It’s high time we talked about Dos and Dont’s for autism rep in YA books!
Also when I say “high time” I just go straight to thinking about high tea, which is really British of me despite me not being British. But what can I even do?! (I’m Australian so I guess I can claim heritage??) I just need scones and jam and tea right now, so please appreciate my suffering right from my very first intro sentence. #TheBloggerLifeIsHard
Sometimes when we read books that represent a minority we’re not part of, we have noooo way to know if it’s accurate representation or not. And it’s DOUBLY hard to figure it out anyway because = one minority experience does not equal every experience in that minority. But I thought I would try to be useful for once instead of writing a post sorting different breakfast cereals into Hogwarts Houses (this would be exciting tho) and help out by talking about:
how to tell if autism rep is getting it right
But I have Things™ to say before we get onto my lists (I love lists! You love lists! Lists are GREAT!) And they are:
- Autism is a spectrum!! So while I’m going to say “these are good vs bad tropes” they are just my opinion as an autistic. Another autistic individual might have a different opinion. I respect that.
- My opinion on autism is still never going to be universal. (TRUE FOR ANYONE’S OPINION ON ANYTHING.)
- April is Autism Awareness Month…which is good! And also bad.
- It’s bad because it was started by Autism Speaks and please please please do not support them. They endorse super problematic “therapies” for autism and want to cure instead of aid. They want to make a way to test for autism pre-birth so people can specifically abort autistic kids. Plus they talk a lot of trash about autistic people being “locked inside themselves” or having “pieces missing”. So just N O.
- So don’t wear blue.
- However autism does still need awareness. And understanding. And discussion. Especially by autistics!
- It’s not a bad word, it’s not an illness, it’s not broken.
- So here is this post. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
- I also admit to being frustrated at how wildly the YA community champions diversity…except for disability. It’s like that just gets forgotten?! We need to do better.
- And on THAT note, there’s an #ownvoices Autism anthology coming soon which you can find out more about here! The creator got in touch to ask if I’d spread the word, and I think it sounds fantastic!
- I am excited to talk about something personal to me today so I hope you enjoy this too!
…remember to talk about ALL types of Autism! Because the stereotype is basically: an autistic white little boy who’s a math genius and has no social skills. Those boys exist but, um, so do hundreds of other types of autism. Books are way way more likely to rep high functioning autistics (HFA), but please don’t forget those with learning disabilities and executive function issues and who never speak or never live independently. It’s a huge huge spectrum! I’m not asking books to list every type of autism ever, but the fact that it’s so hard to find ones with lower-functioning individuals is downright sad.
…make autism the SOLE PERSONALITY of the character. Being autistic definitely impacts every part of your life, but it’s NOT the only thing we think about or act on! Autism is part of your identity, how you function, and your culture. You can’t remove it and still be the same person! But there’s still more to you than your autism, same as being Australian effects my whole life but I’m not JUST an Australian. If a book reduces a character like that, then it’s saying: “This character is a DIAGNOSIS” instead of “This character is a PERSON.”
…give autistic characters A PLOT!!! It’s fine to have “issue books” where the autism is the big topic. But holy heck, we want to be in sci-fi adventure and fantasies too OK!? We want contemporary romances and roadtrips and mysteries. Plus if the autistic character actually has a plot, you see how being autistic affects your life. We actually, ya know, do things and have dreams and ambitions.
…make the underlying theme be self-hate, looking for cures, or needing to fixed to be happy. Autism has a lot of stigmas around it and it IS okay for books to address these. And yes, of course autism is frustrating and horrible at times. It can be full of anxiety and isolation and confusion and overwhelm. A book should include the meltdowns and shutdowns and miscommunications and opportunities missed because of disability. But none of that equals broken. Plus a lot of autism struggles come directly from trying to be “normal” because society is terrified of differentness and would rather miserably crush autism into a normal-shaped-box than be uncomfortable by its existence. Hence depression. Anxiety. Self-hate. So let’s STOP putting messages of autism being brokenness in books, thanks. Not to mention how triggering it is to have a book say TO YOUR FACE –> “you need to be fixed.” (I’ve had panic attacks reading this.) No more neurotypical (non-autistic) characters saying things like “I feel so sorry for them never being able to live a good life”. Functioning differently doesn’t mean you can’t be happy! And I believe that’s for high and low functioning autistics, although obviously it’s important to point out that life is a lot harder for people with severe autism. But if a character wishes an autistic person cured, this basically translates to: “Your way of functioning makes me uncomfortable.” If someone is uncomfortable by autism, they’re the problem.
…talk about positive traits! Autistics can be really dedicated and hyper-focus on a job. Our obsessions can make us experts on a topic. We also can really really intensely LOVE things and this is so fun and exciting. We think outside the box. Autistics are inventors and dreamers and discoverers (HISTORY PROVES SO). Books should not solely zero in on the hard parts. If they do, it’s pretty much coming from a viewpoint where autism is only a burden.
…talk about ableism and fight stigmas! Books aren’t problematic if they use problematic language! But show other characters fighting back. (Either the autistic character or supporting cast.) One thing books NEED to fight is the thinking that “autism” is a bad word. It’s nOT. So you know it’s problematic rep if they do everything they can to avoid the word “autism”.
…make autism the catastrophic finale. This can be done well??? But usually it’s depressing to read. Like if the autistic’s big “finale” is a meltdown…SIGH. Don’t make a disaiblity be what ruins everything in the end. Instead HAVE the Bad Thing for the finale and then show how autism affects how the character reacts to it.
…talk about the autistic character’s feelings. I read this a lot (and see it in everyday life) but an autistic character will have a meltdown and the first reaction of others is to say “Oh that poor mother dealing with this.” Instead of thinking about the autistic and why they’re in pain. Autism has a ripple effect and this can’t be ignored. It’ll impact supporting characters negatively and positively, and there’s a LOT of drain on a carer of a low-functioning autistic. Books should talk about that! But they should also talk about the autistic’s viewpoint and feelings way way more than they do. (PS. WE HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS. We might just not express them how is expected.)
…dramatise traits ridiculously so. You know rep is off when you have a high-functioning autistic character who MISUNDERSTANDS EVERY. SINGLE. SOCIAL. INTERACTION. It’s never a 100% of the time thing! Especially for HFA teenagers/adults! It’s like saying autistics are incapable of learning and we’re not. (Although sometimes we’re too tired or don’t feel like the effort lol lol.) And even if we don’t understand a social situation, we won’t always massively mess it up. Faking is a big part of how we (have to) live. Books that make ALL symptoms hyperbolic are insulting.
…put humour in the book! But don’t make autism the joke. I know there’s a huge stigma that autistics don’t understand sarcasm (it’s because of literal thinking). And this is true for a LOT…but not all. And even literal-thinking-autistics can be funny?! Let there be humour around autism (IT’S NOT A DARK THING) but just don’t make the autistic teen’s social mistakes the butt of the joke.
…confuse “character development” and “fixing”. If a book includes the autistic character having to “get over it” or “get better enough” to give someone a hug or eat the food they hate or stop an annoying stim (repetative motion). THIS ISN’T OK. An autistic character can grow and change and conquer and improve without stopping being autistic. (Also I HATE the “autistic kid finally gave their parent a hug” trope. It’s like what if you hate bees and the finale of your character arc was sitting in a field of bees? Seriously.)
…includes more than the average stereotypes! Stereotypes are OK. They exist because they’re somewhat true. But (a) an autistic character is never ALL the stereotypes, and (b) it turns them into real people if they have less-known autism traits as well. Like echolalia (repeating what others say), sensory processing disorder (something weirdly absent from most ASD stories by non-autistic authors), sensory seeking, stimming, low executive dysfunction (actual inability to do simple things like self-care, especially when overwhelmed), specific and intense routines, shutdowns as well as meltdowns. Books should dig deeper than solely the stereotypes!
So in case you’re now sitting here, mumbling into your popcorn, that you wish you had some autistic-book-recommendations…I AM HERE FOR YOU.
Yes I know you’re so lucky to have me, bless us all.
The covers all link to my reviews!
- Afterwards has really good autism rep BUT it is unfortunately affiliated with Autism Speaks arghh. So it has underlying problematic thinking…but is also one of the very few books I’ve read that features a low-functioning autistic and did it really well.
- The Art of Feeling does NOT explicitly say Eliot is autistic so it’s a head-canon from me lol looool. But I put it on the list because Eliot is one of the best autistic characters I’ve read…despite maybe it not being intentional?!
- Made You Up again is NOT an “on-page-autistic-reference” but the love interest, Miles, reads as an autistic and my friend asked the author and she confirmed he is undiagnosed!
The covers all link to my reviews!
QUICK NOTES: In my opinion these ones harbour general views that autism is either a burden, something to overcome, or it’s just one big STEREOTYPE, or they’re full of ableism that isn’t fought against by any character.