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Rose Lemberg pointed me to this post by Ada Hoffmann: Note to people thinking of writing autistic characters.

“If you write a story where your character has no character traits except for impairments and behavioural issues, and where they take no actions not related to these issues (or to someone’s desire to “cure” them), you are presenting a distorted and objectified picture of autism. This goes double if you are writing from the autistic character’s point of view.”

Personally, I think it’s worth reading even if you’re not a writer and have no intention of ever writing an autistic character.

There’s a part of me that wants to write a much longer blog post here, talking about my son, about the character of Nicola Pallas in Libriomancer, about the need to listen when people tell you you’re portraying people like them in a one-dimensional way. But I worry that doing so would pull attention from Hoffmann’s piece, when my goal was to divert attention to that piece.

I’ll probably write that post one of these days. But for now, go. Read. Think. And write better.*

*”Write better” is advice I’d give to everyone, myself included, and wasn’t meant to suggest that you’re a bad writer.**
**Disclaimer written to try to avoid hurt feelings, and because footnotes are cool.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 42 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 1st, 2012 01:09 am (UTC)
Does "Magical Nonneurotypical person" count as part of the neurotypical gaze, you think? Or Joss Whedon's CrazyPerson (tm)?

I'm having a hard time separating the fail from the things I like in stories now. Like, I have a hard time loving something in the face of certain flaws, and those just happen to be the sort of inescapable flaws that are in almost everything. Stupid writers, ruining my fiction by being actual humans in an actual world. =p
Dec. 1st, 2012 01:13 am (UTC)
I've found this article to be helpful along those lines.


I do think there are some seriously problematic portrayals like that, yes.
Dec. 1st, 2012 01:26 am (UTC)
Oh, I've seen that before! I should probably bookmark it, it is helpful. I keep coming back to the bit where she says defending bigotry in a story by saying it's realistic is like saying humans can't recognize themselves without that sort of stuff. I kind of thing that's true, though. I think prejudice is a pretty constant part of the human make up, it's never going to go away utterly. The best we can do is try to minimize the concrete damage it does.

May I ask how you feel about Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory? I've heard some people say he seems Aspie, and some Aspies say they are glad to see him on TV because they relate to him. I relate to him because I and a lot of my family,a less-over-the-top-but-just-as-fussy as he is. Do you have thoughts on him WRT to the neurotypical gaze concept? Or at all?

Is there book that you think portrayed autism/autistic people and the people who love them in a fair, realistic and not-asshole-y way?
Dec. 1st, 2012 02:06 am (UTC)
I'm not sure if Jim has thoughts on Sheldon, but I'm happy to give you mine.

I enjoy Sheldon. But I enjoy him in a "How To Be A Fan of Problematic Things" kind of way. Because The Big Bang Theory as a whole, hoo boy is that show problematic. (Mainly in terms of jokes that are made at the expense of one group or another.)

Sheldon is not a realistic portrayal of an autistic character. His autistic traits are recognizeable, but they are distorted and caricatured just as every trait of the other characters is distorted and caricatured. Some Aspies are offended by him for this reason. However, I personally am not offended by this because it is a characteristic of the show's style as a whole; Sheldon is not more distorted than the other main characters.

A big thing about Sheldon for me, and for some other autistic viewers I have spoken to, is that he doesn't try to adjust his behavior to be more acceptable to neurotypical people. Most Aspies spend incredible amounts of effort and energy trying to imitate neurotypical behaviour. But Sheldon acts out all of his (caricatured) autistic traits to their fullest extent. And his friends accept him anyway. They complain about how annoying he is, but there is always a sense that he is still part of the group, and they do not wish for him to stop existing or be turned into a "normal" person. For many Aspie viewers, including myself, this is huge and affirming.

Another point to consider is that The Big Bang Theory, in recent seasons, passes the Aspie Bechdel test. With the addition of Amy, there are now two autistic characters who can be seen navigating their friendship in a recognizeable (though caricatured) autistic way.

So, those are my complex feelings about Sheldon. The show is not unproblematic, and Aspies legitimately disagree, but my feelings about him overall are positive.

As for books, that will take a whole other discussion, and I'm not as well-read on this topic as I feel I ought to be. I remember really liking "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time", but that was in high school, so it's possible I missed some issues, and the author has stated since then that he didn't intend for the protagonist in that book to be read as autistic.
Dec. 1st, 2012 02:39 am (UTC)
Yay! Thank you!

I was going to ask this question of you, but I wasn't sure if it would be too de-rail-y over there. I thought Jim might be cool with it*

I feel similarly about a lot of female characters ("they got These Three Things awesomely right! But ERMAGERD FAILCAKES on these Three Things! WHY IS THERE NOTHING I CAN LOVE UNRESERVEDLY!?") so I see what you're saying.

Actually, now that I'm learning more about social justice issues, that's sort of beoming my feelings about Every Depiction of Everything Ever.

And bless you for the phrase "neurotypical gaze." It's so perfect and intuitive I can't believe it's not already part of the lexicon.

*my apologies, Mr. Jim, if I read you incorrectly and caused offense.
Dec. 1st, 2012 02:42 am (UTC)
Mr. Jim is totally cool with this discussion, and appreciates reading it.

I blog as much for the comments and the things I learn from the rest of y'all as anything else, you know :-)
Dec. 1st, 2012 02:56 am (UTC)
LOL, yes on the awesomely right/failcakes combination! And you're welcome.
Dec. 1st, 2012 02:45 am (UTC)
A question, if you don't mind - with Sheldon and the show, is it that Sheldon himself has more positive than negative, or is it that despite the problems, he's still better than just about anything else on TV in terms of actually including an ASD-type character?

I hope that made sense...
Dec. 1st, 2012 02:58 am (UTC)
Thank you for having a comment section that flies in the face of the usual Internet Reading Safety Precautions.

Also, yeah, do folks love Sheldon in the same way folks love Uhura, in that she was awesome compared to everything else but still...a product of the era in which she was written.
Dec. 1st, 2012 02:59 am (UTC)
I don't mind that question at all, but I'm not completely sure how to answer. Partly because I don't watch much TV; ASD characters are apparently multiplying like rabbits on television but most of it is outside my radar. But also because the question of what counts as "more positive than negative" has to do with subjective perception and what we have been conditioned to expect, and with false consciousness, and with some other things I do not feel qualified to talk about.

I can say, however, that I enjoy watching Sheldon and like him as a character, despite being aware of the messiness we were just talking about.
Dec. 1st, 2012 04:38 am (UTC)
One of the things that usually drives me nuts about TV sitcoms is that the characters are all caricatures. The dumb blonde, the drunken jock, the greedy doctor, the OCD detective, the smart-alec kid--they're all distorted and over the top. It's the formula for the genre, or at least a significant part of the formula for the genre.

Just as with writing, many sitcoms on TV are satisfied with merely capturing the caricatures and letting them bounce against each other; the best ones, however, work to portray the characters as people, with a lot more to them than the one or two characteristics that satisfy the caricature.

I have a friend who says "give me all the labels you want, because I'll put the pigeonholes together and make a mansion." Which is a different way to approach what you are saying, in your post, Ada, if I understood you right. A good writer makes the reader aware of the mansion, and isn't satisfied showing just a pigeonhole or two.
Dec. 1st, 2012 02:37 am (UTC)
Like Ada, I have some Feelings about Big Bang Theory. With Sheldon ... it's messy.

I can't find the reference, but I believe I read somewhere that the writers have said flat-out that Sheldon is not meant to be autistic or ASD. (Take this with a grain of salt. It's been a long week.) That said, a lot of his character does seem to be a caricatured or exaggerated form of autism, and authorial intent doesn't always mean much.

There are things I like about the character and his portrayal, and things that really bother me. It might take a whole other blog post for me to try to sort that all out.

So I'm just going to jump to books for the moment and mention Elizabeth Moon's THE SPEED OF DARK, which I appreciated. It's a book that does make autism the core of the story, but I thought it was done very well, and I know Moon's experience with her autistic son informed a lot of the story.

That said, I think it's also worth noting that neither I nor Moon are autistic ourselves.
Dec. 1st, 2012 02:42 am (UTC)
I loved Speed of Dark. Lou is one of my very favorite character EVER. But the ending makes me...uncomfortable? Then again, I don't know there's any comfortable way to handle that particular plot, which may be part of the point.

Thank you! =)
Dec. 1st, 2012 02:44 am (UTC)
Agreed. Uncomfortable is a good word for it, and I suspect it was deliberately so. Still, I wish she had either explored the ending more, or not gone there at all. It felt like that part of the story got ... cheated, I guess.
Dec. 1st, 2012 03:01 am (UTC)
And that's why we need to start a petition for a sequel. *nodnod*

Dec. 2nd, 2012 03:40 am (UTC)
I've communicated recently with Elizabeth Moon about the ending, and she said that she didn't like the ending either. However, that's the ending the character wanted. As authors, we know that sometimes... you go with what the characters want, because anything else is going to feel forced and wrong.

(Elizabeth, if you are reading this, feel free to correct me if I got anything wrong here.)
Dec. 3rd, 2012 01:40 am (UTC)
Hoo boy, yes. I really liked the book right up until the ending, and then . . . I was very mad at Moon. (And an austism-spectrum friend of mine, reading the book for the same class, had to skip class while the book was discussed, because it was that distressing. (Luckily the prof was able to hear that and understand.)) It's still on my shelf, though, partly because I liked the first part so much, and partly because I think it deserves another reading, at least. I just haven't gotten to a point where I want to.
Dec. 1st, 2012 02:55 am (UTC)
Adding this to my TBR list!

With Sheldon, you are correct that the writers have said flat-out that he is not meant to be autistic. However, the actor (Jim Parsons) has said that he definitely sees Sheldon as autistic. So, it's messy, like the rest of the show.

Personally, I am glad that the writers do not see him as autistic, because I think it is the very fact that they do not see him as autistic which allows them to treat his autistic traits in the manner that they do. If they were conscious of the fact that they were dealing with an Actual Disability, I think they would do it much more poorly. That has to do with my perception of the writers and their level of cluefulness, you understand, and not with my perception of how writing about autism works in general.
Dec. 1st, 2012 03:07 am (UTC)
Yeah, I agree with you.

My Many Feelings about the show are very similar to Jim's.

One of the creator's has mentioned that he modeled the characters on people he knew from college. The writer has to be in his 50s, so it's possibly Sheldon is modeled on an undiagnosed person on the spectrum-or possibly a diagnosed person that the creator-guy (sorry, can't remember his name and I'm too lazy to Google =p) didn't know was diagnosed.
Dec. 1st, 2012 03:29 pm (UTC)
I hadn't heard that, but I find it very plausible. Autism, particularly Asperger's syndrome and other high-functioning varieties, were not a common diagnosis several decades ago, so there are whole legions of people in that age group who had to learn to cope with the usual autistic-person-in-a-neurotypical-world problems without a diagnosis. (My dad is one.) In most cases they struggled, but grew into very wise, resilient older adults - and now find it hard to get diagnosed even though diagnosing autism is all the rage now, because they've already devised their own coping mechanisms over the years and no longer face the same challenges as Aspie children and adolescents.
Dec. 1st, 2012 03:54 pm (UTC)
Bootstrappers (anyone who learns to cope undiagnosed, especially if they aren't just coping, but actively successful,) are amazing, and also poke me in my issues. =p

I'm 34, and I was just diagnosed with ADHD. I started meds, and it has Changed My Life. I'm completely useless without my meds-can't pay attention for more than 10 minutes at a time, no patience, no frustration tolerance, never had a job for more than a year. Got thru college on a combination of periodic hyperfocus and cussedness. And I look at people who, like, become National Merit Scholars undiagnosed/unmedicated, and I'm in awe. I admire them, and I'm jealous as hell. Like, How did they DO that? And what's wrong with me that I can't? I should probably seek some of those folks out and try to learn from them.
Dec. 1st, 2012 04:08 pm (UTC)
Please don't think there is anything wrong with you for not being a bootstrapper. You may have the same diagnosis as they do, but your life is not the same as theirs and your specific issues are not necessarily the same as theirs. It's very, very difficult to make those comparisons and it's not fair to judge one person's life by the standard of someone else's. Also, people who are successful (by some measure or other) despite challenges often feel much more overwhelmed and insecure on the inside than they look from the outside. You probably have a lot more in common with them than you realize.

That said, I think seeking out some of them and trying to learn from them is a fine idea. You may not learn "how to be a bootstrapper" from them (and it sounds like trying to do that would not be the best thing for you anyway), but you will probably learn a lot of other useful things.

For what it's worth, the bootstrappers I have encountered do not look down on non-bootstrappers. Far from it - their lives were very difficult, and they recognize that it would have been much easier for them if someone had done the kind of intervention for them that is done for people with diagnoses. Being diagnosed, and getting help, is better. But they did the best they could with a bad hand.

(This is all based on my experiences in the autistic community, of course, and it may be slightly different for ADHD - I apologize if I've gotten anything wrong.)

Anyway, I'm really pleased that your meds have been so helpful for you! It must be frustrating that it took so long to get a diagnosis and find them, but I am glad they are working for you now.
Dec. 1st, 2012 03:03 pm (UTC)
I hadn't known that about Parsons. That's interesting. And messy, yes...

And given a lot of what I see on TV and movies and such, I have to agree with you on the cluefulness of many of the writers out there.
Dec. 1st, 2012 12:02 pm (UTC)
*wave* Another autistic person chipping in. Hope no one minds.

My thoughts on Sheldon are similar to my thoughts on Abed from Community, as well as some other fan-diagnosed autistic people. I find the characters entertaining (particularly Abed, who is amazing), but they rub me the wrong way as well. I remember reading that the creators of both shows have said that they don't intend for the character to be autistic because then they'd likely just get it wrong. (I've also read the same sentiment from a SF author whose book I ended up DNFing because of the portrayal of their autistic-but-not-really character, so.)

(Now I'm wondering if I really read the same sentiment from three different creators. I know I've read it twice, for sure, but... I'll have to do some research.)

Anyway, it bothers me that these characters will have traits clearly derived from autistic people, and those traits are often played for laughs, but the creators don't want to be criticized so they're just saying the character isn't meant to be autistic. I mean... either write an autistic character, do your research, and accept the criticism that comes your way, or, well, don't. This just seems like a cop-out.

It also bothers me how quick fandom/writers are to diagnose characters as autistic just for having narrow interests and being socially awkward, even though they display no other common autistic traits like eye contact or food and texture issues. Sheldon at least has some food/habit peculiarities, though since he's not supposed to be autistic, I'm kind of throwing my hands up in the air and going, "How the hell am I supposed to critique this?"

I'm veering off-track, though. *g*
Dec. 1st, 2012 03:35 pm (UTC)
No, you're not off track - I think that's an important thing to talk about, and I'm glad to see another autistic person chipping in!

I haven't seen Community (though I've heard good things about it), but yes, it's a cop-out. In some ways it's a complex cop-out because the writers may not realize consciously that the traits are derived from autistic people. But if it walks like autism fail and quacks like autism fail, saying "but it wasn't supposed to be autism" is a poor excuse.

I agree about fandom over-diagnosing characters. For example, I like Sherlock (though that's not an unproblematic show either!) but Benedict Cumberbatch's character doesn't strike me as autistic at all. He strikes my mom (and a lot of other fans, including some Aspies) as autistic, but he doesn't have any sensory sensitivities, he doesn't have trouble interpreting social signals, etc; he just doesn't care about social politeness, which is a related but different thing.
Dec. 1st, 2012 04:00 pm (UTC)
Sherlock calls himself a high-functioning sociopath in the pilot. I don't know that it fits, but that's what he calls himself. I also think social cluelessness/not giving a shit doesn't necessarily have to be a...disorder? (Is that an asshole thing to say about autism? What are the respectful words?) It could just be a function of personality (in my completely-untrained, unqualified opinion) which may be more correct.

Dec. 1st, 2012 04:17 pm (UTC)
Yes. Sherlock isn't a completely realistic depiction of sociopathy either (neither are any of Steven Moffatt's other "sociopaths") but sociopathy IRL is a whole other bucket of worms, so.

And I see what you're trying to say about social culelessness being a function of personality. I'm not sure that there's agreement on the use of words like "disorder". Technically, the word "disorder" is in the phrase "autism spectrum disorders" so I see it as just a logical word to use with no particular connotations. Others may feel differently. I get a little impatient with some of these debates about words at times. A few Aspies react badly when autism is referred to as a "disability". They say, "It's a difference, not a disability!" But I am very, very uncomfortable with that rhetoric, because it strikes me that these people are trying to distance themselves from the concept of "disability" out of some notion that people with "real" disabilities are bad. By the social model of disability, at least, I think it's clear that autism is one.

Anyway I could rant on and on about that, but the short version is, there is legitimate disagreement between Aspies about what words they like to use for themselves. (Some Aspies don't even like the term "Aspie". :P ) You're being very respectful and have nothing to worry about. Also, asking what words a person prefers, as you have just done, is a clueful and respectful move.
Dec. 1st, 2012 01:28 am (UTC)
I asked Ms. Hoffman this question, and I'd be interested in your thoughts, too. What do you think about Michelle Sagara's Silence and, specifically, how she develops Michael's character. What did you think of him? (I'm aware that Ms. West has a son on the asperger's spectrum - if that is an allowed term - but I'm asking your opinion of the character as written.)
Dec. 1st, 2012 02:39 am (UTC)
I've not read that one yet, but hey, that's a DAW title isn't it.

This is where I make a note to email my publisher and tell them to send me a copy!
Dec. 1st, 2012 12:03 pm (UTC)
Definitely! (Another book to read in your copious spare time.) Your buddy Seanan McGuire has a lovely review of the book, too. http://seanan-mcguire.livejournal.com/442238.html
Dec. 1st, 2012 12:03 pm (UTC)
FWIW, I've been meaning to pick it up since I've heard good things about the portrayal of the autistic character. Thanks for the reminder.
Dec. 1st, 2012 02:13 am (UTC)
Jim, thank you for signal boosting. (I admit when mercwriter told me about this my response was basically, "JIM WHAT. *FALLS OVER*") I've had quite a day, partly due to events related to the issues in that post of mine, and seeing that other people in fandom care about those issues is a big deal.

I do feel obliged to point out that my name is spelled with two "n"s at the end. (Don't worry, even editors publishing my stories have gotten that one wrong. I forgot to take ease of spelling into account when choosing a pen name. :P )

Edited at 2012-12-01 02:14 am (UTC)
Dec. 1st, 2012 02:30 am (UTC)
Crap! Fixed now in everything except the URL for the post on my main site, which I can't edit without screwing up all of the linkbacks. I'm sorry about that.

You're welcome for the signal boost, and thank you for writing the post.

I heard rumors that there had been some ... issues ... before or related to this post. I don't know the details, but I hope things haven't been too stressful or overwhelming.
Dec. 1st, 2012 02:51 am (UTC)
No problem. You're correct that there are issues (although I am surprised that they were issue-y enough to generate rumors) but I think they will blow over. Beyond that, I don't want to talk about it publically, but I appreciate your good wishes.
Dec. 1st, 2012 03:50 am (UTC)
I remember loving long, rambly footnotes. Why did they go out of style?
Dec. 1st, 2012 05:42 am (UTC)
Just got my thesis comments back this week. My thesis was on autism in history and I am still angry about some of the misinformed and in one instance, downright ableist comments I got from one marker. My brother has autism so I really appreciated it. Not.

But it has made me think... ASDs are so complex and there is so much controversy about different aspects of it, maybe it is inevitable that fail will keep happening.

Mind you re listening to people, one of the comments questioned why I interviewed somebody very important in the autism research of today, because what would they know? If more people listened instead of airing their poorly formulated opinions, maybe we would have less fail and surely listening to people with an ASD and their advocates is the single most important thing to do.

Edited at 2012-12-01 05:45 am (UTC)
Dec. 1st, 2012 03:07 pm (UTC)
"...one of the comments questioned why I interviewed somebody very important in the autism research of today, because what would they know?"

I can't even wrap my brain around this one. Why ... what were they thinking?
Dec. 1st, 2012 03:40 pm (UTC)
Um. Wow. I second Jim's "What were they thinking?"

I'm sorry you had to deal with someone being misinformed and ableist in comments to your thesis. (I'm finishing up a MSc thesis myself, although in a wildly different field, so I know how much effort and how many nerves go into a thing like that!)

Listening to people with an ASD and their advocates IS the most important thing to do, and I'm glad you're doing research with that understanding.
Dec. 3rd, 2012 05:16 am (UTC)
Listening to people with an ASD and their advocates IS the most important thing to do, and I'm glad you're doing research with that understanding.

A lot of it comes from personal experience and working with people with a disability. I think more research would be useful if people came to it with that practical experience too.
Dec. 1st, 2012 05:52 am (UTC)
I would rather go with "that boy aint been right since he fell on his haid" myself..
Dec. 2nd, 2012 01:28 am (UTC)
Thank you very much for this, Jim.
Dec. 2nd, 2012 01:33 am (UTC)
Thank you for sharing the link with me.
( 42 comments — Leave a comment )


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