Let’s start with a trip down memory lane. When I was in Sixth Form, I studied Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire for A-Level English; being one of few people in the classroom who didn’t really mind reading out a particularly large share of lines, I ended up reading Blanche DuBois every lesson. I’ll be honest, Blanche is basically the dictionary definition of “your fave is problematic”, and yet she became one of my favourite characters in the whole syllabus; I sort of identified with her in a way I couldn’t really put my finger on at the time. Before long, I was combing through the text over and over, reading far more articles and criticisms online than was really necessary for the coursework, and developed a theory that I eventually felt confident enough to share with friends, only to receive a perplexed look and a “…Really? Are you sure?” in response.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I’d accidentally reinvented the autistic headcanon.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “headcanons” are reader interpretations and theories that aren’t expressly stated within the media itself (i.e. it isn’t “canon”). So an autistic headcanon basically means “I interpret this character as autistic” and it’s also worth noting that the headcanon-er is usually, though not always, autistic themselves, because we’re the ones most invested in autistic representation. I’ve noticed a strange backlash against autistic headcanons, mostly from neurotypical people. “Stop glorifying/romanticising autism!” they say, just like they do whenever we talk about autism as anything other than the horrifying-tragic-burden portrayed by organisations like Autism Speaks. “Stop mocking autism!” they say, telling autistic people that they’re somehow mocking themselves whilst ignoring all the actual mockery of autism that neurotypical people do all the time. Self-insertion is another accusation thrown around (although somehow never at neurotypical people who insist a given character has to share their neurotype…) but that’s rarely the case; often, apart from being autistic, we aren’t actually all that like our autistic headcanons. It’s almost like autistic people aren’t all the same or something…
Which brings me to the current state of canon autistic representation which, like the representation of many other marginalised groups, is very poor. The main problem, of course, is that there isn’t enough of it. Then, when there is a canonically autistic character, it’s often the same-old-same-old “gifted at maths/science/technology but inept at every single human interaction” stereotype. I don’t doubt that some autistic people happen to fit that stereotype, but when that’s all the representation that’s available, many of us will continue to struggle to relate to even the few characters that are supposed to be like us. They’re often defined by the neurotypical point of view, with little or no mention of traits such as sensory processing issues. They’re also virtually always cis white men. Sometimes, characters are very heavily coded autistic (albeit in very stereotypical ways) to the point that it can’t be an accident, but it’s never expressly stated; this increases the stigma around the autism label (the idea that it’s too horrifying to speak of), allows the writers to be as inaccurate/stereotyping/offensive as they want with no consequences, and allows neurotypical people to continue to ignore autism and even try to take this very limited and very flawed representation away from us. Because yes, many of us cling to such characters anyway despite all these issues, because it’s all the representation we’ve got.
Representation issues are often dismissed as “just fiction” but this does matter; this does have real-world consequences. If, growing up, you are never or rarely shown people like you, it reinforces the idea that you’re abnormal, that you’re somehow wrong. If people like you are only shown to be one narrow type of person, you assume that that’s all people like you can be, and you start to feel that not only are you a failure for not being neurotypical, you’re also failing at being autistic. It also shapes how other people think about people like you; if they are only shown this one stereotype of people like you, they will believe that that’s how all people like you are, and that’s how they will expect you to be. We do get expressly compared to autistic or heavily-coded-autistic characters all the time – if I had a pound for every time my name was put in the same sentence as Sheldon Cooper or Christopher Boone or Sherlock Holmes, I could buy a plane flying a banner which reads “SERIOUSLY I WANT MORE FEMALE AUTISTIC CHARACTERS” – which only goes to show that these characters do send out a clear message about autism, good or bad, right or wrong, to neurotypical people. Personally, I’m frustrated by the fact that so many canonically autistic characters have a ~special talent~ that somehow redeems them; when I was younger I genuinely thought that was true of all people like me (it isn’t; see this post by Unstrange Mind), so as a straight-A student who didn’t (and doesn’t) have any glaringly obvious ~special talent~, I assumed mine had to be school and therefore I would be doomed shortly after I turned 18. And I’m speaking as a white cishet woman who has no other disabilities besides autism; autistic people in one or more other marginalised groups are often rendered completely invisible.
So, is it any wonder we resort to finding our own representation? Sometimes we aren’t even looking for it, it just happens, but sometimes some of us do just randomly decide a character is autistic because-why-not, and that’s okay too – because, well, why not? Why is neurotypical the default unless expressly stated otherwise? Believe me, there are headcanons out there a lot more far-fetched than “I see a lot of my own autistic traits in this character” that don’t get anywhere near the same level of scrutiny and people desperately trying to prove them wrong. I suppose if you’ve always been told your neurotype is the default to which everything else is “other”, you’d react negatively to being told you’re not. Autistic headcanons aren’t hurting anyone – unlike the currently poor canon representation, and of course the real-world ableism routinely ignored or perpetuated by the same people who are so against autistic headcanons – so why else would there be such a backlash from neurotypical people?
Representation matters, and I want to see a world where books and TV shows and films depict autistic people of colour, LGBTQIA+ autistic people, autistic women, autistic people with other disabilities, autistic people who can pass for neurotypical and who can’t, autistic people who are verbal, non-verbal, partially verbal, autistic people with all kinds of special interests, autistic people who use special interests in their work and those who don’t, autistic people who are hypersensitive and hyposensitive and sensory-seeking, autistic people of all ages and all occupations, autistic heroes, autistic villains, autistic geeks and autistic sports captains and everything in between, with good qualities and flaws that are related to autism and those that aren’t related to autism at all – realistic, multi-dimensional autistic characters that don’t feel hollow or like the butt of a joke.
I suppose, unlike Blanche, I do want realism. And until that’s achieved, autistic media consumers everywhere will keep working our headcanon magic.
(Also, I’m interested to hear your autistic headcanons, or favourite canon autistic characters – let me know in the comments!)