Coding is when a character is given a set of traits which are associated with a particular group but is not explicitly stated to be part of that group. Even when representation isn’t explicit, coded characters can still spread harmful stereotypes. For example, a character made up of Jewish stereotypes, such as having a big nose and being greedy, would be hurtful to Jewish people.
Let’s start with the piece of controversy from last time: The Big Bang Theory.
1. Sheldon Cooper
The prime example of a character coded as autistic is Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. I talked about Sheldon in my previous article, but I’d like to elaborate on what codes him as autistic, since he is never explicitly said to be so on the show.
Sheldon is completely unaware of social conventions. He is often rude to others without understanding why, dismissing people’s concerns and bluntly stating his honest opinions without regard to how it will make someone feel. He info-dumps about his special interest, astronomy, without realizing that others may not want to hear him talk about it for so long. He has a rigid routine, eating the same foods on the same days and having his own special spot on the sofa.
These are all recognized as autistic traits, although the character of Sheldon dramatizes and misunderstands them. He is also a savant when it comes to math and science, which plays into the idea that all autistic people are geniuses in certain areas.
Because Sheldon is made up entirely of characteristics associated with autistic people, he can be said to be coded as such, and this is why he is harmful.
As mentioned in my previous article, Sheldon is portrayed as lacking empathy and not caring how his actions affect others. This is a view that already harms the autistic community, in that people assume we are callous and robotic. Sheldon also gets away with misogyny due to his lack of awareness of social conventions. He harasses women he is attracted to and at one point compares a character’s behavior to a female monkey and asks invasive questions about her menstrual cycle. In real life, defending someone’s misogyny based on neurodivergence perpetuates sexism and rape culture.
Someone who sees Sheldon and recognizes his characteristics in an autistic person may be influenced by The Big Bang Theory’s portrayal of people with those traits, which only perpetuates the cycle of misinformation about autistic people.
2. Newt Scamander
The new Fantastic Beasts films star Newt Scamander as their hero. Newt is a magizoologist who protects magical creatures. He is also an example of a positive autistic-coded character.
Newt is socially awkward and is often unaware that his actions may cause people to feel uncomfortable, but even so, he doesn’t spread the stereotype that autistic people are unempathetic. He has an intense interest in magical creatures and relates to them more easily than to people, something that many autistic people attest to (with real animals). He wants friends but has trouble gaining them. If you pay attention, then you’ll notice that he often doesn’t make eye contact when it would be expected.
Newt recognizes that he is unconventional, as at one point he says in reference to people liking him “No, not really, I’m annoying.” This is a statement that many autistic people can relate to, which has caused the character to gain quite a following in the autistic community. In fact, the actor who plays Newt, Eddie Redmayne, stated that he believes Newt to be on the autism spectrum.
Newt is entirely different from Sheldon, as he manages to be socially awkward without being apathetic, misogynistic, or arrogant. He is an example of an accurate portrayal of an autistic character, and it’s unfortunate that this isn’t confirmed in the movie. Having his autism be recognized would make the representation that much more powerful, as there are so few autistic heroes in fiction.
Even though he isn’t said to be autistic in the movie, the portrayal of a socially awkward yet lovable character as the lead role is a great step forward.
3. Christopher Boone
Christopher Boone is the main character in the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. If you ask someone to think of a fictional book about autism, chances are they’ll mention Curious Incident. Christopher never says that he has autism; however, his character embodies autistic traits. He struggles to comprehend social rules and recognize facial expressions, he stims and experiences sensory overload, and he has special interests such as mathematics and murder mysteries.
Christopher is a highly controversial character in the autistic community. While he is a positive character, he is also heavily made up of autistic stereotypes. This has caused many autistic people to reject the novel as an example of a neurotypical man writing about an issue that he doesn’t understand.
The author, Mark Haddon, himself admits that “I did no research for Curious Incident.” The novel is narrated in a stream-of-consciousness style by Christopher, but his inner thoughts are presented as flat and stereotypical. Autistic people often have trouble communicating their thoughts, but our inner monologue isn’t flat and simplistic.
Another issue that many people have with Christopher is that he adheres to the “autistic savant” trope, which is that all autistic people are geniuses who can calculate incredible mathematical equations in their heads. While there are many examples of highly intelligent autistic people, expecting us to have near-magical abilities is harmful. It’s rarely true and puts pressure on a group of people who are already extremely prone to perfectionism.
But Christopher isn’t all bad. I am in no way claiming to speak for the whole of the autistic community, as we all have unique opinions, but I personally believe that Christopher is a better depiction of autism than many other stories. Unlike many books, Curious Incident humanizes Christopher and doesn’t portray him as incomprehensible. It shows the story from his point of view and emphasizes his own emotional needs, rather than just showing what a burden he is on his parents.
It’s nowhere near a perfect representation, and the author should have done some research when setting out to write a book about a marginalized person, but Curious Incident portrays its protagonist as a human with complex emotions rather than an emotionless robot, which is something too often shown.
4. Tina Belcher
Tina Belcher from Bob’s Burgers is an adolescent girl who speaks in a monotone and is extremely socially awkward. She has an intense interest in horses and starts groaning when she is overwhelmed. Groaning is a form of stimming, and Tina’s struggles with understanding social cues code her as autistic. Her sister, Louise, even references it, although Tina’s father denies it.
Tina is a wonderful example of an autistic character, because while she is socially inept and sounds unemotional, she is still portrayed as her own person. She’s also female, which is especially rare when it comes to autistic representation.
Tina is also a great example of an autistic person who is interested in sex and romance. Many people assume that autistic people lack interest in sex or are automatically averse to it due to sensory issues. But most autistic people are interested in relationships; they just have trouble bringing them about. Tina is autistic but is also like most teenage girls in that she has crushes and is curious about sex. This shows that while autistic people are different in many ways, they often face the same issues that allistic people face.
Tina also is shown to be confident and to have high self-esteem, another rarity when it comes to autistic representation. An autistic person, especially a woman, who is confident in herself is something that is needed in today’s autistic representation, and Tina Belcher brings that representation to a highly popular TV show. She is a great example of a complex, multi-faceted autistic character.
5. Charlie Kelmeckis
Charlie Kelmeckis is an awkward high schooler from the novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower. As the title suggests, he’s labeled as a “wallflower,” but he also displays many characteristics of being autistic. Charlie is oblivious to social cues and has trouble making friends. He often doesn’t understand his friends’ non-literal statements and is easily overstimulated.
Charlie also cries in situations that most teenagers wouldn’t cry in, which I as an autistic person can strongly relate to. We often can’t regulate our emotions as well as others, and are more likely to display them when they get extremely intense.
Like Tina, Charlie is shown to be interested in romance and sex, which is underrepresented among autistic characters. While some autistic people are on the ace-aro spectrum, many autistic people crave these relationships and can successfully have them. Charlie also finds a group of friends he can connect to, which is important for autistic people to see. The novel is told from his point of view, but unlike with Christopher his thoughts aren’t simplistic; he just has trouble communicating them. He’s a great example of a complex and realistic autistic character.
The five characters above are just a small sample of many characters coded as autistic. Unfortunately, this type of character is far more common than ones labeled specifically as such. Still, Newt, Tina, and Charlie provide complex and interesting examples of autistic characters and help dispel the stereotypes associated with the community. Characters like Sheldon are still common in the media, but the more positive representation we get, the more autistic people are empowered to control the narrative about us. Do you have any other examples of characters coded as autistic, whether they are bad or good representations? Share in the comments!
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