Whether you’re new to writing fiction or you’re already an established author, you’ll probably know how important character development is in a story. But when assigning real-world human traits to our fictional characters, especially when writing about marginalized groups, it’s essential that we educate ourselves so we don’t miss the mark.
Up until recently, autistic characters were hugely underrepresented in literature, and many would argue that they still are. To make matters worse, some authors have inadvertently helped to perpetuate harmful stereotypes about autism.
Even Mark Haddon’s best-selling book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, received some negative attention for its portrayal of the main character, Christopher. While most readers, including many in the autistic community, loved Haddon’s story, some felt the character played into the tired old stereotypes that all autistic people are emotionless, awkward, and amazing at math.
So, if the likes of Mark Haddon need a few pointers, the rest of us probably do too. That’s why I’ve put together this short guide for writers to help you create your autistic character from a place of awareness, knowledge, and sensitivity.
But first, I must point out that I am not autistic, so I can’t claim any authority on the subject. Instead, I’m writing this guide from my own experience, relaying the research I’ve done in my own work, and passing on guidance from autistic friends and family.
Before I became a writer, I spent several years working with autistic adults and children. While I learned a lot about what autism is and how it can manifest, I’m fully aware that I still have a lot to learn, and I’ll never truly be able to put myself in the shoes of somebody with autism.
If you’re writing an autistic character into your story, this guide is a helpful place to start. But if you are serious about getting it right, the very best thing you can do is speak to an actual person with autism (ideally several!). Getting guidance, advice, and feedback from those who really know what life with autism is like will help you nail your character and give them the justice they deserve.
With that in mind, here are 8 things to consider when writing an autistic character.
How to Write an Autistic Character?
1. Autistic People Feel Empathy and Emotion
There’s an all too common myth that autistic people struggle with empathy and lack real emotions. But these damaging stereotypes are simply not true.
Let’s start with emotions. Autistic people feel emotions just like anyone else. They laugh, cry, get embarrassed, and fall in love like the rest of us. And unfortunately, it’s not a magical free pass from the painful moments in life either.
The difference lies in the way that some autistic people portray their inner feelings to the rest of the world. A person who seems cold or emotionless may simply have a different way of processing and communicating how they feel, so try to bear this in mind when you’re fleshing out your autistic character and engaging them in dialogue with the rest of the cast.
When it comes to empathy, there’s a similar misconception. The stereotype that autistic people lack empathy comes from the autistic tendency to struggle with cognitive empathy.
Cognitive empathy relates to the part of your brain that predicts how your actions might make other people feel, and for some autistic people, this can be challenging. It’s why some people with autism interrupt frequently or say things that might hurt other people’s feelings or seem insensitive. It’s not that they’re not empathetic; it’s just that sometimes, autistic people have a harder time reading social cues.
Cognitive empathy is very different from affective empathy. Affective empathy is all about instincts and how we feel and respond to the emotions of others once we’ve recognized them. In fact, research has even suggested that some people with autism have higher levels of affective empathy than ‘neurotypical’ people do.
So, when an autistic person tells you that your outfit looks weird or they don’t like your hair, they’re not necessarily being heartless or mean. Instead, they probably don’t realize that their words would cause hurt or upset in the first place.
Just like the vast majority of all people in the world, most people with autism care deeply about others, so when writing an autistic character into your story, try to keep these principles of cognitive and affective empathy in mind.
It’s also a good idea to consider how the surrounding ‘neurotypical’ characters interpret or respond to the actions or behavior of your autistic character. Are they offended? What kind of miscommunications and mishaps might arise due to a lack of understanding of each other?
2. Autism Looks Different for Everyone
When developing your characters, it’s helpful to remember that autism is a spectrum that manifests itself in a multitude of ways and can look very different from person to person.
For example, some autistic people need no additional support at all, and they may even fly under the ‘autism radar’ for years before being diagnosed. Others have much more profound needs and will require comprehensive support from family, friends, and carers throughout their lives.
Social and communication skills also vary massively amongst the autistic community, and the tired old stereotypes rarely fit the description of any real-life autistic person.
Consider your character’s space on the spectrum, and avoid perpetuating the myth that autism is a one-size-fits-all disorder.
3. Autism Doesn’t Just Affect How a Person Views the World; It also Affects How The World Views Them
Many people with autism have been victims of ignorance, prejudice, and harassment, and unfortunately, this can continue into adulthood, long after the schoolyard bullies have grown up and moved on. So, consider how the world treats your autistic characters, and ask yourself, is this an accurate representation of how things work in the real world?
People with autism are a marginalized group, and when writing about any marginalized identity, it’s super important to do it with accuracy and sensitivity. If you’re not autistic yourself, the best thing you can do to figure out how the world treats people with autism is to ask people with autism. Do plenty of research and chat with as many people as you can who are willing to share their personal experiences with autism.
The key is to gather a broad picture of what it might be like to walk in autistic shoes, so to speak. This will help you write your entire cast of characters effectively, not just the autistic ones, but the ‘neurotypical’ ones too.
4. Autism is Diverse!
Take a look at the world as a whole; it’s a diverse patchwork of races, religions, sexualities, genders, beliefs, customs, and ideas. And as such, the world of autism is just as diverse.
Yes, it’s true that autism is more common in biological males than females, and the reasons for this are still a bit of a mystery. But there are plenty of autistic women and girls out there too, and they’re hugely underrepresented in popular culture and literature.
Even more marginalized are autistic people of color and autistic people in the LGBTQ+ community. Even today, in our increasingly multicultural, open, and diverse societies, autistic characters are written as white, cisgender males, but that’s not a great representation of how things are in the real world.
With this in mind, when you’re developing a character with autism, consider writing to represent and raise awareness of these more marginalized groups too.
5. Autistic People Fall in Love
Earlier, I mentioned the harmful myth that autistic people cannot feel emotions like non-autistic people do. Similarly, there’s also a false stereotype that autistic people aren’t suited to romantic relationships.
Yes, in fiction, autism in romantic relationships is pretty rare. But in the real world, autistic people are engaging in romantic and sexual relationships all the time, so why not incorporate these elements into your work?
Sure, there’s wrong with creating an a-sexual, non-romantic autistic character (just as there’s nothing wrong with writing a white, male, cisgender autistic character either). Just be mindful of perpetuating stereotypes, and try to take your inspiration from the real world rather than any preconceived notions about romance and autism.
6. You Can Have More Than One Autistic Person in Your Story
How many autistic people do you know? Whoever you are, the chances are you’ll need more than one hand to count them all. And if you’re autistic yourself, that number could be even higher.
So why is it that when autism is portrayed in literature, or even in films and TV shows, there tends to be only one solitary autistic character in the whole cast?
This is problematic for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s not an accurate representation of the real world. Friend groups, schools, colleges, workplaces, and families often include more than just one person with autism, so bear this in mind when it comes to creating your cast.
Secondly, by including only one autistic character in your story, you run the risk of falling into the stereotype trap pretty quickly. Even if you actively avoid common stereotypes, you can still send out a false message about what it means to be autistic.
For example, if your one and only autistic character is shy and reserved, you may be inadvertently perpetuating a myth that all autistic people are shy and reserved. But when you have two, three, or more characters with autism, you have the opportunity to demonstrate how varied, diverse, and unique people with autism really are.
In fact, having multiple characters from the same group is an excellent rule to follow when writing about any marginalized community, not just people with autism.
7. Do Your Research!
If you decide to write autistic characters into your story, that’s great! But if you’re not autistic yourself or in a close relationship with someone who is, it’s super important to research the heck out of autism before you dive in.
Learn about some of the most common traits among people with autism; for example, stimming, a self-stimulating behavior that manifests as repetitive movements or sounds. Everybody stims to some degree, often as a way to cope with stressful situations or difficult emotions, but it’s more pronounced in people on the autistic spectrum.
Hyper fixation is another relatively common tendency in people with autism. This is the technical term for becoming completely immersed, or even obsessed, with something, for example, a type of animal, a computer game, or a hobby or an activity like gardening or horse racing.
As I mentioned earlier, the autistic spectrum is incredibly broad and diverse, and not everyone with autism will exhibit behaviors like a stimming or hyper fixation. Still, by learning about these things, you’ll have a more detailed picture of what autism is and how it can manifest in different people.
You might also want to read up on autism from the medical community’s perspective and learn about the different ways autism has been diagnosed and managed throughout history.
But more than anything, it’s important to research how autism affects people on a human level in their day-to-day lives. Check out autism blogs, read other books which feature autistic characters, and see how those characters have been received by autistic readers. Getting direct feedback from a variety of people with autism is the best and only method to write an autistic character in a realistic, sensitive and appropriate way. This leads me to my next and final point…
8. Hire a sensitive reader
A sensitivity reader is a member of a marginalized group who is paid to read through work that involves that group. You can hire a sensitivity reader at any point in your writing process, before, during, or after completing your manuscript.
An autistic sensitivity reader will give you valuable insights, direct feedback, and guidance for going forward, so you can develop your character with accuracy, education, and of course, sensitivity and avoid missing the mark.
What do you think are the most important things to remember when writing an autistic character? Whatever your writing background, it’d be great to hear your thoughts. I’d particularly love to hear from autistic readers and/or writers who would like to share their valuable perspectives.
If you have any tips or insights, please drop me a comment in the box below!