I’m known on here as Aurelia Lightcaster. I’m a student, musician, writer, and lover of nature and life in general. I also have a crooked brain. This blog is about my experiences and intersections with the world around me. Have a look around, and don’t forget to drink water, stretch, and breathe. I hope you enjoy my blog, and stay gold, just like me!
This short post contains two concepts that have been known to me for a while now. I have wanted to get them in public text form since I created Aurelia Under the Radar, even putting the idea on my Blog Ideas list, and now I am finally doing it! Throughout my life, I have noticed two phenomena that occur when multiple autistic or otherwise ND people meet, and the best way to explain these is through stories.
The first incident begins with the Technician, who is a beginning, if not the beginning, of all of this. My first text conversation with him took place at 1AM a couple of days after we had encountered each other on the bus. After an exchange about our respective high school experiences, he told me, “I’m an autist, by the way. Are you?” He told me that he had felt, somewhere in his intuition, that I was similar to him, that we were on the same wavelength. It turned out that he was right, I was a lot like Tech, and that included being autistic. This is radar, the way of recognizing other NDs through observation and intuition. It is kind of like gaydar, but for sideways brains.
The second story concerns someone I met while exploring dating apps, which is a gold mine of stories in itself. While lurking his Instagram profile, I found a photo of a “Please be patient, I have autism” button, with a caption about how he should not have to wear a badge in order to be treated fairly. My first thought was that I wanted to shake his hand for the great point he raised. My second thought was how remarkable it was that I had matched with and become comfortable with this guy, this fellow autist, without either of us disclosing our condition in our profiles. Looking back, most of my friends from when I was a child and teenager were probably neurodivergent in some way, even if I was unaware. This is magnetism, NDs being drawn together despite not knowing about each other’s diagnoses.
For the most part, my radar is not very good, and was inactive for a long time. This is because I spent very little time with confirmed NDs, so I did not learn to associate certain behaviors with labels. I also viewed autism as something outside myself, something that did not apply to me. If anything, I recognized other kids (and adults) as “weird”, in a good way, and gravitated towards them because of that. By contrast, Tech’s radar is pretty spot-on since he was in classes almost entirely made of autistic students for quite a few years, so he had time to learn to recognize all kinds of behaviors. I did not get an experience like this until the past year when I began to spend time in an autism-centric Discord server. After a year, I have started picking up little cues that have helped me identify people like me, including stimming, being unusually dressed for the weather, speech and typing patterns, and the same strengths and weaknesses in communication that I have. I remember how proud I was the first time I successfully radared someone: we were in a school Zoom call for meeting new friends during quarantine, and one person I was paired up with was looking off to the side instead of directly at the camera, and I felt instantly comfortable rocking excitedly as I infodumped to them about the horrible adaptation choices of the Ender’s Game film. I later learned this new friend was diagnosed with autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. An autistic demigod! My magnetism, like I mentioned earlier, has always been strong. When I worked at my local grocery store, my two closest coworker friends were both ND, and I seem to subconsciously befriend the other NDs in whatever class, club, or online community I enter. I believe this is because of similarities in communication and shared experiences. I have less to worry about in terms of phrasing things for accuracy over subtlety, being anxious around the concept of a new friend in general, having over-the-top reactions and then apologizing, or getting extra fired up about my favorite topics because they are doing it too. I sometimes get worried about not being able to make friends with “normal” people or becoming elitist in my friendships, but I remind myself that friends are friends, and NDs probably find each other for a reason. Everyone needs people they, as the cool kids say, vibe with, and the people I have encountered through radar and magnetism have mostly been that for me.
Onward was released by Pixar in February 2020, right before the pandemic started. It was the last film I saw in theaters, and the only movie theater date I had with my boyfriend at the time. At the heart of Onward were the two protagonists, brothers Barley and Ian Lightfoot, and how they complemented and contrasted each other throughout the story. Their mother Laurel said it best: “One of them is afraid of everything, and the other isn’t afraid of anything.” This is an accurate statement in itself, but can we look deeper? Autism is a spectrum, and two autistic people can possess contrasting traits, even siblings. Laurel’s observation indicates that both of her sons could be autistic, in very different ways.
Ian is the younger brother, the one who is “afraid of everything”, and the one I happen to relate more to. He is cautious and fears the unexpected, which is a trait associated with autism. We see him trying to control the adventure by making plans and lists, and rejects spontaneity. He also takes a lot of prep and encouragement before talking to strangers. When he goes to ask his classmates to come to his birthday party, he rehearses his script out loud and even writes reminders down on his hand in effort to get it right. When Ian is approached by a stranger, like his dad’s old college buddy in the diner before school, he is visibly uncomfortable and does more listening than talking, possibly because he is at a loss for words. Ian’s need for control also manifests strongly when he is learning to drive. Driving is a difficult thing for many autistic people because we have a hard time judging distance and speed, predicting other people’s intentions on the road, and navigating. Watching Ian quietly freak out as he waits for a place to merge into traffic is an all too familiar mood. His timidness could also be explained by sensory sensitivities and his need to avoid overstimulation, and what his mother perceives as a fear reaction to things that are loud, bright, close, or chaotic could actually be pain and sensory overload.
Ian is also very studious and cares a lot about his schoolwork. This could be a product of him being afraid to mess up as well as a general love for learning. Towards the beginning of the film, another student is able to guilt Ian into letting him rest his feet on Ian’s chair despite the physical discomfort, the reason being that if the blood collected in the troll student’s feet as a result of them not being elevated, he would concentrate poorly in class. Since doing well in school is important to Ian, he cares enough about this not happening to his classmate that he gives in. This is a common thought process for autists, as I wrote before in my L post: “If I care about this thing, then others must too, and therefore I should preserve said thing for them.” What about special interests? It might be unusual, but Ian’s main focus is his dead father’s memory. When Ian plays the recording of Wilden’s voice and talks back to it, it is obvious that this is a ritual he has done hundreds of times. He also wears Wilden’s college hoodie proudly and is more upset when it gets ripped than is normal for someone whose clothing has been mildly damaged.
Barley, by contrast, is unfazed by anything. He seems to be on the undersensitive side, always craving stimulation and never being hurt by everyday sensory input. Barley’s voice is loud and unmodulated, and he constantly invades people’s personal space without considering that it might be less pleasant for them. Having no sense of physical danger is also the experience of some autistic people, which is why we run into the street or walk in front of other people sometimes. Unlike Ian, Barley struggled with school and has no plan for his life despite having graduated high school. This could be because school was too restrictive and not stimulating enough for him, and struggles with social protocols (shaking hands, not going off about historical facts, etc) prevent him from getting a job, just like some real life NDs. Another trait that might have been overlooked by other viewers is the lack of a friend group in Barley’s life. Most older brothers in this type of movie have some friends that mess with the younger sibling or take them under their wing, but not Onward. There is not even a mention of any friends that Barley plays Quests of Yore (the film’s in-universe tabletop RPG similar to Dungeons and Dragons) with. This sets off my autism radar like crazy because so many autistic adults talk about not having a friend group or always being extraneous in social settings growing up.
Speaking of Quests of Yore, Barley is open about that game, history, and anything magic as his special interests. He is obsessed with the noble past of New Mushroomton, his hometown, and goes so far in protecting local monuments and relics that the police know him by face and name. Laurel connects with him by communicating in language that relates to these interests when she says, “If I find your soldiers on my land, our kingdoms will go to war!”, which sounds more effective to an RPG fan than “Pick up your toys before I take them.” The alternate title to this post could be “Why Laurel Lightfoot is the Best Cartoon Mom Ever.” /hj Barley’s love for the Quests of Yore game also could explain why he is better at improvising and making do with what he has than his brother, since games like that tend to rely on schemes at least as ridiculous as making a raft out of a cheese puff. They also incorporate an element of acting, which autistic people who are used to masking and studying behavior have a knack for. (What I am trying to say is, playing Quests of Yore makes Barley good at moving through the world as an autistic person, and moving through the world as an autistic person makes him good at Quests of Yore). The magical part of these two autistic brothers is how their strengths and weaknesses compensate for each other’s. Ian is uncomfortable with driving, talking to strangers, and coming up with ideas on the fly, so Barley steps in to help with all of these. Barley struggles with taking precautions and planning ahead, so Ian keeps him on track. Situations that are unpleasant or scary for Ian are no problem for Barley. Barley has memories of the boys’ dad, which motivate Ian, and Ian can wield magic, which gives Barley something to teach his brother. Onward is about the two Lightfoot brothers finding their strengths together and showing that neurodivergence is diverse even within families.
CW: This post mentions the Holocaust, Nazism, and eugenics. Proceed with caution.
Throughout my life, people have asked me if I am an Aspie, if I have Aspergers syndrome. The answer is no, and this post explains why. First, I would like to disclaim that this is my personal experience and opinion, and while it is shared by other autistic people, it is not universal. If you are reading this as an autistic person, you have the freedom to call yourself what you want, and it does not have to match me. If you are not autistic, please respect the preferred language of the autistic people (and everyone else) around you. Now, why do I refuse to call myself an “Aspie”?
Let me get the most obvious and least serious part out of the way first: the word Aspergers sounds stupid. It sounds like “ass” and “burgers”, which in turn sounds like a disgusting thing a school bully would threaten to serve you after you declined a knuckle sandwich. It is such an unattractive and obscene-sounding word that I have a hard time taking myself seriously when I say it, so how am I to say that I am that and expect others to take it seriously? Using that word invites people to make fun of me, and I already have been made fun of enough for being what I am.
The second reason is that I would technically be lying if I said I had Aspergers. I live in the United States, where psychological diagnoses are made based on the DSM-V. Since I was diagnosed in 2020 and Aspergers has been absorbed into autism in the DSM-V since 2013, my diagnosis letter says “autism spectrum disorder”, not “Aspergers syndrome.” It is not even my official diagnosis, so why would I identify with it? That being said, there are people who have Aspergers on their records because they were diagnosed earlier. Maybe these people are used to referring to themselves that way and have come to feel strongly about it, and that is their business.
On a darker note, there is a painful history behind the Asperger name. Hans Asperger was a Nazi scientist who separated autistic people who were “functional” and “useful to society” from those who were not. Those who did not make the cut were killed. Hans Asperger also expressed open contempt for his subjects of study. I do not want to associate myself with an evil scientist who was responsible for the death of thousands like me. If I were to call myself Aspie, I would be saying “I would have won the approval of someone who thought I should die.” That is not a thing to brag about, or something to be reminded of every time I declare my identity.
There was a dividing line between Aspergers and autism starting with that bit of history, but no one seems to agree on where it is. Some psychologists say that Aspergers is autism without a language delay, some say it is the ability to mask (pretend to be neurotypical), some say it is the absence of intellectual disability. The distinction is so blurry that it might as well not exist, and I do not want it to exist. I will not draw a line in the sand between “Aspergers” and the rest of autism so a small subset of a large and varied group can go “I am not like those people over there.” Autism is autism, and we should not gatekeep people based on whether they have intellectual disability or any other comorbidity, or whether they can speak. We especially should not be excluding people based on a lack of masking because masking is a harmful behavior. I will never tell another autistic person “I am better than you because I hurt myself for years trying to conform and you did not.” The concept of a rift between autistic people and “Aspies” is similar to the war between transmedicalists (trans people who believe that gender dysphoria is required to be trans, often reject non-binary identities, and are hailed by cis folks as “the good ones”) and everyone else under the trans umbrella. It is elitist gatekeeping, and I will not take part in it. If you are someone who identifies as an Aspie, be mindful of this perceived rift, and do not treat autistic people without the Aspie label as less-than. Self-labeling is fine, gatekeeping is not.
I hope this post was informative and made a few people think. I am also sorry for the gap in posts. I really should set up a writing schedule.
You may have been reading a comment on Reddit or a message on Discord and seen a little slash and a letter at the end of a sentence. This is not a typo, but a handy communication strategy that helps convey tone through text. A ton of autistic or otherwise neurodivergent people struggle to pick up nonverbal cues for when someone is being humorous or sarcastic in a conversation, or if someone is flirting versus just being friendly. In text, the hints that some of us are trained to look for, such as voice inflection and facial expressions, are not even present! For me, I tend to assume people are being straightforward and serious, and it has led to a lot of text-based miscommunication, such as me taking someone’s sarcasm as being mean. Emojis sometimes help, but people have meanings ascribed to those that might not match up, and filler textisms such as “lol” and “lmao” are tacked onto sentences so often that they have all but lost their punch. Tone indicators, also called tone tags, have mostly undisputed meanings and are used only as needed. I have included a list of common and useful tone tags, plus a few that I feel should be in use.
/s: Sarcasm. This is probably the most common one, originating on Reddit outside of ND circles. “Right, that house is definitely not haunted. /s”
/j: Joke. The other common one, and probably my most-used. “[under a photo of a black cat in loaf position] I think you left your loaf in the oven too long. /j”
/hj: Half-joke. This is for when you say something that is mostly a joke, but also kind of true. Ex. “All cats are autistic. /hj”
/ij: Inside joke. This is for when friends reference something that will make sense to them but not to others reading the conversation. Ex. “[under a photo of a bee] I found a spicy compliment! /ij”
/srs: Serious. I find this one redundant because I take most things seriously, but others I know need this one more often. /srs works well for emphasizing a serious thing that would normally be taken lightly, or to show that you are done joking. Ex. “Stop, that’s bothering me. /srs”
/g or /gen: Genuine. This one works well for compliments from the heart. It also is great for asking questions without seeming ignorant or smart-alecky, showing that you actually want to learn. Ex. “What does shutdown mean? /gen”
/t: Teasing. For when you are lightly ribbing someone but mean no harm. Ex. “You’re an old lady. /t”
/lh: Light-hearted. Kind of like /t, this one shows that you are being light and silly and do not mean any aggression. Ex. “The Brits are weird. /lh”
/nm: Not mad. This indicates that you are, you guessed it, not angry despite the words you are using. It makes others a lot less anxious. Ex. “[under a relatable meme] I feel attacked. /nm”
/ly: Lyrics. Some people will randomly quote lyrics to songs, and this tag lets people know that they are not to be answered like a regular message. Ex. “Soon may the wellerman come to bring us sugar and tea and rum /ly”
/c: Copypasta. For those of limited internet experience, a copypasta is a type of meme that consists of a long text that people copy and paste. Copypastas do have the danger of being taken literally, so /c prevents some embarrassing situations. I am not sticking a copypasta example in this post. Go look one up if you are curious.
/p: Platonic. Use this one for messages that could be taken as flirting, but you mean them in a friends-only way. This helps me so much when I want to compliment my friends without it being taken too far. Ex. “Your voice is really nice. /p”
/r: Romantic. Use this when you are flirting and want to be romantic and/or sexual with someone. Ex. “I want to hold your hand. /r”
/pos: Positive. Some phrases are ambiguous as to whether they are good or bad things, so tacking on /pos helps. Not to be confused with POS, which stands for piece of sh!t. Ex. “[under some delicious-looking art] “I want to lick it! /pos”
/neg: Negative. The opposite of /pos, this one indicates a negative connotation. Ex. “[under a flashy GIF] Now I feel like I’m on something! /neg”
/q: Quote. I have never seen this used, but it should be a thing. /q is similar to /ly, except it denotes a quote from a book, movie, or show rather than song lyrics. Again, autistic folks love to quote, sometimes from less familiar sources. Ex. “My name is Iñigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die. /q”
/f or /fig: Figurative. Figures of speech, especially unfamiliar ones, can confuse autistic people. I have started using this tag to show that whatever I just said is not supposed to be literal. Ex. “I don’t want my professor to bite my head off for doodling in class. /fig”
/m or /met: Metaphor. Similar to /fig, I created this indicator to show that I am using a metaphor or analogy to get my point across instead of being literal. Ex. “Should I be left behind because I am a fish being forced to climb a tree? /met”
Tone indicators are not a rule, and I cannot insist on them outside of ND-centric spaces. (And even there, people are forgiving if someone forgets). Some people might find them silly or view them as an unnecessary crutch, but I think of them more as a tool that saves time and emotional energy during online interactions. The idea of indicating tone and intent is not new. Heck, the conlang Làadan included something similar before the world wide web was created. Tone tags might become a new component of text-based language just like emojis or abbreviated textisms. Do you know of any tone indicators or other ND-friendly texting strategies that I did not include here?
Atypical is a Netflix series whose first season was released in 2017 and whose fourth season is due to premiere this July. (Good timing, me). The series follows an 18-year-old boy named Sam Gardner, who was diagnosed with autism at age four. His parents, Elsa and Doug, and his sister, Casey, also have their own character arcs. Overall, Atypical has the feeling of a coming-of-age dramatic comedy, except that autism is stirred into it. Since Sam narrates, it feels like the audience is in the shoes of an autistic person, rather than it being a voyeuristic ad for living with autism. There are a lot of negative reviews on this show, but I think that people have been a bit hard on it. I have to say, I loved this show more than I expected and thought that it told a valuable story about a particular autistic character. However, there were some things that I wish they included or handled differently.
Let me get the most glaring mistake out of the way first: Keir Gilchrist, who is neurotypical, plays Sam, who is autistic. Since Gilchrist does not naturally talk or move like an autistic person, his acting comes off as kind of an uncanny valley effect. However, there is nothing that seems mocking or parodist about it. Sam’s voice is not monotone exactly, but his cadence is unusual, and his facial expressions are stilted. This matches how real autistic people look and sound sometimes, but it comes off a little forced when Gilchrist does it. However, there is nothing that seems mocking or parodist about it. I also wish that they had not written Sam as another cishet white boy when autistic women, LGBT+ people, and people of color are already underrepresented. Later in the show though, we meet Sam’s peer group, who are varied by race, gender, and autism characteristics, and they are all played by autistic actors.
Sam as a character is a classic Type 1A autism representation; his autism is known and talked about on the show, and it plays a significant part in the plot. Although Sam is the stereotypical early-diagnosed straight white guy, he breaks convention with his special interests. Instead of the math or physics genius we are used to seeing, Sam is an animal lover and an Antarctic ecology enthusiast. These two fascinations intersect to form a more specific special interest in penguins. Throughout his narration, Sam makes connections between his own life and the daily lives of animals and Antarctic scientists. This is a nice narrative touch as well as a good way of showing how autistic people can almost always find a way to connect their reality with their special interest, and hearing interesting animal facts is a bonus. In Seasons 2 and 3, Sam develops a passion for art too, and his knowledge of engineering, while not really a major interest, is present enough to have named his pet tortoises Tesla and Edison. To my relief, Sam is not portrayed as a savant or prodigy, but he is academically intelligent enough to have the third highest GPA in his grade, which some autistic people can relate to.
The theme that Atypical focuses on most is change and progression. Sam states multiple times how much he hates changes and surprises, and he combats this by researching new things such as memorizing the layout to Techtropolis before he starts work there and studying the freshman survival guide for Denton University before he attends orientation. His approach to dating is also very methodical and scientific, even taking notes on “pick up chicks” YouTube videos and observing his peers at school as if he were, well, a scientist studying a new species of penguin. At the same time, Sam is at a point in his life where everything is changing and nothing is static, since he is not only graduating from high school and starting university but also learning about dating and deeper peer relationships. I loved seeing an autistic person onscreen who was not static or stagnant. At the end of Season 1, Sam compliments his dad on the igloo he built and hugs him without prompting, which is a complete transformation from the nine-year-old Sam who would not even go inside the first igloo Doug built because “the blocks were crooked”. Julia also praises Sam for setting and accomplishing many new goals, considering that when he and Julia first met, he was only focused on what he could not do.
Sam’s social challenges are present and consistent, though like I said, he does learn. He views emotions and interpersonal relationships as something to study until he knows them perfectly, and then gets frustrated and confused when he discovers that feelings do not have a right or wrong answer. He starts the show off thinking that humans partner for life just like penguins do, and he has to learn about cheating, multiple relationships, the “grey area”, and flings. (By the way, props to Netflix for making an autistic character who is aware of and interested in sex). Sam also seems to struggle with nonliteral speech, asking for clarification on idioms, and takes requests very seriously, such as when he skips his own midterm to go find Zahid because he “can’t let him screw up nursing school.” Sam is trusting of others, leading him to be tricked into getting his phone broken by Arlo and be accepted as part of the Tasty Trio only to be ditched later. As someone who defaults to thinking people are being truthful and is sometimes hurt because of it, I am glad that Atypical included scenes like these. Sam also infodumps about Antarctic animals often, to the point where other characters get annoyed, but he cannot understand why they would not be interested. He also has a hard time filtering out which details are necessary, which leads to him mentioning two very different things with the same tone as well as a very relatable problem with taking notes because he tries to write down everything that comes out of his professor’s mouth.
Speaking of a lack of filters, Sam’s sensory issues are incorporated quite well into the show. In the first episode, Sam narrates that he hates touching his back to the bus seat, so he sits as straight as possible. He is seen using his backpack as a buffer in a later episode. He shows us a stim that he does with a pencil and a rubber band, which seems to be for when he is anxious or bored/understimulated. Sam’s senses seem to become more heightened when he is emotional, such as him being able to hear couples making out at the silent dance as he stresses about where he stands with Paige. He also goes into sensory overload while trying to sleep over at Zahid’s house and ends up fleeing, and again when the fire alarms and sprinklers go off at Techtropolis. When Sam has overloads and meltdowns, he covers his ears with his hands, stims by rocking back and forth, and recites the names of the four Antarctic penguin species, “Adelie, chinstrap, emperor, gentoo.” Having a mantra like that is a real strategy for NDs and people with anxiety disorders to calm down, and Sam ends up sharing the tip with his dad, who in turn teaches it to another autistic student, Amber. During the big meltdown after Julia yells at him, Sam loses his speech and can only cry and make pained sounds, which is distressing to see on TV but not inaccurate. The part that made me scratch my head was when Sam was recovering from the same meltdown. Elsa wraps him in several blankets and turns up the heat, which is counterproductive in my head. I like the weight and pressure of blankets, and it is made clear that Sam likes pressure too, but heat tends to make me feel more overwhelmed. This might be a difference of individual sensory profiles though.
Another nice touch was including Sam’s echolalia and how it felt inside his head. Throughout the show, a word or phrase would get stuck in Sam’s head, and his voiceover would loop it in a variety of tones and cadences. Eventually, Sam would blurt the word out regardless of his environment, such as when he greeted Beth and Evan by shouting “twat.” A lot of autistic people can relate to getting something stuck in their head and having to say it. I was worried at first that the show would drop this behavior after the first episode, but it did reoccur.
There are a few things that I felt were missing from Atypical though. Some aspects of Sam’s life were glossed over despite being important in the life of a real ND, such as how he got his job at Techtropolis. Was he in some sort of job placement program for autistic teens, or was Elsa just really good at drilling Sam on application and interview procedures? Not a lot of detail went into the types of therapies Sam received as a kid either, though it is implied that he did not start having one-on-one sessions with Julia until a year or two before the show started. Even though we see Elsa’s mom group, very little mention is made of the children of those moms, except for Louisa’s son Christopher, who gets a few minutes of screen time. Are these ABA supporters? Is ABA going to be addressed at all? A few references are made to “replacement behaviors”, but we get no explanation of what these behaviors are. I wondered if these behaviors had any connection to masking (pretending to be NT), which got no mention in the series. The mom group corrects Doug, insisting on person-first language, but Sam seems to show no preference for whether he prefers to be called “autistic”, “a person with autism”, or “on the spectrum”, and all three of these terms are said in his presence. The last thing that seemed absent was comorbidity. Autistic people have a higher chance of developing anxiety disorders, including OCD, and Sam shows what I think are some pretty blatant OCD traits. Wanting to complete Casey’s birthday ritual because that is how they do it every year could be passed off as just part of Sam thriving on routine, as autistic people do, but fearing that if they do not complete the ritual, Edison the tortoise will die? That sounds more like an obsessive-compulsive cycle. Having to knock four times before opening the wardrobe is not exactly an autism-only behavior either. Sam is also quite particular about his food, yet no mention is made of ARFID, an eating disorder that a ton of autistic kids struggle with, or any gastrointestinal issues, another common comorbidity.
I cannot talk about Sam without talking about the other characters around him and how they interact with the autistic protagonist. Sam’s mom, Elsa, starts the series out as a quintessential Autism Mom, schedule board and support group included. I am relieved but surprised that she did not own any puzzle piece paraphernalia. It turns out though that Elsa is a meddling yente with everybody she knows, and the fact that one of her kids is autistic is just a bonus. Doug, on the other hand, is initially distant with Sam and questions whether his son even enjoys his presence, but he ultimately becomes the better parent for Sam because he recognizes that Sam needs to be independent. Elsa is still tempted to do everything for Sam to the point that he feels infantilized, even sending Paige over to make sure the stove is working correctly. Casey, Sam’s sister, sometimes resents Sam for getting more attention from their parents, and this leads to Sam’s ultimate lesson in becoming less self-centered and more considerate of others, which is appropriate for a teenager to learn in a dramedy. Casey sometimes messes with Sam by teasing him or punching him, but if anyone else tries to do the same, she goes into protective mode. There are times when Casey goes too far with antagonizing Sam though, particularly during their fight after Casey moves an already-stressed Sam’s toothbrush one too many times. Paige, Sam’s on-and-off girlfriend, initially comes off as viewing Sam as a pet project or an experiment, leading to some harsh words from Casey, but she grows protective of Sam to the point where she screams herself hoarse on the last day of school because some other classmates wrote mean words in Sam’s yearbook. Paige’s loud, hyper-bubbly personality and lack of respect for his boundaries (cue her touching his stuff) presents a challenge for the more reserved, territorial Sam, which is good for a first relationship because it teaches Sam what he does and does not want. One thing that bothered me about Paige was that she restricted Sam from talking about his special interests, while she could blather on about whatever she wanted. After their first breakup though, Paige drops this hypocrisy and their relationship evolves to them talking however much they feel comfortable, though Sam still has to learn things like being considerate of his girlfriend and asking how she is feeling. My favorite side character would have to be Zahid, Sam’s friend from work. Zahid does a lot of things right in terms of being Sam’s friend without even trying too hard. He talks to Sam not as if he is “that special kid”, but as a younger bro who needs a little guidance but is ultimately the more logical, dependable anchor for spontaneous, live-in-the-moment Zahid. He respects Sam’s sensory needs, asking permission before hugging him and remarking that he remembers Sam liking pressure, and he offers life lessons that are more natural and less clinical, if a bit misguided. The clinical side of things comes from Julia, Sam’s therapist. She answers Sam’s questions about socializing and dating, and apparently does a bit too good of a job understanding Sam because he develops a crush on her. (I joke, of course, Sam’s crush was not Julia’s fault). Julia is understandably upset and shocked when Sam asks if she loves him, but she later apologizes for yelling at Sam and gives him one last bit of guidance.
Overall, Sam’s autism is not treated as a plague or as something that makes him any more inspirational than the average person. When his guidance counselor suggests that he write his personal statement on his autism, Sam responds that that would be like someone writing about having ten fingers and ten toes. He does not view being autistic as an accomplishment or a superpower at this point, though he does embrace his eye for detail when going on the quest to find Zahid towards the end of Season 3. In his narration, he speaks of his autistic traits just as part of himself, not totally good or bad. He does not complain about disliking light touch or brag about his overpreparedness. By presenting his autism as a part of himself that just is, he nails neutrality in a way that I still cannot. This turned out to be a looooong review, but considering how well-known Atypical is, I did not want to skip anything important. I would give it a strong eight point five out of ten. This series, above all else, tells a real, relatable story. Sam Gardner is one autistic individual with one set of autistic traits, and the inclusion of his narration and unique sound editing choices make it so viewers experience his life up close and personal. This show really could have been an anti-autism scare-tactic ad, and it could have been an inspiration porn fest, but it went the neutral route instead. I would love to see more autistic actors given the spotlight in the new season since they cannot really replace Gilchrist at this point, and I would also like to see some of the themes that were left out of the show so far. Maybe have Sam meet a late-diagnosed female classmate who is learning to unmask? Again, Atypical is a heartfelt story with a relatable and realistic protagonist, and no one should be afraid to watch it.
Before we get into this list, I would like to apologize for my period of silence. I have been preoccupied with finals, moving off-campus and back home with my parents, and all of the anxiety associated with that. Transitions are hard for me, and I cannot think of a good simile to compare them to right now without it sounding forced. Second and more to the point, I would like to wish everyone reading this a happy and safe Pride Month. This month is rather important to me because there is a lot of overlap between the neurodivergent community and the LGBTQ+ community. (I like to call us QUILTBAGs, but I fear that will never catch on). I am a newly-discovered bisexual woman, and since I came to terms with my sexuality after I was diagnosed as autistic, I noticed a lot of parallels, a lot of similar landmarks, between the two journeys. I decided to post this list to share my experience and to celebrate the intersection between LGBTQ+ folks and NDs.
- The Denial
Sadly but truly, I was afraid of both identities throughout my life. I have mentioned internalized ableism before, in my Neutrality post, and how it made me block out any signs that I could be autistic, or have OCD or paranoia, for that matter. I ignored my similarities to ND characters in books, and I was terrified of other people finding out that I had trouble with things like eye contact or understanding that my left was opposite to the left of someone facing me. A similar thing happened whenever I had feelings for someone who was not a boy. I brushed it off as being envious, as wanting to be that person (most of the time it was a girl), or just wanting a friendship with them. Whenever an adult talked about having a relationship with someone and hastily added “or she” after mentioning a he, I would think, “Haha, very funny, that will never happen.” I had cemented myself as the designated straight friend as well as the designated mentally healthy neurotypical.
- The Curiosity
I have always found it interesting to learn about types of people and their different cultures and ways of living. This extended to the queer community. I used to watch Buzzfeed videos with titles like 15 Bisexual Girl Problems and think, “Why am I watching this? I am straight.” followed by, “Oh well, at least I can be supportive.” This was the same period of time when I was reading about autism through Facebook posts and child development books. Whenever I learned someone in my life was autistic, I would try and study them by asking questions and making observations about their lives, and I did the same thing with queer people. The world of LGBTQ+ seemed magical and fun, and I have the type of mind that is drawn to variation and color within humanity and life. Even with the thought of “that’s not me”, I did not want to miss out on learning.
- Looking to Media for Answers
Beyond books, blogs, and YouTube videos, I subconsciously searched for myself in fictional characters and in celebrities. I felt similar to people like Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter and Ian Lightfood from Onward, and later found out that a lot of people headcanonned them as ND. I also saw a lot of shipping between characters of the same gender that did not take place in the canon story, and I always internally cheered whenever a queer kiss took place onscreen. As for real people, I was aware of autistic icons like Einstein, who mostly showed up in the math and technology world, but the famous NDs I really loved to hear about were Temple Grandin and Greta Thunberg, both autistic girls who loved nature and were not afraid to raise their voices. I also began to collect “bicons”, as in bisexual icons, such as Gaby Dunn and Freddie Mercury. These people were like me before I knew what I was like, and they showed me how cool it could be. Where canon failed, headcanon succeeded, and still does, to the point where it is a whole category on this blog. This is why representation matters, people!
- Testing Myself
When I had started accepting the fact that I could be autistic, I was using a lot of online tests and checklists to confirm my suspicions. Eventually, I went to a specialist for a formal assessment. By contrast, there is no doctor to tell you that you are bisexual. There is no “gay test”, no matter what Big Mouth told you. However, I could still test and experiment on myself. When I told the Technician that I thought I might like girls as well as boys (and anyone in between), his first instinct was to send hentai at me to try and figure out what “my types” were. It was fun, and it made my sexual discovery process seem more methodical and systematic, which the scientific side of me liked. In a way, I felt like I needed some kind of outside authority to approve my bisexuality for me, just like I needed the formal diagnosis. I wish I were stronger in myself so that I could just declare it on my own, but that is not the case, which brings me to my next point.
- The Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is the worst. I could be living my best autistic life, and another autistic person makes a meme or brings up a trait that I do not resonate with, which sends me on a spiral of doubt. I start to wonder if everyone, including myself, got it wrong. Sometimes I feel like I am not autistic enough or that I have been faking it to everyone. The imposter feelings surrounding my sexuality are a bit more streamlined these days. I know full well who I am attracted to, but my experiences say otherwise. I am currently in a committed, monogamous relationship with a guy, and have never been with a woman, so I sometimes feel afraid to call myself bisexual. Logically, I know that sexuality is based on attraction, not action, but I still sometimes feel like an attention-seeking liar when I make a “swings both ways” joke one minute and mention my boyfriend the next. I feel like the world is going “go on, do the gay thing” the same way it sometimes goes “you don’t look autistic.”
- The Early Signs
Most of my autistic traits had been hiding in plain sight since I was a kid. When I made my outline of evidence, most of the points on there were from before I was ten, and they had just slipped by everyone, including me. I did the same thing with non-boy crushes. Just a couple of months ago, I remembered a girl from summer camp the year I was thirteen and realized that I had had a crush on her. At the time, I had interpreted my strong feelings as friendly, and the fact that I was distracted by her boobs as wanting to look like her. I partially blame my struggle to interpret emotions, especially since attraction is a tricky one to pin down even for NTs, but I also blame the societal expectation that being straight is default and therefore as a girl I would like boys. My parents used to tease me about a potential crush whenever I mentioned a boy from school, but they never did that with girls, so I grew up assuming that girls were not for crushing, at least not for me. I did not consider it as a possibility. This feels similar to when people passed over the possibility of me being autistic because I could speak.
- The Fear
I wish I did not have to include this one, but I do. Whenever I enter a new space, whether that be a Discord server, a class, or just a public park, I think about how visible I want to be and how best to let these strangers know I am autistic. I fear not being accepted, being infantilized or otherwise treated differently, or being disbelieved. I worry about talking about my autism too much and whether people will think I am using it to try to be unique. I happen to live in a state where LGBTQ+ people are quite accepted and bisexuality is at least acknowledged as a thing, but I still worry. Bisexuality has a reputation as being just a phase or a claim to attention, and I fear being associated with that. As I mentioned in point 5, I fear the expectation that I “perform” or “prove” my sexuality for strangers.
- The Community and Friendship
One of my favorite parts of being autistic is meeting other ND people and hearing their stories. I would not have figured out what I was without people like Tech and the Drummer to compare experiences with. I have discovered what a positive, accepting, and intersectional place the online ND community can be, and I feel quite at home there. I mentioned being the designated straight friend in point 1, and that is because a lot of people I have felt close to throughout my life have been LGBTQ+. I never had a homophobic phase because I grew up with people like them. Bisexuals in particular have an established meme culture (werewolves and finger guns, anyone?), and autistic people have their own inside jokes too. Yes, there are rifts and there are fools in every crowd, but for every a-hole I have met in either community, I have met five who would have told that person off.
- The Power of Self-Identity
I am going to be real here, the QUILTBAGs love their labels. Not that I am complaining; I love to categorize. There are at least three words for “person who is attracted to people of their own gender as well as people of other genders”, but I call myself bisexual because it makes the most sense in my head. I also accept queer as an umbrella term. In the same way, I choose to call myself autistic because that is what I am, and I do not view autism as an affliction or a separate plane from my natural self. I also use ND, for neurodivergent, to connect myself not only with other autistic people but also with ADHDers, dyslexics, and others. Other people who are not me have the freedom to use whatever words they want to describe their neurodivergence and/or their queerness or transness. My friend Thesaurus Boi calls himself crazy, and Tech will tell you he is an autist. I know people with attraction profiles like mine who call themselves pan rather than bi, or forgo a label altogether, and the fact that we can do that is a beautiful thing.
10. I really wanted this list to have ten points, but I only thought of nine. This feels like something out of the Stormlight Archive. Happy Pride, and do not give your money to companies that do not support you. Stay gold!
Let me fangirl for a minute. Death Note is my favorite anime. I have a minor obsession with death and how death gods are portrayed in fiction, and the Villain Protagonist trope is something I wish I saw more. What excites me most about Death Note though, is the character of L Lawliet, the not-so-villainous antagonist and master detective. I do have a bit of a crush on him, but I would be just as happy being his friend. When I expressed this to the Technician, he said that “L’s superpower is ASD.” My response was “Thank you for saying this so I don’t have to” because, well, Tech was right. L shows a number of autistic traits, making him the first Type 2 representation on this blog.
First of all, L’s detective skills are top of the charts, literally. The top three detectives in Japan are himself and his two aliases. He works days and nights on solving mysteries, to the point where the rest of the police force doubt he ever sleeps. This makes perfect sense if you think of criminal investigation as a special interest. He even claims to “collect” criminals, and collecting, especially in relation to special interests, is another common autistic behavior. The reason he is so good at it is because he would rather do that than any other activity. (Except maybe eat sweets, but more on that later). L is shown to use his powers of deduction in other contexts, such as the entrance test where he first sees Light.
Speaking of that scene, remember how he was told off by the proctor for sitting oddly and he claims that his reasoning skills will drop by forty percent? This may be slightly hyperbolic, but not irrational. Autistic people tend to sit in unusual ways, including with their knees tucked up to their chests like L does, because they have altered proprioception, the sense of their bodies in space. If L were to sit with his feet on the ground, he would be receiving the wrong amount of sensory input, and that would distract him from his work. He also has a crooked posture when standing and walking for the same reason. L’s vision and hearing are heightened, which is why he is often seen in near-darkness and he notices the tolling of the bell when the rest of the team seems oblivious to it. In the flashback to the orphanage, a variety of sounds are heard, including a child crying, to show how noisy L’s world is. L’s stance on touch is kind of ambiguous because the other characters do not attempt to touch him often, but he seems to be under-sensitive to it, having no trouble shaking hands with Light upon meeting him, holding Watari’s hand as a child, or being kissed on the cheek by Misa. However, being forcefully grabbed by Aizawa causes him to freeze with anxiety, so maybe he can only touch if he initiates or is warned first.
L stims with his food in multiple ways. He loves sugar, and there are few scenes when he is not eating cake or some other sweet. Some autistic people eat as a self-stimulatory behavior (stim), and that includes favoring a certain flavor, like sweetness. L also plays with his food by stacking it or lining it up in a pattern, which counts as a stim but for his eyes and hands. He is frequently seen biting his thumb, especially when he is thinking, another oral stim. I cannot find any clips of him rocking back and forth as a stim, but with the way he sits, it is not improbable that he does this.
As for social things, L is a known oddball who is either unaware of it or, more likely, does not care. His voice is rather monotone, and his facial expressions tend to be slightly delayed and slightly exaggerated, as if each smile or smirk requires extra thought. Some of his smiles look creepy or forced. Tone and facial expressions tend to take more effort for autistic people, and our attempts at expressing emotion may seem “off” or unnatural. L often lacks situational awareness, like the scene when he assumes Light and Misa are irritated with him because he has cake and they do not. Autistic people sometimes have a tendency to assume everyone else thinks the way they do, and that looks like what L is doing here. He would be annoyed if Light was eating cake and he was not, so that is the conclusion he jumps to when Light is annoyed with him. He also sees nothing wrong with tagging along with Misa and Light on their dates, and is genuinely confused when he is called a pervert over this. This is hilarious and relatable, not being aware of boundaries regarding couples and ending up being an accidental creep. L often avoids eye contact and appears uncomfortable in large groups, which are well-known autism characteristics.
Overall, L manages to be a relatable and endearing autism representation as well as an interesting cerebral hero. His special interest is put to use while not seeming overly savant-like, though your mileage may vary there. While he is not confirmed as autistic, individuals in the autism community relate to L and celebrate his strengths. If you have not already watched Death Note and are looking for some autism representation in a crime anime, please go and watch it. (Or not. I do not own you). I will hopefully have more headcanon posts up soon.
I follow a lovely autism education profile on Instagram known as The Autisticats. While reading one of their older posts (scrolling back is fun sometimes), I read about the poster viewing one of their autistic traits as “sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad thing, but mostly just a thing.” This stuck in my mind because for most of my life, my views on autism have been extreme.
When I first learned about autism, I thought of it as a curse. Reading through the parenting and child development books while hiding in the back of my local bookstore, I became familiar with the pathological view on autism, as a defect that caused pain and isolation. It did not help that those books leaned toward certain traits, or as they called them, symptoms, that were less true of me, such as delay or lack of speech and bodies so sensitive that a hug would send them to tears. I watched as Temple Grandin got bullied, underestimated, and overstimulated on-screen, and felt relief that that was not me. The general public’s reaction to someone being autistic tended to be along the lines of “poor thing, I’m so sorry”, and I had no idea what the actual autistic people thought. I did not know, at the time, that I was one of them.
Shortly after those times, I became aware of the “superhero” perspective of autism. I remember the first autism-centric Facebook page I followed: Planet Morgan, Aspie Superhero. I read about this adolescent boy who, despite being bullied to the point where he feared going to school, considered himself superpowered. Seeing his Dragon Ball drawings, I believed him. I learned about historical figures who may have owed their fame to autism, such as Mozart with his amazing memory and dedication to music. Sharp memories, superior puzzling skills, keen eyes, innovation…all portrayed as strengths, as well as autistic traits. Then I met my friend the Technician, who introduced me to a whole other level of autistic pride. He fully owns his label as his identity, calling himself “an autist”, and I bet you can guess what his “superpower” is.
When I was anticipating my evaluation, I was on an extra lookout for all of the things I struggled with, everything I did wrong. That was a painful state to be in, looking at myself as defective. I had to remember the joy I had seen autistic people express, as well as the sorrow, and I added a section in my outline dedicated to my loves and strengths. Being around other ND people for the first time in my life made me embrace my stimming (especially the happy rocking and leg shaking) in a way that I had not since I was in elementary school, made me see my echolalia as fun rather than annoying or as an inferior form of communication, and made me admire my community’s straightforwardness and lack of hinting and expecting you to read between the lines. (I can catch a drift no more successfully than I can catch a ball). I was spoiled by spending all day with my autistic and ADHD friends online, laughing at the silly neurotypicals and talking about plans to start an ND colony on Mars.
This was…too far. When I come back into the “real world”, I remember that I am a social minority, and that my identity is classified as a disability. There are days when I do curse my autism, days when I wish I had normal ears that could still follow a conversation with white noise and other people’s voices going on in the background, a normal mind that could tell when it was okay to join in and when I was supposed to hang back, and normal interests that lined up with my peers in the hallway or my relatives at family gatherings. (Why are we talking about politics instead of the personifications of death in various novels? Is that not more fun and interesting)? Even when I laugh at my body not recognizing that the reason I cannot sleep is because I need to pee until I am close to bursting, I wish I could feel that cue sooner. At the same time, when I spend hours working on a composition, or I am the only one in the room who knows how “nimrod” became an insult, I can thank my autism. Like many autistic people that I know, I find joy in small things in life, such as the feeling of sunlight on my back or the way a field of mustard looks and smells after the rain. “Find your strengths” has become a catchphrase of mine to help other NDs feel more comfortable in their skin.
But most of the time, my autistic traits are just part of me, regardless of whether they are good or bad, strengths or deficits. Yes, I get confused if someone types a joke at me and does not specify humor with a tone indicator. Yes, I take my jacket off and on five times in twenty minutes. And yes, I just finished listening to the soundtrack to A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder for the second time this week because it tickles my brain exactly the right way. These are all parts of me, and I do not have to assign morality to them. I have found my identity, and I am on the road to acceptance. My autism is part of me, and it is not a good thing or a bad thing. It is just a thing.
If you have been on the internet in recent years, you probably know who Elon Musk is. He is a CEO of multiple companies as well as being a champion sh*tposter. He also hosted Saturday Night Live yesterday, which included revealing that he has “Asperger’s Syndrome”. (There is a whole post I could write on why I refuse to use that term). Elon Musk is autistic. And I am here rolling my eyes.
I am not thrilled to have another billionaire tech and engineering CEO join our ranks. I have been seeing this figure my whole life. The isolated technical genius man who uses his knack with math and machines and his entrepreneurial skills to found and head a successful company. Or, alternatively, he is only good at one thing and he uses his rich parents’ money to invest in a company. The public theorizes that he is autistic, and sometimes it gets confirmed, but sometimes it does not. I am not comfortable with the general public understanding autism as the portrait of the rich, technologically, mathematically gifted man. I am none of these things. Well, I could be mathematically gifted if I chose to keep learning math. I sort of stopped after high school. However, I am far from rich, I am so technologically inept that I have to use WordPress for this blog while someone like Steve Jobs would just program their own website, and I am a woman! Yes, women and non-binary people can be autistic too. When I first saw that Musk had “come out” as autistic, my first reaction was to text multiple friends (also autistic) that, “No more techno-billionaires can join our ranks until someone does a comb-through of every writer and actor that has ever been deemed ‘eccentric’.” Autistic people have all kinds of occupations and hobbies, including writing (hello) and acting, and we are tired of being overlooked. In fact, Musk is not the first autistic person to host SNL. That honor goes to actor Dan Aykroyd back in 2003. I do not want other autistic people to look at guys like Musk and think they are “bad at being autistic” because they are not CEOs or are interested in things besides technology and engineering.
The other problem with this is that Elon Musk is not a good person. He is openly ignorant about a spread of things, from COVID-19 to trans rights, is horrible to work under, named his son something pretentious and unpronounceable, is yet another dragon hoarding wealth when he could be donating it, and has shown support of curing autism. He is a traitor as well as a rich jerk. I am not even going to cite sources here because there are too many. Google is free, have at it, I dare you. Musk perpetuates yet another negative stereotype with his unlikeable behavior. People are already saying things like “Asperger’s? No wonder he’s such a dick!” Autism does not inherently mark someone as a horrible person, and neither is it an excuse for being a horrible person. I may be autistic, but I am not shouting at a woman asking why she has hair on her face. My friends and I are not little angels, but we do try to be good people, and for most of us, hurting someone is the last thing we want to do. There are fools in every crowd, and the neurodivergent community is no exception, but like any community, we do not want our label to be synonymous with “jerk.”
There is something nagging at me while I write this post, and that is my perceived lack of gratitude. Some readers are probably thinking, “Aurelia, what’s wrong with rich jerks coming out as autistic? Aren’t you grateful for the publicity and attention that autism is receiving?” There is a difference between positive and negative attention, and there is such a thing as bad representation. As cliche as it sounds, there is power in representation. I look at Musk and want to shout, “That’s not me! Not all of us are like that!” I want to be able to see people like myself in the news, and I know that people in my community would benefit from that too. Instead, people like Musk keep getting publicized, to the point where people disbelieve me because I am not like him. It is almost like the neurotypical public wants to hate on and make fun of autistic people, at least when they are not worshipping them. Why else would they continue to accept autism as this thing that makes you a rich jerk when evidence to the contrary is right in front of them? You are probably noticing a theme here, and you may have also noticed that I have not said anything to invalidate Musk’s autism. I have accepted the fact that Musk has autism as true, and I will continue to do so until absolutely solid evidence against it is brought to light. That is unlikely to happen because no one should have their diagnosis scrutinized and questioned, even a man like Musk. His claim that Neuralink could cure autism is the only reason I have to say “you can’t sit with us, Elon.” The tech CEOs are not banned from sitting at the autism table because they are tech CEOs. The same goes for the generally unpleasant and unkind people. If you are autistic, you can sit with us, but those who come up to the table cannot only talk to those like Musk and walk away thinking they have met the entire crowd. Those at the table cannot shove others off for not being tech-obsessed, not being heads of companies, not being rich white men. Autism is colorful, varied, a welcoming umbrella of traits and experiences. So why not open the lens and expand the public gaze beyond Elon Musk?
Autism is multi-faceted, varied, and difficult to explain without oversimplifying. It is a spectrum, which is in the name, a mosaic of traits and characteristics as colorful as the rainbow infinity symbol used to represent neurodiversity. However, there are some disorders and ways of being that people mistake autism for. The following list contains ten of those, compiled to clear up confusion and bust some common myths. Some things on this list are comorbidities, meaning they are separate conditions that can occur along with autism, but they do not have to. Autism is not…
- A Mental Illness
A lot of people are out there confusing neurodiversity and mental illnesses. According to Psychology Today , neurodiversity is a cognitive difference which can be autism, ADHD, a learning disability like dyslexia, or schizophrenia. These differences, still classified as disorders by many, are genetic and present from birth. Mental illnesses, on the other hand, develop overtime due to environmental stressors. Mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, develop in a large amount of autistic people, but they are not present from birth, but autism itself is.
- Just For Children
There are autistic adults, and we deserve recognition too. Autism does not just go away like baby fat as kids grow up, and many people do not get diagnosed with autism until they are already over eighteen years old. I got my diagnosis when I turned twenty. Autistic characters in fiction are most often children, and most “autism awareness” advertisements focus on children, but this is misleading.
- Down Syndrome
I have rolled my eyes so many times from seeing autism confused or compared to Down syndrome, especially in internet memes, that I am surprised my eyes are not permanently stuck in the back of my skull. Down syndrome, also known as trisomy-21, is a chromosomal abnormality that causes physical differences and cognitive impairment. Since it is caused by an extra chromosome, Down syndrome can be identified using a karyotype, and people with Down syndrome have a characteristic appearance. Autism’s genetic markers are nowhere near that obvious, and autism has no physical markers. If you hear autism and think of short stature, flat hair, small eyes, and a short neck, you have the wrong disorder in your head.
- Intellectual Disability
Intellectual disability is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as a significant deficit in both intellectual functioning (the ability to learn and solve problems) and adaptive functioning (communicative and practical skills). Intellectually disabled people score about a 70 on IQ, which means they learn slower than their typical peers. I know what you are probably thinking, autistic people can take longer to learn too, but the reason for that is different. Autistic people are impeded by how material might be taught, and they tend to have strong memories and reasoning skills, which traditional IQ tests lean heavily on. Intellectually disabled people, on the other hand, struggle with those skills and often end up learning later no matter how they are taught. Intellectual disability shows deficits across the board, whereas autism often manifests as skewed ability, as in performing low in some areas but high in others. Intellectual disability can be comorbid with autism, but it is not a given symptom. Do not assume an autistic person is “slow”.
Ugh, I hate this misconception/stereotype. A savant is someone with spectacular, almost superhuman skill in one specific area, but average or below average performance everywhere else. These are the human calculators, the prodigious musicians, the prodigious readers with photographic memories. Yes, there are some autistic people who are savants, but they are few and far between. More likely, you will find an autistic person who has a great love for a certain activity, leading to extended practice and enhanced ability. There is no miraculous natural gift, only passion and hard work. I blame films like Rain Man and A Brilliant Young Mind for making autistic people look like supercomputers.
- A Disease to be Cured
April just passed, so you have probably seen all of the ads for organizations such as Autism Speaks (or as I like to call them, Autism Unspeakable) painting autism as this scary, negative thing that takes children away and tears up families, a lot like cancer. There are parents and teachers who describe their children or students as being locked inside themselves, prisoners in their own uncooperative bodies. Some companies speak of curing autism and ending the “epidemic”. This hurts. A majority of autistic people, including myself, do not want a cure. Sure, being autistic sucks sometimes, but it also makes things fun and interesting, and I would not be myself without it. Most of my problems could be solved if the general public were a little more accepting, a little more patient. Maybe we should be curing ableism, not autism.
- Complete Purity and Innocence
As offensive as painting autism as a disease is, the other side of the coin is just as bad. Some neurotypicals like to think that autistic people are these pure, innocent angels who were brought to this earth to soften people’s hearts and inspire them to be kind and selfless. “Autism moms” are praised just for doing their jobs, and actual autistic people’s images are preserved as fragile and uncorrupted. I have news for you: there are autistic people who have sex, do drugs, swear, wear clothing other than modest pastels, make jokes including dirty ones, and do plenty of other things neurotypicals do that are not exactly considered “pure”, but are nonetheless considered “normal”. If you need a neurodivergent person to come into your life so you can pat yourself on the back for being their friend or caretaker, I suggest you ask yourself why you need to use another human to elevate you with karma points (or whatever your belief system is), because that is what we are. We are human.
- Psychopathy or Sociopathy
According to Mental Health America, psychopathy and sociopathy are both slang for antisocial personality disorder. These individuals are often impulsive and deceitful, though not always violent, and they do not feel guilt or remorse. They are stereotypically “evil”, though they can hide themselves in normal societal positions. Autistic people can be mistaken for psychopaths or sociopaths because of the misconception that we do not experience empathy or emotions. The truth is that we do, but we may struggle to express our own emotions or identify them in others using nonverbal cues. Autistic people do not generally go out of their way to harm others, and lack of understanding of unwritten social rules does not make them dangerous.
An introvert is a type of person who recharges their social and emotional batteries by being alone, as opposed to an extrovert, who does so by being with others. Yes, some autistic people are introverts, but that is not everything that autism is, although they can look similar from the outside. I define myself as an “anxious extrovert”, and I am autistic. I thrive on interaction with friends and love to meet new people, but since I am autistic, I do not always know how to interact with others successfully, and fear of rejection or messing up can make me hesitate, which is where the anxiety comes in. I also do not do well with the unexpected, so I have to gather a lot of information before agreeing to meet up with someone. Some autistic people avoid parties or other social events because of sensory issues too. Again, autistic people can be anywhere on the scale of introvert or extrovert, so do not assume the autistic person in your life is happier alone.
- A Monolith
One of my favorite quotes is, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” This means that we are not all the same, and you cannot project your perceptions about one of us onto all of us. Autism, like I said before, is a varied spectrum, and while we do all have things in common, we do have even more qualities that make us individual and different, just like any other group of people. We are not one stereotype, one box, one cookie cutter character. We can be anyone. Well, except a neurotypical. That is just part of the definition.
Love on the Spectrum is a reality TV show that was filmed in Australia for Northern Pictures for the ABC in 2019. It features seven single autistic people as well as two autistic couples and how they navigate the dating world. I decided to watch it and see whether it portrayed autism in an accurate, positive light. I admit, my expectations were low. I told a friend right before I started, “I’m going to try watching Love on the Spectrum tonight. This is either going to be fun or torturous.” I was fully bracing for cringeworthy moments, which were present, but I was also pleasantly surprised.
Let’s start with the positives. Each member of the cast was presented as an individual person, not as a stereotype or caricature, so I felt like I had met them. Everyone got time to talk about their special interests and the things that made them happy, including Ruth with her pet snake, Mark with dinosaurs, and Kelvin with his anime and manga. There were a lot of cute and happy moments, including two marriage proposals, but I especially enjoyed seeing the cast connect on dates, such as when Amanda said she liked to collect toys and dolls, making Michael’s face light up with joy. Including couples was a smart move because it showed successful love stories. In other words, there were people who connected and stayed after the first date! Some quotes made me laugh, like when Lotus said, “Haha, yes, the autistic girl likes Minecraft.” As another autistic girl who likes Minecraft, I felt exposed in a good way. A couple of good points were raised about what autism was and how people should not be prejudged because of it. Chloe’s quote “What does an autistic person look like?” is something I have wanted to say for a long time. There was also some intersectionality between autism and other disabilities. Chloe was partially deaf, Olivia had a tic disorder, and Lauren had cerebral palsy (which meant she was especially delighted to see the waddling penguins because they walked like her).
The cast did have some shortcomings, however. First of all, it was rather white, with Kelvin and Marcus being the only people of color. I was also disappointed at how few LGBT+ cast members there were considering the overlap between the ND and the LGBT+ communities in real life. I felt that having one confirmed asexual (Michael) and two bisexuals (Chloe and Lotus) was not enough. Even though everyone was in their twenties, the heavy involvement of the cast’s parents made it feel like they were still in high school. It makes sense that they needed people for an outside perspective, but did the parents really need to be present for the dating coach sessions? This is especially considering the intentions of parents like Michael’s mother, who kept her son’s diagnosis a secret from him until he was thirteen.
The show seemed to be made more for neurotypicals than for autistic people to watch, so it felt voyeuristic at times. It kind of had the same feeling as those videos of cute animals making friends, like “awww, look at the autistic people going on their little dates and holding hands.” This might just be my distrust for reality TV talking, but a few moments felt contrived. For example, Chloe’s dad told his daughter that if she started to get nervous, she could excuse herself to “powder her nose”. Chloe took this literally, and when her dad explained that it was an expression, her response was “but it’s not honest.” I suspected that this exchange was scripted in order to show one of the few features of autism that most NTs were familiar with, taking figurative speech literally.
The worst case of neurotypical interference, however, had to be including a neurotypical dating coach to instruct autistic people who were paired up with other autistic people. Jodi Rogers, the coach in question, could have been a lot worse, being a sunny presence who recognized the individuality and the strengths as well as weaknesses of autistic people. However, she should not have been the one to give advice in an autistic-autistic dating context. If the main cast had been paired up with neurotypicals, then her presence would have made more sense, but that was not the case. For example, Jodi had to teach Andrew that some people lie about having personal issues or being busy to avoid a second date and suggested that this was what Evie did to him. This was a necessary lesson, except that Evie was most likely autistic as well (they met at a disability-centric speed-dating event and she would have fit the pattern), and therefore more likely to be telling the truth since autistic people tend to be more blunt about not wanting to see someone again. The cast were instructed to make eye contact while they were talking, which is uncomfortable for most autistic people, including myself. A neurodivergent dating coach would not have bothered with that because they would know that two autistic people on a date most likely would not care that their date was looking somewhere else because they would be doing it too. Another moment of the same type that stood out to me, although it was with parents and not the coach, was when Maddi was having a “practice date” with her parents, and they criticized her for responding to a question with “no”. Their reasoning was that she needed to keep the conversation going, even if that meant being less than honest. This was not only obviously confusing for Maddi, but is potentially dangerous! “No” is a powerful word, and Maddi may have needed it to prevent a date from pressuring her into something she was uncomfortable with.
One last criticism I had was the lack of focus on sex. Now, I know the show is called Love on the Spectrum, not Sex on the Spectrum (though there is an awesome subreddit with that name), and there is such thing as love and dating without sex, but they often coincide for NTs and NDs alike. When asked about what people in relationships do, Kelvin did not describe anything beyond “hugs and kisses” for the physical side of things, and none of the others mentioned being interested in things more risquee than that, except for Marcus’s brief mention of watching porn. Michael was aware of what intercourse was, but he was also vocally against it, to the point where I felt slightly shamed for being interested in it. The general idea seemed to be that while autistic people can date, they do not want sex, or worse, are ignorant unaware of it. This is problematic and false. Yes, there are asexual autistic people, but there are also some struggling with sex addiction, and some who have healthy sex lives, and regardless of neurotype or orientation, everyone deserves to be informed about sex. (I could make a whole other post about this, seriously). All right, stern tangent over, now back to the review.
Love on the Spectrum has some blunders in representation and casting, and has a slightly voyeuristic air to it. However, it is also full of wholesome moments and has a generally optimistic message. I especially liked seeing autistic people represented as dimensional individuals rather than tokens or stereotypes. Overall, I would rate Love on the Spectrum at a seven out of ten. It is a step in the right direction for autistic people on TV, and I would like to see how it might change and improve.
Sam from Atypical is a representation of autism. So is Newt Scamander from Fantastic Beasts. So, arguably, is Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. But how can that be true if only one of these characters is referred to as autistic in their source material? The answer is, being canonically autistic is not the only way a character can be relatable to autistic viewers. From what I have observed, there are three types of representation. This post and this site will mostly focus on autism, but the same principles apply to other disabilities and even other characteristics such as being LGBTQ+.
Type 1, the canonical or confirmed character, is what most people think of when they hear “representation in media.” This character’s diagnosis is named, either within the story (Type 1A) or by the creator (Type 1B). There is a high possibility that if a character’s diagnosis is mentioned on-screen, it is either the main premise of the work, or it will become a recurring plot point. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact, some of these stories need to be told. However, it can get tiring after a while, especially since neurotypical characters get all kinds of plot points that are unrelated to being neurotypical. Ideally, a canonical autistic character would be as whole, developed, and unique as a neurotypical one, but that is not always the case. Too many writers end up writing a stereotypical character, also known as a character with Hollywood Autism. Poorly-written characters may also be the butt of jokes without ever being truly humanized, or they may be portrayed as perfect angels (the Inspirationally Disadvantaged trope). These are bad representations! If you are writing a disabled character, please do not do this! Another common trope is that of the Disability Superpower, when the character’s weaknesses are turned into strengths. This is more acceptable, at least with autism, because autistic people do recognize that they have strengths that differ from those of NTs. However, no one appreciates a very real struggle being pushed aside for plot convenience.
What about Type 1B? Being confirmed by the creator off-screen makes it easier to include genres like high fantasy and historical fiction, which tend to not feature worlds where words for autism, ADHD, OCD, or schizophrenia exist. Instead, the character is described as “odd” or “mad” and given the traits that match which condition the creator intended to represent. They may be labeled as Cloudcuckoolanders on TVTropes.org. Brandon Sanderson does a great job of researching and including neurodivergence and mental illness in his writing by using this method, and I look forward to delving into characters such as his Steris Harms in the future. Characters who don’t have their diagnosis mentioned on-screen are less likely to be walking plot-devices or stereotypes, but they are also more often written as side characters. This seems to hold true more for autism than for mental or physical disorders, but I hope that changes in the future.
Type 2, my favorite type, is the implied or headcanoned character. These characters are written with a lot of traits that align with a certain neurotype or disorder, to the point where fans peg them with it. However, they are not confirmed by those who wrote them, so there is no telling how intentionally the traits were included. It could be that one rogue writer thought, “You know what would be fun? Secretly writing this character as autistic.” It could be that they based the character on someone they knew who happened to be ND. It could be that they chose some traits at random, the fandom squinted hard enough, and now their character is an icon! Implied characters might also have the Cloudcuckoolander tag, as well as the Ambiguous Disorder tag. Sometimes, a headcanoned character can be confirmed and become a Type 1B character. Like I said before, Type 2 representation is my favorite, and I cannot wait to share headcanons with you.
Type 3, the allegorical or coded character, is where you place characters whose narratives and experiences match those of autistic people (or other minorities) but are not actually part of that group. I brought up Groot at the beginning of this post. He is an autistic-coded character because he only says three words but understands everything his friends say to and about him, which autistic people, who often have speech delays, can relate to. However, he is not literally autistic because he is a tree alien with a neurology that is totally different from a human’s. A lot of alien characters are Type 3 autism representation, as are a lot of characters with a Fish out of Water narrative. This is the most subjective and the most viewer-influenced type. Even if the writer did not intend to appeal to an autistic audience, fans may still see themselves or loved ones in stories. For me, the film Mean Girls was a crucial part of my autistic self-realization, and the word autism is not said anywhere in the movie. (And I would remember because Mean Girls has one of the most quotable scripts of all time).
On this blog, you will see commentary on all three types of representation. Hopefully, this adds another layer to your experiences with media. If there are disabled, neurodivergent, or otherwise atypical people reading this, I hope you find the positive, real representation that you’re looking for. Typical creators making diverse characters, I hope you learn from this and future posts. Everyone else in between, I hope I have opened your mind and that you notice representation in places you might not have before.
Hello, I’m Aurelia. Well, actually, that is not my name. Aurelia Lightcaster is a pseudonym, and any names of people in my life have been changed. But right here, right now, Aurelia is what you should call me. My pronouns are she/her. I study music in California, and I have lived in the same state my whole life. My interests are music, mythology, sexuality and kink, cats, and names. And those are just the main ones! I enjoy being out in nature, but I also like curling up with a good book and chatting with friends online. I guess I should get to the point already, even though I do not like sharing the unusual things about my brain when I introduce myself. I am autistic, and I also have OCD, generalized and social anxiety, depression, and paranoia. I started this blog because I want to tell my story, and that story is still in progress.
When I was a baby, I spoke very early, before six months, according to my mother. I did not learn to walk until over ten months later. I almost never played, especially not with other kids, and adults had to verbally explain concepts such as taking turns to me; I did not pick them up naturally. At age five, I was brought into a room at the local school, where a strange woman asked me questions and told me to perform tasks. I remember her name, and that we specifically played a word association game together. I do not remember being told why this meeting took place. Meanwhile, I was seen as an outsider among my peers, even at that age. This continued and intensified as I grew older. I remember telling my parents tearfully that I had no friends, being the last picked for group projects, having kids act like they were my friends and then change their minds after a few weeks. In fourth grade, a boy in my class told me that I walked funny, and that people thought I was [the r slur] because of that and because I “couldn’t spell my own name.” While my name was unusual, I had mastered spelling it six years before that, but the comment still stuck with me. (But that is another post). That same year, my mom showed me the biopic film of Temple Grandin, which was my introduction to the word autism. In my fourth-grade brain, I viewed it as something other than me because I liked being hugged, I had learned to speak early, and I did not think in pictures the way Temple Grandin did.
In middle school, I spent a lot of my weekends at the local bookstore, hiding in the graphic novels, the youth chapter books, or, for some reason, the parenting section. I also acquired Facebook. As I read (probably outdated) books and (rather personal) Facebook pages on autism, I tried to tell myself I was just an ally, and that I was not one of these kids. At the same time, I wondered whether I had fallen from the sky, whether there was a wall of glass separating me from other teenagers, or whether everyone was having the same problems I was but simply coped with it better. My parents were insistent that I was just a normal kid, and I had seen the emos, those kids who used depression and anxiety as brands, and I did not want to be them either. In 12th grade, I met someone who made me look into myself. They watched me stumble to the ground, weighed down by anxiety, and they hugged me and told me exactly what it was. It was that year that I saw a therapist and got my mental illness labels. Autism, however, was still out of the question. It remained that way for a whole other year.
August 1st, 2019, was the day that started me on what I liked to call the “suspectrum” path. I was on the bus to visit the Opener (my friend from the previous paragraph), when I noticed a boy sitting in front of me. I would later learn that this was the Technician, who would become one of my greatest friends. He asked me, “Are you an autist?” I told him no at first, despite his thinking “this person is like me,” but then I remembered one particular blog, and one particular checklist. It turns out, I had a multitude of characteristics of an autistic girl, and I had been overlooked. I spent a year gathering evidence, with the help of Tech and any other autistic brain that I could pick, and in November 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, I was diagnosed with autism.
That is the basic timeline. I can tell so many stories, but still only be telling one, because I am one person. And Temple Grandin was one person, and so was Samantha Craft. My story though, is about having a part of me not recognized until my adulthood. I am Aurelia Lightcaster, and I slipped under the radar.