I’m putting up one of the ‘A Writer’s Guide’ articles I have received. Since this series is going to be put on hold for a while, I wanted to share the last few I had.
This is part of the series of blog articles called “A Writer’s Guide…”. The purpose of this series is to give detailed information on skills and occupations that writers can use when creating characters.
Check out today’s article by writer Hannah Purnell is on writing Autistic Characters.
Writing Autistic Characters:
An Own Voices Guide
by Hannah Purnell
Autistic Spectrum Disorder, commonly called Autism or ASD, is a form of neurodivergence which affects a person’s communication, sensory sensitivity, and social interactivity.
People with the condition can display repetitive (‘obsessive’) behaviours; experience anxiety, discomfort, and/or distress when faced with unfamiliar environments and situations; have difficulty interpreting and responding to social cues; and experience forms of sensory and environmental sensitivity.
As a condition, it’s likely as old as mankind but has existed as a medical diagnosis since 1943, when it was first coined by a Dr Kanner during studies he made of small children who displayed similar symptoms.
Asperger’s Syndrome had emerged a few years earlier but has since been dissolved (in 2013) as an individual diagnosis, with all diagnosed now existing under the ASD name. Persons who were diagnosed with Asperger’s were often so because the symptoms they displayed were ‘less severe’ than those of those diagnosed with ASD.
Terminology such as ‘low-’ and ‘high-functioning’ is often used to differentiate, among other things, between those on the spectrum who have learning disabilities in addition to their autism and those who do not.
Other lexis such as ‘stimming’, ‘verbal’, and ‘non-verbal’ will come into play before long, and there are many others out there that your characters (or the people around them) might well use to describe themselves and their behaviours, but to cover them all would exacerbate the (what I hope is) the gentle honey-bee buzz of this piece’s reading to the constant drone of a pneumatic drill in the space of a paragraph, but I will provide links and information I have found useful at the end of this post for you to use.
The first (and most important) thing to know about people with autism is that if you meet one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. Autistics; fictional or no, exist on a spectrum of infinite variety, complicating factors, and contradictory traits.
Contradictory, we’ll come to that later.
If you are planning on/are currently writing an autistic character(s), then I hope you will find something of use below.
As you might be beginning to surmise, when it comes to writing accurately about the autistic experience there’s quite a lot of ground to cover. It can very much be a case of getting lost in the woods while counting the trees.
As such, the rest of this article will be (rather unlike the proverbial forest) broken down into as accurate a set of categories as possible because (rather like the proverbial forest) there’s plenty of bleed-through between the margins.
I will use, where possible, my own experiences of living with the condition to provide examples of how your character’s autism might present itself.
We’ll start at the beginning, which is a very good place to start.
Autistics experience difficulty distinguishing between and interpreting a whole range of social cues that non-autistic people (neurotypicals) might take for granted their understanding of.
These cues include variance in vocal tone, facial expressions, personal inflections of delivery, body language, and that ol’ chestnut: sarcasm.
For your character the grey area that exists between each emotion one might read in another’s features as they speak is far vaster and murkier than it is for neurotypicals.
That is not to say that neurotypicals don’t sometimes experience difficulty with this sort of distinction too (tears of bliss and sorrow can look identical until context kicks in), but with neuroatypicals such as autistics this difficulty is more or less constant.
There is an internal process of deliberation that takes place whenever an autistic person is presented with a cue that does not fit into a logically interpretable category.
Personally speaking, tonal differentiation is almost impossible. Everything sounds the same – I have the odd day when my radar dish isn’t too askew – and so I rely heavily on facial cues in order to understand how best to respond to those with whom I am conversing; be it my best friend whom I have known since I was eight, or a customer at my job who I will know for all of 30 seconds and probably never see again.
Which is great; most people have faces and use them when they talk, so I have a lot of material to work off. But not everyone uses their face in the same way. Not everyone is a smiler. Some don’t do anything except move their lips to get the words out and, y’know, breathe.
Some don’t look in your direction at all (at which point I usually start to pray, or panic, whichever comes first). There are those who insist on constant eye-contact, which I avoid because it
a) feels too intimate, and
b) tends to make my own eyes water and give my retinas the gentle sensation that they have just been doused in hydrochloric acid. Some people smile all the time. And sarcasm just curdles in with the rest.
Remember what I said in the first few sentences about ‘contradictory traits’? Yeah, I’m one of the most sarcastic folks you’ll ever meet. I know quite a few autistics who use the sarcastic tool with great aplomb.
Not only that, but I smile lots while speaking – usually in an effort to get the other person to smile too because it reassures me that I’m doing this social thing right.
Of course, your autistic character could be just like me, but then again they might be the opposite: they might have an ear for vocal tone and inflection, but have no idea what that raised eyebrow or flared nostril means. They might not even pick up on them at all.
Communication is, as we all know, a two-way street. Just as autistics struggle to interpret the information their eyes and ears pick up in a conversation, they can also face challenges in constructing their own responses or initiating utterances in an interaction.
I had a lecturer once who asked me to give my opinion a bit before my brain had gotten it quite ready and the words came out a bit like a random shuffle of those literary magnets you can use to make up a poem on your fridge.
Knowing I was autistic (my university had a great disability inclusion and support program) and that I didn’t mind others knowing either, he explained to the rest of the class that I needed a bit of time to get my words in order before saying them and then asked me if he had called on me too early (to which I obviously responded yes).
The nuances of body language can present their own challenges too. Hell, sometimes speaking itself is a challenge. Many autistics won’t speak unless prompted, or under extreme duress; this behaviour is often referred to as ‘non-verbal’.
It’s considered one of the early ‘warning signs’ of the condition, especially in children around the age of four or five who suddenly present a significant reduction in their vocal functions.
Children can not talk for any number of reasons but the non-verbal characteristic is so intrinsic to the public perception of autism that this is often the first conclusion people jump to.
I myself did not display non-verbal symptoms immediately. I have always been autistic, but where I fell on the spectrum meant that my symptoms didn’t really make themselves obvious until much later – I was diagnosed a whole ten years later than the ‘traditional’ age of five.
I, like the vast majority of autistics, amambi-verbal (if that’s not a term then it should be). I can speak with ease, but am just as likely to have days where the words just won’t come out – whether I want them to or not.
Your character might be this way, or may not speak if they can help it in order to avoid the stress of formulating and interpreting statements and responses.
Body language and physical intimacy are particularly treacherous grey areas for anyone. If we take the example of a hug, often a harmless expression of warmth and friendship.
Some autistics might be tactile in that way, and enjoy hugs from anyone who’ll give them; others might accept or give them only from individuals they know and are comfortable with – in that same breath they may struggle to read whether their relationship with someone has reached a ‘huggable point’; and there are those who will avoid physical contact as much as possible, maybe even finding a mistakenly given hug a distressing experience.
Sudden or loud sounds, artificial lighting or any kind of light that is too bright, specific fabrics, smells, or sensations… all these and more are examples of the kinds of sensory sensitivities experienced by autistics in day to day life.
It is not so much that those on the spectrum have heightened senses compared to those who are not, more so that they are more focused on the environments in which they find themselves.
They have to be, the usual filters which feed us information about the world we inhabit and the people we are interacting with aren’t always ‘functioning’ for us in the same way they are for neurotypicals.It isn’t one of the better-known aspects of the condition, and it was a whole three years after my own diagnosis that I started to notice it about myself.
Sounds beyond a certain pitch (usually alarms, sirens, car horns), or that happen too close to us can cause distress, or at the very least rattle us.
Spaces can often feel too big or too small; this is not the same as agora- or claustrophobia although an autistic may describe them as such to make things easier. It is not so much a fear as a general feeling of discomfort.
Most autistics might not initially notice when their sensitivities have been triggered until the effects begin to manifest themselves – this can take the form of headaches, perhaps goosebumps in the case of spacial discomfort.
Obsessive/Repetitive Behaviours/Fixations and Routine
The former of these two is another of the ‘classic’ traits associated with autism and is also the one most prone to falling down the rabbit-hole of myths and misinterpretations.
They have been placed in the same category as the need for routine because one has the capacity to influence the other.
The need for routine and order exists in all autistics and varies in its pronounced-ness across the spectrum.
This can range from needing to know precise details of when things are going to happen, where, with whom, and for how long, to doing things according to their own routine because the one set out for them is too stressful or tiring.
Your character might wait until the full synopsis of a film appears on Wikipedia or IMDB before going to see it in the cinema so that they know what to expect and are relieved of the fear of the unknown – I would always get really anxious about going to the cinema, despite loving films, and for a while we thought it was the colour of the carpets that set me off until we went to see one that I had seen spoilers for online and the usual cold sweats and churning stomach I had become accustomed to did not make themselves manifest.
A character on the spectrum could do the same for an album (increasingly possible thanks to Spotify and YouTube) or a book before they buy it. If I liked rollercoasters (*shudders*) I’d probably have to read reviews until I knew exactly what direction it went, when, and at what speed before I decided to ride one.
This need might well affect your character’s choice of career. I currently work in retail and went for promotion to a supervisory role so that I could have more control over my environment – it’s hardly stress-free but it helps.
Your character could be self-employed, enabling them to make their own decisions about what their day-to-day working life will involve. Or else, in a job where they are in a largely fixed routine and are aware of all they might be required to do within their role.
Feeding into the former of the two categories now, autistics are often perceived have a ‘fixation’ or ‘obsession’; usually, a subject on which they are deeply familiar or interested.
In all honesty, I’m not sure what mine is – probably buying books I don’t have room for nor time in my life to ever read all the way through.
Your character’s interest may not be limited to one specific concept or genre; they may just like knowing how things work. Expect it’s not so simple as ‘oh, I’d quite like to know how the toaster works but if I never know then that’s fine’, it’s more a feeling of need.
Much the same with the need for a routine, it is a way for an autistic to claim back some semblance of control over an environment that is not designed for people whose brains work in the same way theirs does.
They may well take the toaster (etc) apart in order to see how it works, or simply read the instructions from front to back, in order to achieve this. Or your character’s fixation (like mine, if I ever figure out what it is) might be on a particular taste or sensation in which they find comfort or enjoyment.
They might go barefoot as much as possible because the feeling of the ground/floor beneath their feet calms them and/or makes them feel more grounded and in control. Collecting items of a similar nature (much the same as anyone not on the spectrum would) is a common theme.
A term often used to refer to what is otherwise described as repetitive behaviours is ‘self-stimulatory’ or ‘stimming’. Autistics regularly use this as a method by which to disperse nervous energy or channel anxious feelings before they build up and become overwhelming.
This is a very physical behaviour, and can manifest in many ways – often unique to the individual presenting the behaviour.
Your character may stim by wringing their hands, shifting their feet, pacing, itching a specific spot on their body, rubbing their hands across their features or arms or legs etc.
Personally, the area of the back of my left hand which extends from the tip of my index finger to the beginning of my wrist regularly glows an angry pink – ‘tis my stim spot of choice.
Masking and Mimicry
Whilst stimming and fixations on routine and favoured ‘safe’ subjects can siphon off the ‘worst’ of their symptoms and largely enable autistics to navigate the world in which they live, many autistics hide their condition altogether.
This is not always necessarily an active behaviour on the part of the individual. In fact, it’s one of the major reasons why so many autistics go undiagnosed until well into their teens or even later adult life.
Masking is when an autistic hides their natural behaviours behind a camouflage of behaviours others might perceive as normal.
If your character masks they may well force themselves to maintain eye contact for longer than they would consider comfortable, laugh at a joke they have either not perceived or not understood, reciprocate a hug gone in for but unanticipated, sit on their hands to stop themselves from stimming, use stock phrases in a group conversation so as not to isolate themselves but also limit the amount of stress such a situation might cause them etc.
Mimicry, the means by which masking is achieved, is what I like to call ‘the greatest tool in an autistic’s arsenal’. As with any skill, some are better at it than others.
Mimicry likely has its roots in the developmental stages of one’s early life (I’m not going to pretend expertise here but that is my theory) when we learn to talk, walk, etc.
It exists in the wider natural world too; butterflies, for example, evolve to mimic the appearance of others of their species who are poisonous or foul-tasting in order to discouragepredators.
Similarly an autistic might mimic behaviour which they perceive to be neurotypical in order to pass unnoticed, especially at school-age so as to avoid being bullied – but as I learned only too well, that’ll probably just happen anyway.
Your character might learn their mimicked behaviours from real-life examples: members of their family, friends, contemporaries, or they could learn it from films and books and other media, whichever way works best for them.
I think I learned sarcasm from Timon in The Lion King films – as far as teachers go you can do a lot worse than Nathan Lane.
Mythbusters: Autism Edition
I hope you found this brief (trust me I could have written another thirty pages) guide useful, and to finish off I wanted to dismiss a few myths about the condition and the people who have it.
People with autism do not have empathy
This is one of the oldest myths about the condition and stems from the communication difficulties we discussed at the start.
Autistics may well not know how to communicate how they feel, especially in response to the emotions expressed by another. They are noless capable of experiencing emotions than anyone else.
All autistic people are savants
Savant syndrome, a condition where a person is severely disabled but possesses vast intellect/expertise in one particular area, is a separate diagnosis and while it’s true that people who are diagnosed with autism can also be diagnosed with savant syndrome the two are not mutually exclusive.
Films such as Rain Man have perpetuated this myth. Your characters can be hugely intelligent and knowledgeable (whether specifically or in general) without being either autistic or a savant, or both; and if your sole reason for giving them either condition I would suggest rethinking your decision.
Autistics are socially-isolated/introverted
Much like the myth of empathy, this likely stems from the communication aspect of the condition. While it’s true that many autistics will avoid interacting with large groups of people if they can help it the idea that autism means your character will not have friends is ludicrous.
They might not have many friends by neurotypical standards but the chances are they have what they deem to be enough. Your character may well struggle to develop some friendships beyond a certain ‘level’, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t make friends altogether.
Your character might well love socialising and being with their friends, so long as these are people they know how to interact with, and yet in the same breath they might well not be able to cope with regular experiences in crowded or unfamiliar places and so do not socialise as often as what might be perceived as ‘normal’.
Autistics are no more likely to be introverted than the next person, in fact, psychologists say most people are ambiverts anyway.
Introversion is a state of being more concerned with internal feelings and processes than external ones. Introversion is its own condition, and as with savant syndrome; planning to make your character autistic because you want them to be introverted is not a good enough reason.
Autism is caused by vaccines
Nope, nope. Nope nope nope. This was never a thing and has been repeatedly disproven by every paper written since the one that claimed it.
The belief of this myth has been a contributing factor not only to the stigma which still exists about ASD and those who have it but also to the decline in people being vaccinated against disease as children.
This episode of the children’s cartoon ‘Arthur’ is often cited as a wonderful, and concise, visual reference for how people with autism experience the world: Arthur- Youtube Video.
This documentary was filmed by the BBC a few years ago about one of their presenters, Chris Packham, about his life with autism: BBC Documentary- Youtube Video.
The NHS entry on the condition: NHS Website.
The National Autistic Society’s definition: Autism.Org website
Please do not use Autism Speaks as a resource, they are a charity who put the vast majority of their donations towards fundraising, do not allow autistic voices into their boardrooms and committees, and largely pervade and promote stigmas and negative attitudes towards people with the condition.
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About Hannah Purnell
Born in Leeds, England, Hannah Purnell has spent most of her life trying to get back to the mountains as often as possible.
With an Irish mother and a slightly Scottish father she is more Celtic than she is English and boy, does her pallor show it.
Graduating with a degree in English Language and Linguistics with a dissertation focus on meme culture she intends to one day tell stories for a living but until that day comes, she will continue to write the words down anyway.
When not writing feverishly she’s likely to be found reading, drawing, or going for walks just because. She has two younger siblings and lives with her parents, held hostage by two cats; a domestic-shorthair moggy mouse murderer and the most pompous ragdoll to ever walk the earth.
Dancers of Death
Lost very much on purpose and after almost eight centuries on the run, Evah thinks herself safe, nestled in a forgettable corner of the north.
Until a sudden betrayal and a great tragedy brings the very real ghosts of her past to snap at her heels, forcing her to once again flee, across a wild continent populated by witches, werewolves, vampires, and all else that goes bump in the night.
She’s done this before, but how many times more can she run before safe harbour runs out?
I hope you liked this article and if you have any questions for Hannah, please drop them in the comments below. Check out all the current “A Writer’s Guide” articles on their new page for easy access.
Do you have knowledge of a condition, skill or occupation you could write about?
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