Disclaimer for my fellow autistics: I apologize for using the word idiot. It’s to make a point about tropes. I have been called an idiot by family members and co-workers and managers and I know it hurts, but for the purpose of education, I am titling this post about autistic tropes this way.
If you’ve ever watched television, you’ve noticed there are two types of autistic people that are mostly represented. The (usually) white male, asexual savant who doesn’t pick up social cues in hilarious ways(looking at you, Sheldon Cooper and every incarnation of Sherlock Holmes) and the (also usually) white, male, nonverbal autistic who can’t stand to be touched and needs help with super basic things like eating, dressing, etc.
I’m not saying these types of autistic people don’t exist, I’m saying there are other types of us out there. And to top it off, these types are usually grossly misrepresented. Savant types are are autistic-coded, but writers claim they aren’t actually autistic. Only the nonverbal, perceived helpless types are blatantly said as being autistic.
Lets start with the “Idiot” trope, and why it’s problematic.
Usually these types of autistics are described as “trapped, unable to communicate, have no idea what’s going on around them,” when it has been proved via alternative communication methods that autistics and other disabled people CAN communicate, and ARE aware of their surroundings. I personally speak with, via the internet, several completely nonverbal autistics, autistics who use chairs, not to mention the literature out there written by these supposedly braindead, unfeeling, oblivious people.
This trope is why assumed competence is so important in the disability movement. When you ignore alternative communication methods, you’re spitting in the face of the individuals who use them. All forms of communication are valid. ASL, echolalia, texting, verbally speaking, using a device to say the words for you, etc. Taking away a person’s voice just because you don’t agree with how they’re communicating does not make you a good person. You are not doing them a favor. You are a terrible person if you do this.
A step in the right direction would be to have more autistic and other disabled characters communicating via the mentioned methods. Signing, text to speech apps, echolalia, etc are great(and actually easy) ways to portray a nonverbal person onscreen. In books, every way I mentioned is good.
Earlier I mentioned Sheldon Cooper and Sherlock Holmes as autistic-coded characters that are not mentioned to be autistic. These two specific ones are headcanoned(meaning assigned a specific trait by fans) as autistic not just by autistic people who relate, but also allistic fans of the shows. There are other characters that are coded as savants in smaller ways, but since I personally don’t enjoy television much and would rather give you examples of things I have personally seen, I cannot name any others.
You might be thinking, “What’s the issue with having super smart people be autistic? Isn’t that good representation?”
Well, you’re both wrong and right. We like seeing ourselves onscreen. However, When 98% of the jokes are at the expense of the “autistic, yet not autistic” characters, it gets much less funny. Especially for a group of people that have a high rate of suicide, higher chances of being sexually and physically abused, low employment rates due to ableism, and a higher chance of being murdered by parents.
Another issue with this trope is the “What are feelings???” part of the trope. Autistic people DO feel empathy, however, we often have issues applying it to the current situation. There’s also a misunderstanding as to what empathy actually is. Empathy is “I feel what you feel/what I think you feel physically.” Compassion is what people are actually talking about. Compassion is identifying that a person is upset and working to alleviate their bad feelings. A lot of autistic people I know practice compassion, but in a way that is deemed rude by allistics. Subject changes don’t mean they don’t care. It means they’re either uncomfortable with dealing with the emotions you’re displaying, or think a different discussion is a great way to get your mind off of it.
There’s so much wrong with this trope, I can’t even address them all right now(denial of applied compassion and empathy, denial of POC representation as well as using mostly strictly white, cisgendered men and refusing to use the word autistic, using autism interchangeably with psychosis[which a mental illness that gets enough flak, and is an entirely different post on why they’re also grossly misrepresented, don’t even get me started])
Stop it. Take ten steps back, scrap the character, and go read articles, blog posts, and experiences of actually autistic people. Ask for input from those exact people. We already have five hundred renditions of The Savant Who is Autistic But Not, so why not do it correctly? Or better yet, let US write about it?