When I was barely 11 years old, I began my first novel. And though I didn’t know it at the time, it also contained my first detailed autistic character.
“How could that be, Luna?” you might be asking. “Didn’t you not know you were autistic for 7 1/2 years after that?”
Here’s the thing: you can write an autistic character without knowing that’s what you’re doing.
And if you’re not convinced, let’s go over the evidence from 11-year-old me.
Eve Twilight, undiagnosed autistic
Eve stopped briefly to pick a flower. She twirled it between her delicate hands. She watched its pink petals spin until it looked like an unending circle. That was one of her thinking habits.My description of stimming
Eve Twilight wasn’t your average girl. For starters, she lived in an enormous hollow tree. She also had the power of telekinesis, which she discovered accidentally when some bad men in black clothes tried to drop a log on her and her friends’ heads. (Again, I was 11.)
In addition to the magical abilities, Eve was extremely autistic. Even though I didn’t have a name for why I felt different. Even though I had no clue what autism was.
Let’s go over some of her traits:
- Repetitive outfits: Eve wears the same outfit every day, with a few practical variations. She wears a pink ankle-length dress with short sleeves, long sleeves, or long sleeves and a turtleneck (depending on the weather). Over the top, she wears a leaf-inspired green jumper. She’ll wear a recolored version of this outfit on a holiday.
- Voice: Eve speaks formally without contractions. Sometimes she speaks so softly that others can’t hear.
- Sensitivity: Eve is highly sensitive, physically and emotionally. Her hearing is especially sensitive, and she will cover her ears when other people shout. Fireworks scare her. She frequently notices things that others don’t.
- Hobbies: Eve is fascinated by nature and is shown to have an encyclopedic knowledge of plants in the area. While her passions aren’t particularly relevant to the story, she’s shown to be unusually knowledgeable.
- Sincerity: Eve prefers to tell the truth. When she is pressured to lie, she usually either says things that are technically true (while omitting certain parts) or tells outlandish stories that make little sense.
- Running off: Eve runs away when upset and gets lost.
- Developmental delay: In an abandoned part 4 of the story, I imagined Eve being diagnosed with a developmental disability. I didn’t know the correct language for it, but it’s what I imagined.
- Social cluelessness: Eve doesn’t know what high heels are. She’s unusually naive and will obey people who clearly don’t have her best interests in mind.
- Co-occurring conditions: Eve shows signs of clumsiness and heightened anxiety. One incident involves a possible panic attack when she is thrust into unfamiliar surroundings.
Eve meets the criteria B in the DSM-5 definition of autism.
Criteria A are a little more nebulous in Eve’s case. In a world created by an autistic child with limited social skills, how impaired is an autistic character?
To some degree, Eve has the things I dreamed of when I was little: a group of accepting friends, a low-demand life, and the power to change things that are wrong. (For example, Eve lies to some extremely gullible bad guys and, with the power of friendship, gets them sent to outer space. Unlike her, I was an awful liar at that age.*)
*And probably still at this age, to be honest.
But even in this autistic world, Eve has noticeable differences. She’s naive, odd, and childlike for her age. Her friends notice this about her but it doesn’t stop them for accepting her for who she is.
Would a psychologist diagnose her? I’d like to say yeah, probably. Even if Eve is surrounded by an ideal friend group, she’s still disabled, and her life is likely to become harder as she approaches adulthood and is subjected to higher expectations.
Autism occurs in about 2% of the population. The CDC estimates that it’s around 1 in 59 people, though autism is likely under-diagnosed in women and people of color, so I suspect the number is a little higher.
People write characters based on personal experience, stereotypes, and personal ideas of what seems interesting. Unless you are a hermit, you’ve met multiple autistic people. (You may have thought they were “quirky” or “very introverted” or “stereotypical engineers.”)
You’ve read or watched media with characters based off of autism stereotypes. They’re “geeky,” “awkward,” or “free-spirited.” Some of them include:
- Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory
- Dr. Brennan from Bones
- Jacob from House Rules
- Christian from The Accountant
- Rory from The Predator
- Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
- Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
- Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation
- Hermione and Luna from Harry Potter
Some of these characters are stated to be autistic. Other times the authors dodge the question to avoid needing to write a well-researched and responsible portrayal. Other times the writers wanted to write someone “quirky” and didn’t realize that their idea of “quirky” looks very autistic.
You can read or watch media with autistic or autistic-coded characters. You can meet autistic people whether you know they’re autistic or not. And when you write about interesting people, you’ll probably aim for writing people who are a little unusual.
So it’s actually very logical to assume that some writers will create autistic characters without realizing it.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When writers try to write an Autistic Character, too many of them end up creating a walking talking version of the DSM-5 criteria blended with the white male STEM-obsessed stereotype. When writers try to create a unique character, they can end up with something much more nuanced.
Eve Twilight isn’t exactly a well-written character, since she was created by an 11-year-old, after all. But she is a realistic character. She has dreams, passions, favorite people, and a personality that can’t be found word-for-word in the DSM-5. She’s sensitive, sweet, thoughtful, and very interested in baking. If you ignore the magical components of the story, she’s the type of little girl you could see catching butterflies in a field or swinging repetitively on the playground swings with a dreamy look on her face.
My main point is that people can create autistic characters without realizing that they’re doing so, and even without knowing what autism is. And some of these characters can be beautiful.