I’m a nerd.
I become intricately invested in the stories (films, TV shows, books, games, etc.) that I fall in love with, and one of the most important aspects of fandom for me has been finding connecting points with favourite characters. These have been vital to my survival thus far- through them I have felt less alone, less isolated and less of an irredeemable loner.
Once I received my autism diagnosis, I began noticing a pattern in some of the characters I became attached to. None of these characters bore the same label that I now had, but all of them bore similar or identical characteristics to those that had led me down the path to diagnosis.
I realised that many of these characters were my very own line-up of autistic headcanons. And I identified more with these characters than I did with the very few characters who were written as ‘autistic’ from the beginning.
Recently, I’ve been almost completely absorbed with Star Trek: Discovery, not least because I have happily identified three main characters to add to my autistic headcanon bag.
I love them because they all embody completely different autistic traits that I completely and utterly recognise in myself and others:
Michael Burnham struggles with human emotions, both in identifying them in others and experiencing and managing them in herself. She is also stoic and completely focused; she works out a path and she detests deviating from it. Her comments about not understanding what she is feeling, and being scared and concerned about it being out of her control, when she is developing romantic attachments to another character were so reminiscent of how I felt the first time this happened to me that I could have cried.
Sylvia Tilly is a much louder, more social character – she wants people to like her, but she struggles to rein in her enthusiasm to a level that she can ‘fit in’. She has becomes entirely absorbed and overexcited, and in those moments unleashes an array of verbal diarrhoea that I can completely identify with. Her friendship first with Michael, and then with Stamets (see below) are the underpinning of the story for me. She is so compassionate, she cares so much, that sometimes she doesn’t know what to do with herself.
Paul Stamets is a complete and utter nerd, dedicated entirely to his chosen field (dare we say special interest?) and often brash and completely unfiltered as a result of of it. While he does have relationships with others (he’s also canonically gay, so yay for queerly autistic characters!), he doesn’t socialize or interact with them in a ‘normal’ way – but often that’s why they like him. His partner, Hugh Culber, first became interested in him because he straight up told him to get lost and stop humming. I adore that.
And having all three of them nerding out over science was positively blissful:
Now, they’re not explicitly written in such a way (indeed, Michael is a human raised by Vulcans, which would not doubt be used as an explanation for her struggles understanding, experiencing and filtering human emotion), but that doesn’t matter.
So often, neurotypicals will write characters with traits that they don’t even realise code them as autistic to actually autistic people. This can sometimes cause damage – as people have pointed out, the traits written as ‘to laugh at’ in Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory) are almost unequivocally ‘autistic’ traits. And no matter how much the writers assert they didn’t intend it (and even go so far as to contribute the behaviour to upbringing or past trauma – because we definitely needed more of that stigma), that is what they have done without realising.
In fact, I could do a whole essay on the Sherlock problem – in which a character displays autistic traits and the creators (writers and actors) go out of their way to categorically shut down any arguments for them being actually autistic. Benedict Cumberbatch’s comments when asked about Sherlock being autistic –“…these people pop up in my work and they’re sort of brilliant, and they on some levels almost offer false hope for the people who are going through the reality of it.” – sum up the problem almost in its entirety.
And then, if neurotypicals try to write actually autistic characters,they often drag forth stereotypes whose whole story is their autism and nothing else. In terms of identifying with them…well…99% of the time I don’t. These attempts are often tied up in a neat little cis straight nerdy white male package that in no way even scratches the surface of the amazing many layered rainbow I know.
This is a problem. Neurotypicals will be neurotypicals. It’s their very own stereotype. What we need is for them to accept when autistic people headcanon their characters as autistic (rather than taking offence), and to let autistic people write autistic stories (see as an example: actually autistic Denise in On The Edge of Gone, written by actually autistic Corinne Duyvis) How we go about doing that is not something I have the answers to. And I’d rather spend more time gushing over some of my other autistic headcanon characters.
Like lovely angsty zombie – I mean, Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferer – Simon Monroe from In The Flesh.
Simon, who is so filled with belief in his cause, dedicated and loyal to a point of advantage and disadvantage. Simon, who is so focused in one direction that one thing nudging him slightly the other way turns his entire trajectory upside down. Simon, who falls in love so easily and so sincerely, but who thinks a good time to do the flirting thing is right after Kieran opens up about the death of the last man he loved. Simon, who flaps his hands when he’s stressed and grips his head, who falls to the floor and has a meltdown when he’s given an order he doesn’t want to follow.
Simon, who I connected with on the cusp of my diagnosis, when I was waiting for my appointment letter to pop through the door at any day/month/year, who I fell in love with along with my best friend, who told me she was autistic and started my own autistic journey. I joined in discussions online about him being autistic, I learned more about autism and the community I was missing, I openly discussed my own feelings, the ways in which I connected to this character, and I came to know my autistic self for the first time.
They never confirmed whether or not Simon was autistic. And the BBC never greenlit a third season. But my headcanons, and the discussions I had with others, keeps me sustained.
Then you have Castiel from Supernatural.
Ah, beautiful awkward Castiel. I fell in love with Castiel many years before the word ‘autism’ had even appeared on my horizon, and I adored him because he was like me. One of my first autistic headcanons – an autistic headcanon before I even that an autistic headcanon was a thing.
Technically, his quirks – his inabily to read or make sense of human social cues, his complete lack of knowledge about acceptable personal space and the fact that he said what he saw, when he saw, and why isn’t that a thing other people do – are there because he isn’t human, he’s literally an angel, and he’s accustomed to strict orders and clear boundaries rather than this weird human fuzziness. But that didn’t – and doesn’t – make him any less relatable for me.
I may have fallen out with Supernatural – casual misogyny! increasingly-dull white-man-pain! endless bloody queer-baiting! – but I still adore Cas. I adore him because, as with the others, he made me feel less alone. He showed the same confusion and frustration with other people that I did, he was as useless with other people as I was, and – at a time when I knew I was different but didn’t know why – it was comforting to think I could still be the hero of some sort of story out there.
And I think that’s the key thing right there.
Every person wants to be the hero in their own story. They want to see that they can be the main character – full, and rounded, and complex, and themselves.
And until we get more autistic people being given the opportunity to write their own heroes, I will continue to cling to the joy and comfort of my autistic headcanons.