During Lockdown Number Two (the sequel to the ever-popular Lockdown Number One) I started writing a story for my daughter. I’d write a chapter during the day whilst she was homeschooling and then later on we’d snuggle up and I’d read it to her. It was our thing and it was lovely.
Then the world changed again and I lost my writing mojo and left the main character alone in the dark for a couple of months (literally, she is stuck in a cave in the story; I feel awful about it). Today I’m planning on helping her escape, and as I often do when I ponder the plot points coming up, I wonder if I should have made any of the characters openly autistic, and if I were to, which one would be out and proud.
Would it be the shy, socially awkward main character? The one who is treated as odd and finds making new friends at her new school really hard? Would it be the boy who befriends her; who is enthusiastic and excited about everything, who thinks everyone has their own narrative they should be following and that adventures are compulsory, who is the first to suggest researching things and reading up on situations? Or is it his cousin and best friend who only wears black, is quite blunt and comes across as alternative and different, but is really just herself in all situations?
And then I realised where I was going wrong and that the media had lied to me again – I was looking for the token autistic! Who would be the token neurodivergent in this group of friends? Who would be the weirdo to be saved by the generosity of those around them? Who would be the kind soul to take on the task of fixing the token autistic?
It already irritated me that on TV autistic characters often spring, fully-formed out of the ground in their teens or early adulthood and then have to learn social skills. As though they have never spoken to another human before and all their adaptations begin on day zero of their formation. In the real world it is a slow and gradual process of learning things by trial and error throughout life, but in TV world you have to arrive with no skills and no knowledge of humanity and then hilarity can ensue whilst you (the hapless alien) learn to struggle and adapt all at once.
Even my favourite autistic character,Abed in Community, who makes it clear to his friends that he doesn’t need fixing and that if they feel like they need to change him then that’s their issue and not his, even he is the token autistic in a group of friends (though he’s definitely not the only neurodivergent in the group).
But that’s not how this works; people find it easier to bond with people who communicate in similar ways. I look at my friendships and they are all bound up in straight-talking, big-talk and being able to pick things up where we left off no matter how many weeks, months or years have passed since we last spoke.
I have been the token autistic at times. When I was fourteen I was adopted by a girl who gave me a makeover (like in one of those American teen films!) and advised me on what to wear to fit in and what music to listen to, and how to simper. She meant well, but I was utterly bemused by the experience. It felt like I was in some kind of anthropology study learning about a tribe in some far off jungle province.
Instead of ending the show singing a duet with the most popular boy in school and running off to live happily ever after together, I got to the end of my teen-film experience and pulled my Doc Marten boots back on, took out the huge hoop earrings and clomped away grungily to read a book somewhere.
Token autistics end up drowning in confusion. They have to be so confident and certain of who they are (like Abed) not to end up feeling like they are faulty on some fundamental level. Not because the groups are unkind or cruel, but because they do not understand how autistic people communicate.
Being the token autistic is hard work, that’s why we choose to flock together. I know that if I message my autistic friend I won’t have to start the conversation with small talk. I will just tell her what it is I want to say and she will respond equally bluntly. It’s a very pure communication with no masking involved. The friendship is straightforward and comfortable.
Today’s realisation is that all three of my characters are autistic. They are all very different personalities with their own drives and interests, but they’re all autistic and that’s why they get on. Why didn’t I realise this earlier?! I mean, they met in the library for goodness sake! Of course they’re all autistic!
I want to see fewer stories about autistic people having to cope with the ridiculousness of the world, and a few more stories of autistic people finding their tribe and being encouraged to greatness! Studies have shown that we really do have a different style of communication and that we communicate well with each other. No one should have to go through life always speaking their second, unnatural, language to get somewhere.