of certain traits compared to others.

That being said, not every person with ASD will act or think the same way. There is a wide spectrum that you land on, but even then, not everyone acts or reacts in the same stereotypical way in certain situations.

Make The Characters Realistic

When writing a character, it’s important to remember that the community is not simply a plot device. Instead, it should be a portrayal of a character with desires, struggles, and motivations. A lot of narratives tend to get wrapped up in the stereotypical side character with autism, and that is all there is about their character.

A man and woman spreading their arms out and celebrating their hike accomplishment.

Some characters shown to have ASD lack depth, agency, and any semblance of a life beyond their diagnosis. Essentially, our character becomes no more than a cardboard cutout labeled “autistic sidekick,” failing to endow any humanity into individuals who are on the autism spectrum. These stories forget about what the character wants, how they see the world, what aspects in which they’re flawed or strong, and what makes them tick. I think it’s more of a general rule for any character in a narrative (with ASD or not) to ask themselves what gives them purpose in the story.

Don’t Try To “Fix”

I’ve also noticed that some narratives try to “fix” the autism. That the individual with autism needs to conform to standards that simply go against neurodiversity. In some books, the characters are not so fond of touch. This is certainly an attribute of individuals with autism. But when we label these attributes as “bad,” that’s when I scratch my head. The reason being is that not everyone needs to be touched.
I think we all need affection or to know that we are cared for and loved. However, if the sole purpose of the character’s arc is to have them fight their uncomfortableness with touch, why does that need to be “fixed?”

Ideas, colors, and images bursting out of the box.

We are all for characters changing and growing. Learning to possibly show people how you care about them, which doesn’t have to be with physical touch, is a nice story. However, trying to conform and change the character to fit into the boxes of societal standards and forcing the acceptance of physical touch is not important and isn’t harming anyone. Therapy aims to reduce harmful behaviors in severe cases of autism (such as head banging or throwing tantrums), but that does not mean changing who they are. They’re not broken.

Learn From Narration

Crafting narration around an authentic character with autism requires seeing the world through a myriad of perspectives. And like everyone else, our stories should incorporate internal struggles and worldviews, and showcase the strengths and flaws of our characters. Characters with autism are not just their diagnosis.

Fingers typing and hovering over the keyboard.

As readers and writers, we will make mistakes; we won’t get a full understanding. That is perfectly fine. We are humans with diverse experiences. But as long as we commit to an ongoing willingness to learn with open eyes, then we can create role models of all types.

I think with more narration of individuals with ASD, a kid or an adult who has ASD will read the story and feel seen. I believe that is all anyone who reads books wants to feel, that they can relate to the experience and possibly learn from it too. By creating narratives with diverse portrayals of different communities, we can challenge the stereotypes and represent ASD accurately, making reading more inclusive for everyone.

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