Six Things Writers Should Know About Autistic People

Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory

If only the writers of The Big Bang Theory had known all of this.

In my search for good representation of autistic people, such as myself, I have run into many clichés and stereotypes. This is disappointing, since we could really use some positive portrayals. So, in this article, I break down six things you should know in order to portray autistic people correctly.

1. Special Interests Are Meaningful (and Not Always Math)

Autistic people often have a specific subject they are passionate about. A common misconception is that these special interests are always related to math or science. Sheldon from the TV series The Big Bang Theory is a good example. He’s obsessed with nerd culture and science. Many autistic people like these things, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but many other autistic people don’t. I, for one, hate math and chemistry, but I do like things like astronomy, biology, psychology, and sociology.

Unfortunately, writers seem to think of special interests as simply a box to be checked. Autistic people in fiction have special interests because “they’re autistic.” The special interest is never given the weight and meaning that it really has.

One good representation of an autistic character is in the book Acrylic on Wattpad. This story was written by an allistic (non-autistic) person, which shows it’s entirely possible to write autistic characters even without having experienced it yourself. In the book, Tessa is an autistic girl, and her special interest is art. She loves drawing people and is an expert on art to the point where she gets angry when people choose the “wrong” pencils for shading.

Her fingers itched to take his pencil. It wasn’t the right type. As soon as he saw he wouldn’t get a response, Orion shrugged and started to put pencil to paper. He was stopped abruptly when Tessa snatched it away. She held the offending utensil in a tight fist. “You can’t use that.” Her words were tense with strife, as if using the pencil had caused her grief. Orion was too shocked to reply…The expectation of yelling hung around Tessa like a bad memory. People didn’t understand.

As you can see, Tessa’s actions are informed by her experience. She loves art and it’s a comfort to her, so it’s disturbing to see someone doing it the wrong way. Beyond that, the last sentence mentions yelling, going back to Tessa’s own experiences as an individual, not just an autistic person. She’s had experiences with yelling and so reacts accordingly, and throughout the story she uses her artwork as an outlet rather than just a quirky thing she likes.

Special interests are more than just a random obsession with something; they mean something to the autistic person. Think about your interests. You like them because they do something for you. It’s the same with our interests, although often times they mean even more. In a world that’s confusing and overwhelming, our interests help us make sense of things.

Special interests are coping mechanisms. When you give your character a special interest, keep in mind why that’s their special interest and what it means to them as a person. Do they really like astronomy? Maybe their parent liked to read books about space with them as a kid, and thinking about the existence of extraterrestrials or the fact that humans are made from stardust makes them feel less alone.

2. Autistic People Feel Empathy

The idea that autistic people are unempathetic is a straight-up misconception that I would like to see stop. This is the main problem with The Big Bang Theory – Sheldon lacks empathy. He doesn’t care about other people or their needs, and in so doing he perpetuates the stereotype that autistic people don’t care. But this mixes up two different kinds of empathy.

Autistic people struggle specifically with cognitive empathy, which means understanding what your actions will cause another to feel. When I was a child I would (and still do, to some extent) interrupt people constantly, because I was bored with what they were saying, and I didn’t realize this would hurt their feelings. I would also tell people their hair looked weird or I didn’t like their pet’s name without any thought as to how it would make them feel.

However, I along with many autistic people have a hyper-developed sense of the other kind of empathy: affective empathy. Once we know that we’ve hurt someone, we are the most caring people in the world. When I see someone cry, I automatically start to cry as well, as if on autopilot, and I immediately feel their pain. When I see a sick person, I feel sick as well. If someone is angry, I get angry too. Don’t mention a yawn, or I won’t be able to stop.*

This form of empathy lies in understanding what it’s like to feel an emotion and then caring about it. I may not recognize that I made a person sad, but if they tell me or show it in an obvious way (e.g. crying), I automatically understand how they are feeling and begin to feel the same emotion. Then I seek to fix the situation. Many autistic people are like this, and portraying autistic people like they don’t feel empathy for others is a harmful idea with real social consequences.

3. Autistic People Know What Assault Is

While on the subject of misconduct, please do not fall into a disturbing trend I’ve been noticing – that autism and/or quirkiness are an excuse for sexual harassment or assault. For instance, in the real world, a man named Don Burke was accused of sexual harassment and misconduct by multiple people. His response? He has Asperger’s, and autism is a “terrible failing” of his.

Don Burke’s excuse didn’t arise in a vacuum – it was influenced by media. The idea he’s promoting, that he couldn’t help his behavior because he’s autistic, is false. We may not always be able to detect nonverbal cues, but it’s still obvious when someone is telling us “no” or moving away. If a person touches someone else inappropriately, especially if they have sexual intentions and they haven’t asked permission, that’s their fault.

As an autistic person, I follow the rules almost too much. I was a major tattletale in my youth. Asking for consent is the kind of rule that I love. It’s a clear and specific directive that should be performed at a clear and specific time – before engaging in sexual behavior with someone.

Even without the rule, sexual harassment is something people can figure out not to do, and being autistic is never an excuse for it. Please stop portraying sexual harassment as quirky and funny when done by socially awkward people. It’s disgusting.

4. Autistic People’s Sensitivity Isn’t Pickiness

In many media, autistic people are portrayed as comically picky. They want special clothes and can’t stand any kind of noise. While in media this is presented as just “something that autistic people do,” in reality sensitivity like this stems from experiencing the environment in a different way from allistic people.

Autistic people don’t have the same sensory experiences as allistic people. The screech of a siren is magnified in autistic people’s ears, and an itchy shirt can be unbearably painful. This isn’t due to overreaction. The senses are amplified with autism, and disturbing stimuli are magnified.

Humanizing autistic people means recognizing that we come across as “picky” for actual reasons and that in our way of experiencing the world this perceived “pickiness” isn’t an overreaction at all. As a child, I wasn’t upset by bubble wrap “just because” – it was due to a terrifying sensory experience I felt every time one was popped. My experience came from me as an individual and my perceptions of the world.

In fiction, if an autistic person is sensitive to something, like a noise or clothing, it’ll be for a reason. If an autistic character refuses to wear a certain pair of socks, for example, it might be because of the pain they feel when their feet rub against the material. It won’t be because they’re being arbitrary and picky.

5. Autistic People Stim for a Reason

Stimming is a repetitive comfort motion autistic people typically do. It’s often hand flapping or rocking, but can also be twisting, ripping, fidgeting, or any other physical movement. I usually rip up paper or twist my lips, but since the lip-twisting aggravates them when they’re chapped, I need to work on finding a different stimming activity.

I don’t have a specific reason for those particular motions, but I stim as a reaction to what’s going on around me. It helps me calm down, because there’s something grounding in being able to do a repetitive motion. Stimming is often necessary for autistic people when we get overwhelmed by sensory input. Noises that sound normal to other people are horrifying to us.

In On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis, the character Denise describes stimming well:

I’m rocking, I realize….moving like this helps keep the thoughts at bay, lets me focus on the shifting, roiling pressure and relief, like that of shrugging into a soft robe after coming inside from the rain, or turning down the volume after it’s been screeching in my ears for hours.

Denise stims because it helps her cope. Autistic people may stim for other reasons, such as improving concentration or connecting with other autistic people, but behavior is always linked to experiences and thoughts; it never just sprouts up because a person is autistic. On a side note, On the Edge of Gone is especially awesome because it features an autistic character in a scifi setting. I’d really like to see autistic characters in more widely varied genres or stories that aren’t just about autism.

Allistic people often think autistic people are overreacting to sensory issues. This is exacerbated when descriptions of stimming in books are given without descriptions of the factors that caused it. An autistic person may fear stimming because they have been yelled at for it in the past. But, like a special interest, stimming is more than just doing the motion. It’s a comfort mechanism that we often feel is the only way to protect us from being overwhelmed with descending chaos.

6. Autistic People Are Aware of Being Autistic

Too often, autistic people are portrayed as unaware of their own abilities and limitations. I have been in classes with people who patronized me and thought I didn’t understand that I had trouble with social skills, and these attitudes were likely exacerbated by media portrayals. My classmates have done this too, ironically at the same time that they praised me for being smart. When I call them out, it’s “cute.” Allistic people often think autistic people are oblivious that we are different, even though we are often hyperaware and, in the worst cases, ashamed of it.

When people bully or patronize us, we know it. We can recognize when we are being treated as though we don’t comprehend others. Any bullying that your autistic character goes through will strongly affect them.

Autistic people view autism in different ways. Some are very proud of it and wear it like a badge. Others are ashamed. Some want it cured. Many abhor the idea of autism as a disorder. We want the same things as everyone else – love, companionship, success, safety – but we may struggle to get it. I want friendship and am aware of the fact that I have trouble getting it. I can reflect on this and have opinions on how autism has affected my life in this way.

If there’s anything I want to get across in this, I want it to be that autistic people don’t just go through the motions of their autistic traits. We have interior motives and experiences. We don’t just have special interests, we use them as comfort, and we are interested in particular things for particular reasons. We don’t just stim, we have opinions about it. We react strongly to stimuli because nearly every stimulus is magnified to us. We are people.

Not all autistic people will have all the traits I described above. Some autistic people might be good at sarcasm, or may not stim very much, or even like changes in routine. Every person has their own set of autistic traits and abilities, as well as their own personal experiences. One person may rock, another may hand-flap, but they don’t just do these out of the blue – they do them due to an internal experience, just like anyone else.

I really, really want you to write a book with an autistic character. Yes, you. They don’t have to be the main protagonist, but we exist, and we should be featured beyond things solely focusing on autism. We are more than the comic relief or the burdensome child. Where’s the autistic person in the fantasy adventure, the science fiction novel, the romance? Perhaps they are in your next book.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

Read more about , ,



  1. Leon

    I get where your coming from with #1 & #2.
    I always saw Sheldon as an autistic person who is also, and for unrelated reasons, an ass.
    Considering his background, surrounded by religion and hypocrisy. His special interest in science, with proofs and evidence (not to mention the hope of escape or power), makes perfect sense.

    I’m actually quite shocked that people need to be told about the rest of them.

    • Juliette Dunn

      Unfortunately, I’ve seen the last three pop up a lot in terms of people’s beliefs and in representations

  2. Cay Reet

    Thank you very much for this article, it’s very interesting and helpful. I will definitely consider having an autistic person in a book soon and I hope I will do justice to them with the help of this list.

  3. Shamanka

    Just a couple minor of additions to point #4, in regards to sensitivity-
    1) It’s also entirely possible for an autistic person to have their senses dulled by their autism, especially with regards to pain. I once knew someone who tried to play tennis with a broken arm before realising it was maybe aching a little too much- though again this is far from a universal experience, so do your own research if you want to include this rather than solely trusting one internet comment.
    2) Two different autistic people will experience the world two different ways. I can’t stand certain lighting conditions, mushrooms and unvarnished wood. Another autistic person may be in heaven around them. Loud noises and very rough textures are really the closest things we have to universal dislikes, but really you should at least consider adding a third thing more unique thing to the list if you’re making an autistic character.
    3) If my list of personal dislikes above hasn’t clued you in, sensitivity is an all senses thing, and these senses may not agree on every single item. For example, while in my mouth mushrooms are the slimy spawn of the devil, born to make me want to spit my food into the sink. While in my hands, they’re slightly fuzzy fun things that are good to rub on my cheeks, like the world’s most technically edible exfoliating brush. I find this dichotomy unbearably irritating.

    Overall a good article, I just felt like a bit more detail on sensitivity is always a good thing.

    • Juliette Dunn

      Thanks for the additional details on the topic!

    • Semper Solus

      Can confirm all of these to be true.
      In my case, mushrooms are delicious. I actually enjoy that texture. However, I cannot be in the same room as tomato sauce (the SMELL), so we are clearly getting different pizzas regardless.

  4. Groumy

    I think that one of the main reasons you found the autistic portrayal of Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory as a poor one, is because Sheldon is not autistic, for me he’s cleary an example of giftedness.

    I’m no expert though and I could be wrong !

    I guess there might be some overlaps in behavior and it might cause some confusion.

    He might even be a double exceptional character that is both autistic and gifted and maybe that’s why he feels near and far of autism.

    Just my two cents

    • Dave L

      Wil Wheaton: What is wrong with (Sheldon)?
      Stuart: Everyone has a different theory.

    • Juliette Dunn

      Sheldon exhibits heavily exaggerated and stereotypical autistic behavior which doesn’t relate to the classification of gifted, such as lacking empathy and being obsessed with a specific routine. He is not labeled autistic by the show but his character is entirely centered around an autistic caricature. Using all the stereotypes of a people group for a character still has negative consequences, even if a character isn’t labeled as such. For example, making a character with a large nose and Jewish features be greedy and obsessed with money but not referring to them as Jewish is still anti-Semitic. In fact, it can in some ways be worse since people use the fact that the word “autistic” is never used as a shield for excusing Sheldon’s representation.

      • J. M.

        I totally agree with you. I am an autistic person, and I hate that Sheldon is a walking, talking stereotype. It is horrible how, in the show, he is constantly rude, and says some sexist things, and it is considered okay because he’s “weird.” Us autistic people, while we may take longer than others, do learn social behaviors. I learned them by observing, and asking questions. Sometimes I still make a slip-up, and when that happens, I apologize. Being autistic doesn’t mean that I am a jerk. Also, I agree that it is bad that autistic people’s sensitivities are treated as ridiculous. I have sensitivities in my clothes too, for example, I turn my socks inside out because I hate the seam, and I will not wear clothes that are too tight. I also do not like the scenes in the Big Bang Theory where there is some social subtext that everybody but Sheldon knows about, and everybody is laughing behind Sheldon’s back, because I have been in that situation, and it is frustrating when you can sense subtext going on, but nobody knows what it is. I also stem. I like to pace down the hallway. The biggest thing that the makers of the Big Bang theory forgot is that autism is not a whole personality. Every autistic person is an individual. Thank you, Ms. Dunn, for writing this article and standing up for autistic people everywhere.

  5. Dave L

    >Not all autistic people will have all the traits I described above.

    Keep in mind that Autism is a spectrum. Some people may have these traits so severely that their lives are heavily impacted. In others the traits may be so subtle that they themselves don’t realize they’re autistic until diagnosed by a professional. They just think they’re odd, eccentric, or picky, particularly if all they know about autism comes from the media. I know because I am an example of the latter

    Also, autism is a diagnosis, and should be made by a professional. People claiming to be autistic just to be jerks, as stated in #3? Well, you guys covered faking a disability before, and this is the same territory

    This article should be required reading for anyone creating an autistic character

    • Jeppsson

      This Don Burke mentioned in the article apparently just diagnosed himself, and this might well be inaccurate. But it does happen that people who are autistic for real and properly diagnosed by a doctor also behave like jerks, because, well, there are jerks within ALL groups, but then try to use autism as an excuse.

      I think that’s what the author mostly focused on, and how that’s wrong, and shouldn’t be portrayed as harmless and funny in fiction either.

    • Sam Beringer

      While I understand the frustration of dealing with jerks using a diagnosis as an excuse, some people have to self-diagnose. Girls are less likely to be diagnosed as their symptoms often don’t line up with classic autism symptoms (I was lucky and my symptoms fit more with how autism is perceived). Same goes with people who are unable to afford to see a professional for various reasons.

      I do believe that seeing a professional is best, but it’s not always feasible or perfect. We need to be aware that sometimes self-diagnosing is the only option open to someone.

      • Juliette Dunn

        Agreed, Sam. Classism, racism, and sexism can be a barrier for people getting a professional diagnosis. Using autism as an excuse for assault is an entirely different situation to this kind of self-diagnosis, and as Jeppsson said is not okay even if someone HAS been professionally diagnosed.

        Thanks, Dave!

      • Genevra Brown

        Thank you Sam for pointing that out. I’ve been on the spectrum my entire life, and it wasn’t until long after my own son was diagnosed with Aspergers that I realized where he got it from. When I was a kid, we were dismissed as “hyperactive” and told to just cut back sugar. Girls are assumed to be over-sensitive and emotional, and we’re taught to mask at a young age or risk being branded as melodramatic. I had no support for it then, and as an older woman (I’ll be 50 in December) there is even less. We’re further dismissed as “hormonal hysterical females” and sensitivity often attributed to impending menopause.

        That is exactly why I didn’t bother to try and seek professional diagnosis for what I already knew was happening, especially after learning of a family history of autism. With the American for-profit healthcare system being what it is, I just can’t justify the time and expense on my family. There is no doubt in my mind what’s going on, and has been my entire life whether I had a name for it or not.

        All this aside, thank you as well to you, Juliette, for this much needed and insightful article!

        • Libby M

          I agree with you. When I was younger, my “issues” as my mom called them were very evident. I’m an older woman now and realize my mother was autistic, other members of my family, and my own children. I have never had a professional diagnosis for the exact same reason. One of my children is going in for one in a couple of months.

          When I knew I was different and went from elementary to a bigger high school, I began mirroring people so I could fit in. Even now there are times, usually when I’m tired, that I have issues – usually stimming when I’m alone, clothing, or just saying what popped into my head. But as someone else mentioned, it’s a spectrum. There are things I don’t do, but there are others that are obvious.

          Thank you for the article.

    • Dave L

      >Also, autism is a diagnosis, and should be made by a professional.

      I’ve actually modified my stance since I’ve posted this

      While I still think professional dx is preferable, self dx is completely valid, and for many people the ONLY option

  6. Dave L

    What did you think of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon, about, and in the first person POV of, a severely autistic teenage boy?

    I personally liked it, but I understand some people say it wasn’t accurate, particularly since the diagnosis was Asperger Syndrome and his behavior did not conform to that, And the MC is a math savant, because of course he is

    But I would recommend it to any writer looking for examples of immersive POV

    • Juliette Dunn

      I personally enjoyed Curious Incident, but I understand people’s criticisms. I felt it treated the MC with respect and empathy, and while it does use many stereotypes it is not the worst of representations.

    • Kieran

      Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time can go fuck itself. The last thing the world needs is another book portraying autism so stereotypically. That book does nothing but teach all the wrong things about autism.

    • Seio

      It should die in a fire.
      Just…the author did literally 0 research, seems to almost have intentionally written a book set on dehumanizing it’s main character, justifying all the abuse against him by portraying him as not noticing or caring about it and spreading even more myths about autism by being so fucking unempathetic, while writing in first person, mind you, that I actually worry that people I out myself to will have read it because then I have to assume they’ll think of me as less than human thanks to that book and basically need to clear up many misconceptions it’s actually WORSE than having to start from them knowing literally nothing.

      It *may* also have the dubious honor of potentially delaying my diagnosis, even though I actually knew enough about autism to realize that book was bullshit.

  7. Morgan Lefay

    I strongly suspect some famous scientists and artists were high functioning autists. And, of course, they were as “normal” as the rest of us. I work with some people diagnosed as Aspergers and I can’t serme significative differences between them and I.

    • Juliette Dunn

      Agreed; many of them, such as Albert Einstein, seem to fit the criteria. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Sam Beringer

    Also autistic and would love to see more autistic people in spec fic. I’m actually planning to make my protagonist and one of his love interests autistic in my fantasy series. The only issue I’m running into is how to spell that across. While depicting them is ideal, I know from past experience that coding a character a certain way doesn’t always mean people will pick up on it, especially when most people have a certain narrow idea on what autism is. But I don’t know if I can use the word “autism” since the story takes place in another world.

    • Kelly

      I think you are right that part of the reason some people don’t pick up on your characters is because they don’t have good personal context for understanding what they are reading. I’m not autistic, but I’m married to an autist and parent to another, and my perceptions of ‘what autism looks like’ are fairly different than allists who just have the Sheldon=Autism paradigm in their head. Of encourage you to go ahead and code your character authentically, and not worry about the people who don’t pick it up. By presenting more accurate representations, you’re priming your readers to recognize autistic and autistic diversity in real life, whether or not you use the word ‘Autistic’. If you want to be more direct, perhaps you could have your character express their perceptions of their personal subset of autistic characteristics through dialogue with other characters. This would allow your character to be more explicitly autistic while allowing you to avoid planting an earth word in another place. You could also just make up a world-appropriate word for autistic people and work its use into your story. Whatever you choose, keep writing! Allistic people like me (particularly allistic people who don’t know any autistic people) need accurate, relatable depictions of autistic people to give us context to understand what autism actually is, and to see autistic people for what they are–normal humans.

    • Juliette Dunn

      I struggle with naming things in fictional worlds as well. It might be okay to just use the word “autism.” The story is written in English anyway, and I would imagine many conditions could be referred to the same way. A character with anxiety could say they have anxiety, for example, as there’s a natural assumption that the characters aren’t actually speaking English and that it’s just a “translation.”

  9. FluxVortex

    Big Bang Theory is deeply, violently ablest, and deeply, violently anti-woman.

    It’s vile. It glorifies abusive behavior and discourages mental health treatment. It positively portrays domestic abuse and employer/employee abuse. These violent acts of abuse and vicious insults are portrayed as quirky and endearing. That’s more than problematic, that’s evil.

    The Big Bang Theory is an evil show. It’s an act of violence against women, an act of violence against the mentally ill, and an act of violence against people of color.

    • Juliette Dunn

      Thanks for the input. Many media are getting more aware of the harm it does when they give toxic portrayals of issues, but it can be disheartening when fairly modern shows like The Big Bang Theory still resort to misogyny and ableism as a form of humor.

      • FluxVortex

        I feel like I came on a bit strong but yeah. I was legitimately scared by what I’ve seen of it.

      • FluxVortex

        I know because of my anxiety that my reactions aren’t typical, but Big Bang Theory just depicts such painfully awkward scenes. The characters are vicious to each other and their actions are depicted as quirks or affection. It’s such a difficult show because it seems hostile to the concept of emotional safety.

        • Richard Clarke

          So many see emotions as weakness so they show that kind of thing in shows and frankly it’s why so many try to be emotionless or just never trust anyone.

  10. MJ

    Thank you for this. Thank you so much. I’m a young autistic girl with a special interest in writing, and Mythcreants has taught me so much.

  11. Caide Fullerton

    As an autist myself, I can second most of the statements in this article. I personally have never had any trouble whatsoever with bullies, but I believe that has more to do with my actual personality. Either way, a very good article.

    • Juliette Dunn

      Thank you, and I’m glad you didn’t have to deal with bullying! I luckily only had to deal with mild forms of it.

  12. K

    The yawning thing is a thing for someone else?!

    Which I suppose is a good example of autistic people knowing where they differ from other people but not which things are specifically linked to being autistic.

    • Juliette Dunn

      True; we’re all individuals so it’s hard to know what comes from where. Which just goes to show there is no true “normal” regardless of being autistic.

  13. Annie

    I’d have to object on #2. Plenty of autistic people don’t have affective empathy either; I, for one, can’t understand or feel other people’s emotions at all.

    The problem is, autistic people like that in media are always shown as assholes – we still have a moral compass and the ability to be kind, for god’s sake! The vast majority of us don’t actually hurt or bully people, contrary to popular belief, because we still understand that being mean to people is wrong and unfair. (That comment aimed at the media, just to be clear. I’m not angry at you.)

    I’d definitely like to see more autistic characters who have heightened empathy, but I’d like to see some who lack it and are still good people too.

    • Juliette Dunn

      True, I think the main problem is autistic people being portrayed as selfish narcissists because they have struggles with either type of empathy.

    • Richard Clarke

      I was looking for this Annie. The same goes for people who have antisocial personality disorders or as I use psychopaths and sociopaths. This reflects that so many believe that you NEED empathy to be a kind person. I’ve seen so many empathetic people who are also simultaneously very self-righteous and selfish. I see it all the time on the internet and they’re just an embarrassment to humans as a whole. They portray themselves as being better than other people. I’m actually trying to portray an autistic character who just about lacks empathy, but is not a selfish jerk.

    • BeardedLizard

      I don’t know if this could help, but a while ago I saw someone define 3 things that are often mashed together.
      -Empathy: Being able to feel what other feels. Example: if your friend is happy, you’ll feel happiness. If your friend is sad, you’ll feel sadness, etc.
      -Sympathy: Being able to put yourself in someone else shoes / Understanding their feeling. Example: understanding that your friend stolen car is making them angry; that this person is sad because of a breakup, etc.
      -Compassion: Wanting to help and make people feel better. Example: Trying to cheer up your sad friend; helping your friend finding his lost car, etc.

      For me (I’m a self diagnose autistic), I have very low empathy, but very high sympathy and compassion. I will almost never share the feeling of someone else. You could have won the lottery or find your long-lost dad, and I won’t feel anything. I’ll just smile and do a thumbs up because I have no idea what else to do. But I am also good at understanding where other people come from; why they feel and do the things that they feel and does. I’m also very compassionate; I like to help people and be there for them. I almost always play the healer in rpg with other peoples.

      The good thing about this mix of skills, is that even if you just suffered the worst tragedy in the world, I could help without getting drown in your emotion. I have learned what to do and what to say when someone around me is sad, so I’m super comfortable listening to them and being there for them. It’s a kind of situation I understand and that I can “control” (meaning, I’m not lost. I know what to do and what not to do). I went with friends to their loved one funeral; I’ve listened to complete strangers met on the street who just wanted to talk to another human being for a couple of minutes. I did it, then went away and did other things once it was done.

      Nevertheless, I can hardly share the happiness of other unless it directly affects me somehow (like, you just won a million dollar and want to give me some). Long term relationship can also be difficult sometime, because I don’t have a ton of energy to maintain them or make new one. If I don’t have a common hobby or passion with them (like tabletop rpg, larp or reptiles), it’s going to be very hard. I also have a very hard time having fun with other people during social event. I’ll be super happy to game master a tabletop rpg or organise a larp or even just work with somebody else; because there’s a goal to accomplish on which I can focus on. But being a player in an rpg campaign (or in larp) is very hard; as well as having a “good time” at party. (Unless the party consist of sitting around in the living room and talking about random stuff or gossiping.).

  14. Deb

    Thank you for this really interesting and useful article.

    I just wanted to make some comments about the Sheldon character. As you say, viewers of the show aren’t told he’s autistic but will soon start to realise there is something unusual about him. I think that the audience will often label his as a genius (as already mentioned in a comment) and having OCD.

    I don’t think those who love the show and watch every series think of Sheldon as “the Autistic character” and may have never linked him to that label.

    Whether YOU (general you) like the show or not, here’s what’s so good about the Sheldon character:
    1) he’s relatable. We all know people like him. I first heard about the show when a relative told me she had started watching it because someone told her about it and specifically said Sheldon was exactly like her husband. When she watched it she thought the same. (her husband is not autistic but does have OCD type thoughts/ behaviours and is also snobbish). I don’t know her husband well enough to judge. But I watched it and Sheldon is exactly like someone I know – the person I know is not autistic, doesn’t have OCD, is an artist not a scientist – and yet their personalities are so similar.

    So, I suggest WE (general we- the viewing audience) love Sheldon because we recognise him as a consistent character who is just like some of the quirky people we know.

    Another thing about Sheldon: the audience love him and the other characters on the show love him. I think this shows that IRL and in fiction flawed “quirky” characters that have some personality issues that might make it difficult to get along with people are lovable and people do like them.

  15. Petar

    That you had to go to Wattpad to find a good story with an autistic protagonist is really sad. It speaks volumes about how impossible it is to publish a book with an autistic protagonist if the book isn’t specifically about the condition (On The Edge Of Gone is an exception, as you noted).

    I’m working on a sci-fi story with an autistic protagonist. For a long time, I was conflicted as to whether I should change the protagonist’s neurology if I wanted to get it published. After all, such a protagonist wouldn’t be relatable for a wide audience.

    Then I realized that my writing was too terrible for traditional publishing either way. Now that I plan to post it on Wattpad, I’m glad I don’t have to worry about such constraints anymore.

    I’m still afraid that readers might insult my protagonist in ableist ways though (as a beta reader of mine has unfortunately already done; albeit unintentionally). That’s why I probably won’t write autistic protagonists in the future.

    • A Perspiring Writer

      There’s actually an epic fantasy novel that came out recently (December 2020) called Dragon Mage by ML Spencer with an autistic main character (the author’s autistic as well), and the reaction to it was very positive.

      I’m pretty sure that it was self-published, though, but I’d say that it was fairly successful (~200 reviews as of this writing), which proves that there certainly is an audience for that kind of book.

      I’d certainly enjoy two or three dozen more books like that.

  16. Catherine Helt

    Juliette, i am in total awe of you!! You have taught me so much & for that i am grateful.You are a beautiful, unique person. I am so very proud of you granddaughter. Love you to the moon & back!

  17. Caron

    Incredible.. I’ve learned so much from you.. thank you! From the bottom of my heart

  18. Ouroboros

    Thank you for this article! Another thing I think is important is that we need more representation of non-white and non-cis autistic people. A lot of folks on the spectrum are transgender and/or nonbinary. I am writing a fantasy story where the protagonist is a trans person of color with Asperger’s. I hardly see people like me in my favorite stories and I think that’s a shame.

    • AK

      Whoop whoop! That’s awesome. I’m Jewish, non binary, ace-aro, and autistic, and I’m writing about a blind, non binary autistic alien mermaid who’s homoromantic asexual. (He also has curly brown hair, copper-coloured skin, and he prays twice a day.) He works as a translator, using his special interest in history and linguistics to broker peace between the different species.

      Please tell me when your book comes out! I’m always on the look out for representation

  19. Kim

    Hi. I loved the article! Very insightful. I especially liked that you addressed that our (I’m autistic) special interests have meaning, and that our sensory sensitivity effects how we perceive and interact with the world.
    I’d also like to point out that we can have mental disorders (which I don’t consider autism to be) which effect and interact with the way autism can present. For instance, I’m bipolar, clinically depressed, and have recently developed anxiety. I realize that’s a complicated cocktail to decipher for someone who hasn’t experienced any of it, but I’d like to see that or similar in a story someday.

  20. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s note: We hope it goes without saying, but any ableist comments here or on other articles will be deleted.

  21. Sam

    I’ve actually been wanting to write an autistic character for the dieselpunk world I’ve been working on and this is a huge help. I’ve been trying to find good resources for treating the subject with care and nuance and this was right on the money in terms of learning and understanding more about autism in general.

    I really appreciate you taking the time to write about your experiences and some of the broad aspects of living with autism and explaining the relation of various behaviors and motivations. Thank you so much!

  22. Claus Muld

    In Nordic countries we are lucky to have a rather believable, autistic protagonist in the TV series Broen/Bron or The Bridge. I believe it was remade in The USA and several other countries. Anyway it was immensly popular throughout the world, last of the four series aired in 174 countries.

    Saga Norén is still some sort of a charicature of an autist, but she uses her special abilities to get the cases solved, while her personal and social life is a real mess. And then she has this one line, that I am not afraid to use when prompted:

    “I am not sick, I am different”.

  23. kd

    There are enough autistic people in my family that I’m unusually aware of their differences. So much so I may have inadvertently included a character “on the spectrum” in my sci-fi. He is artistically talented, very high IQ and obsessed with machinery. Several people who have read my efforts have commented on the issue. I personally have never considered him to be autistic, but I’m very open to that being the case, after all some of my children are.

  24. gfox

    when i saw this post i thought you were going to talk about Mark Haddon since he didn’t do almost any research about autism when he was writing The Curious incident of the dog in the night-time. You actually made some pretty good points which could be useful for my future works.

  25. C

    One more thing to consider is meltdowns don’t come from nowhere either. I describe mine as being a feeling and behavior results from the feeling. So many neurotypical parents cry that their kids freak out “for no reason” and then only focus on the behavior. They call it a tantrum.

    Meltdowns are involuntary like throwing up. There are emotions happening to. I feel like my meltdowns are my nervous system vomiting up every emotion I ever felt in my life up to that point. Classifying that as a tantrum implies it’s a choice to manipulate people when I would totally choose NOT to have a meltdown if I could!

    I’m almost 40 and I can have the violent head punching and throwing myself on the ground meltdowns. They can build up over time or get set off by a major trigger

  26. C

    …dang it, the blasted site submitted while I was typing! ?

    Anyway, meltdowns can build up over time or be set off by a major trigger like a phone and doorbell ringing at the same time and I’m the only one who can respond. I freeze and scream instead. It kinda sucks.

    Meltdowns are not tantrums.

    Mad respect for your article, you said a lot of things I would say.

  27. Jennifer Bulman

    I really liked the protagonist in Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark. But then he went and got “cured”. (Shades of Joanna Russ’s And Chaos Died.)

  28. A.R.

    Reading this, I realized that one of my main characters may be autistic. I am not sure, but I plan to do more research (anyone have any suggestions?). I hope she is– she’s very sweet and loves theatre, especially Shakespeare. She’s probably Sheldon’s polar opposite.

  29. Dave L

    Have you read the article “Autism From the Inside” by Katherine May?

    A discussion about the importance of understanding how people w/ autism actually think, as opposed to just observations from neurotypical people, or from literary cliches, written by a woman w/ autism

    “I’m not arguing that neurotypical writers should never create autistic characters (that would lead to even greater invisibility than we have at the moment). I’m suggesting that it’s time those characters reflected reality, based on careful research, and contact with real, autistic people.”

  30. Dave L

    You might also want to check out this twitter thread

  31. vilia

    I’m writing a fantasy adventure, and in development I realized my main character (a 15yo girl) exhibits possibly autistic traits. She finds it easier to connect with animals/nature than with humans, has a very particular interest in dragons, likes to fidget to feel comforted, and has difficulty in social situations. She’s empathetic, but not in a way that she can put herself in someone else’s shoes. Her character was like this before I realized she might be on the spectrum. A part of her story is that her being different is what led her to being the hero of her own tale.

    However, as a neurotypical, I understand this might not be comfortable for autists. I could royally mess this up, which I’m trying to avoid by reading and researching on autism. Writing my main character has helped open my eyes and understand neurodivergence more.

    I hope nothing I said came off as offensive!! I’m still learning about this, and I would really appreciate some advice!!

    • A Perspiring Writer

      I’m autistic myself, and I’m really liking this book already. Her traits seem pretty close to mine. I would still try to get feedback from a bunch of other autistic people though, they might see something I missed.

      One thing to keep in mind: if you meet one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. Not all autistic people have the same traits, but as long as your depiction isn’t stereotypical (think Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, Music from Music, or whatever the main character’s name is in Rain Man), you should be fine

      Personally, I would love to read this book. Sounds like I’d really enjoy it. I’d like to know more about it.

      • vilia

        Thank you!! it’s about the mc’s journey to becoming a dragonrider in a war torn world, the first in a thousand years since the dragons disappeared. She grew up being told stories about the dragons, and that was what started her passion for them. When this unusual storm comes and threatens her homeland, she decides to search for one of the dragons (there are 7 and it’s an elemental magic system) to save her home. That’s the premise I have so far.

        My mc has a sort of guilt complex, which is one of the reasons she’s compelled to go on this journey. It bothers her greatly if she doesn’t do something to help out

        I’ve barely written the first draft (school comes first!) but it’s always better to know more early on!! And yes, I’ll always keep in mind to stay away from those stereotypes. The last thing I want for my mc is to come off as a walking checklist

  32. Teleri T

    In a different genre, mystery, The Dr. Genevieve Lenard Connections series
    by Estelle Ryan, beginning with The Gauguin Connection, features as the point-of-view main character an autistic woman who specializes in non-verbal communication and becomes involved with an international art crime squad. A running arc in the books is how she is learning to cope in a team with a number of neurotypical people while solving art-related crimes.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy (updated 03/28/20) and our privacy policy for details on how we moderate comments and who receives your information.