As an autistic person, my ears always prick up at least a little when I hear confirmation that a character is autistic or that there’s some new TV show “about” autism. Partially because I’m excited that people will get to understand things a little more from my perspective but equally so in nervousness because I can’t help wondering if they’ll actually get it right. I worry that it’ll fall into tired stereotypes, reinforcing them and basically just be an allistic person’s view of autism. Autistic characters are still relatively uncommon, and if I were to ask you to name some, I can probably predict who you’d go for – Rain Man, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, and maybe Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time or Abed from Community, most of which do qualify as allistic people writing autistic characters, or indeed writing around them. TBBT in particular has never explicitly claimed that Sheldon is autistic, preferring to be vague about his disorder (“I’m not crazy, my mother had me tested”), but Jim Parsons has always said that’s how he plays him, having read Look Me In The Eye, a memoir by an autistic man. This is quite a common attitude, for creators to be vague rather than outright confirm, leaving them a degree of plausible deniability, leaving just inferences and references from characters around them. After all, confirmation brings responsibility.
We live in a society that prioritises the allistic view on autism above the views of autistic people themselves. Most “hard-hitting” dramas centring on autism are about parents who must learn to cope with their autistic son. Consider how frequently The Guardian publishes articles by parents who are openly contemptuous towards their autistic children, rather than asking autistic people themselves what their lives are like, or how people somehow consider the discredited views of Andrew Wakefield in any way relevant. People would rather expose their children, and other children as a result to fatal, mostly eradicated diseases than risk them “contracting” the dreaded spectre of autism through vaccination. Googling “autism and vaccines” brought up this awful site and petition to end the “epidemic”. It also isn’t that long since the brutal attack on Scott Vineer in my home town of Lisburn. The message is clear – autistic people are a burden who cannot speak for themselves and must be eradicated. I roll my eyes whenever anyone brings up the search for a cure, as if I am an infected victim. Even Autism Speaks is moving away from that attitude for goodness’ sake, and they once claimed broccoli could “ease symptoms”.
Even in popular culture, most depictions of autism are homogeneous and rely on trite stereotypes, resulting in frequently negative depictions. The obvious example is Sheldon Cooper, who is incredibly bigoted, selfish, and endlessly demanding, becoming a real burden to everyone around him. With that in mind, can you understand why I might consider it extremely insulting to be compared to him? Sure, he’s at the very top of his field, but utterly reprehensible in all other ways. Other autistic characters all share at least one similar trait; the notion of being “high-functioning”, which I have a multitude of problems with. Firstly, autism is a spectrum, and dividing people into high or low functioning erases many experiences in the middle, while assuming that these are immutable statuses. As Leah Harris also points out (in an excellent article you really ought to read for more information on this debate), the label can also be used to deny treatment or support as you’re seen as “not needing it”, or invalidating your experiences. This is something I get constantly, people praising me for “not seeming autistic” or saying they “never would’ve guessed”. I can see my personhood diminishing in their eyes as they say it, patronising and condescending. Furthermore, while these “high-functioning” characters are always extremely skilled in their chosen fields, depictions of “low-functioning” characters are barely people at all, characterised by grunting, rocking back and forth and being basically an object with no independent thought processes or understanding. To quote S.E. Smith, “Either characters have been blessed by the magical autism fairy, who sprinkles them with sparkling dust so they can go forth into the world and do inspirational good, or they’ve been cursed by the autism bad witch, and they need to find a pail of water to throw over her.”
Autistic characters are defined exclusively by their autism and are either your inspirational pornography or pitiable objects. There’s very little middle ground. That said, Abed from Community is probably the most positive example I’ve seen, being both realistic in terms of his difficulties with social cues, while showing human aspects such as empathy, and even being actually written by an autistic person (Dan Harmon was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s), so praise where it’s due.
I’d now like to move on to discuss Overwatch, the hit shooter by Blizzard Entertainment (the brains behind World of Warcraft). Many considered it one of the best games of 2016, and for good reason. It’s a bright, colourful, team-based multiplayer experience, with highly refined gameplay, a focus on movement to capture objectives, and most importantly for this article, a varied and fantastic cast of lovable characters. In lieu of any kind of story mode for the game, Blizzard has chosen to flesh out this cast’s backstories and personalities through animated shorts (for example: The Last Bastion) and comic strips (example: Reflections) with high production values, all of which greatly add to understanding which hero you’ve picked for each match. Understanding that Tracer is in a same-sex relationship or that Bastion was traumatised by its experiences in the war against the Omnics helps us relate to them more and enhances our appreciation of them. One such comic I’d like to focus on is A Better World, which focuses on Satya “Symmetra” Vaswani. In this comic, one particular panel (see below) appears, which, taken with her behaviour in the rest of the strip, sparked a wave of fan discussion, leading to director Jeff Kaplan confirming her autism in a reply to a fan letter.
“Symmetra is autistic. She is one of our most beloved heroes and we think she does a great job of representing just how awesome someone with autism can be”, he said, and indeed Blizzard has shown her plenty of love, including drastically revamping her abilities after noticing she was the least played character in the game (probably due to her being the only support character who doesn’t heal others, but I’ll get to that). Her behaviour in the rest of the strip backs up the diagnosis. She’s seen to have difficulty in social situations, blurt out critical opinions at inappropriate times, is hyper-logical and obsessed with order. She can’t stand crowds, and is easily overwhelmed by sensations such as sound as smell – something that rang especially true for me, and made something about her design really click. Note the headphones she wears – while it’s easy to just assume these are for communication, they also likely assist Symmetra in navigating daily life by filtering out loud or unwanted noise. Granted they’re not completely effective, but it rang true with my own experience and use of earphones and music to block out busy crowds and whatnot.
There are a number of things I really like about Symmetra’s depiction. Firstly: this is an autistic character in one of the most high-profile and beloved games of the last few years. Not only that, but she’s a woman. If autistic characters and positive depictions thereof are uncommon, female autistic characters are practically non-existent. Sure, there’s Sugar Motta from Glee, which was disgustingly offensive (“I have self-diagnosed Asperger’s, so I can say whatever I want.”) or Dr. Dixon from Grey’s Anatomy, but she was practically cartoonish in her depiction. Autism is significantly under-diagnosed in women, and is seen as a male condition (even though many of us on the autistic spectrum have huge issues with gender in itself, but that’s a post for another day) and Symmetra goes some way to bucking that trend, and even her depiction of being more “high-functioning” makes sense due to how differently girls are socialised, meaning that not knowing she’s autistic unless told might be fitting for a lot of people. I also really like the fact that Symmetra is still a Support character – considering that most understanding of autism is that people who are on the spectrum lack empathy or emotions etc (blatantly false), for her to be a Support, someone who must actively display and use empathy to assist the team by knowing who’s in need and how is refreshing and so much more true to autistic experiences. She’s an unconventional support, sure. She can’t heal other characters, providing them instead with Shields to protect them and placing Turrets that can slow enemy advances, or Teleporters to get respawning team-mates back to the front lines, but I feel this unconventional style of support is in some way representative of both her way of thinking and and her autism. It feels like Blizzard directly implemented Symmetra’s autism into playing as her in an understated manner, and that to me is fantastic.
Fans have been generally positive about the reveal, but there are criticisms to be had. It’s arguable that Symmetra’s trust in the Vishkar Corporation, despite some of its shadier actions (the burning of the favela depicted in A Better World for example) plays into stereotypes of disabled people being easily gullible or weak, but her own agency runs counter to this – while she is focused on that greater good, she still runs into the burning favela, is horrified by what she sees and works to protect those she can. Furthermore, as THE neuroatypical character in the game (ie the only one we know of), she still falls into the classic “high-functioning” trope and is hard to consider truly representative. Symmetra is still one of the most positive ways of depicting autism I’ve ever seen, though naturally I do have certain biases in this discussion, but until the spectrum is actually shown to be a spectrum across media, it’s hard not to be at least slightly exasperated at the constant false dichotomy of high and low functioning and just wish for a little more variance.