Fictional Aspies

Some stories are well-known, and written around characters, precisely for their Aspergers (high functioning ASD Level 1) characters. In literature we have The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time, which might be considered the ASD breakout book.

The-curious-incident-of-the-dog-in-the-night-time

On screen, Sheldon of The Big Bang Theory springs first to mind, along with Moss of The I.T. Crowd and Mr Bean. Aspie characters are obviously easy to laugh at, which is why we see them in comedy.

Sheldon Cooper

But even in non-comic scenes, writers love to create characters with passion and intelligence. Aspie characters can think themselves out of tough situations and work their way from underdog to victor. The underdog story is very popular with audiences around the world.

The Wikipedia entry for Aspergers syndrome in popular culture suggests that aspie characterisation is especially useful in police procedurals and also medical dramas, where aspies are often the main characters. In shows with large casts of characters — particularly comedies — there tends to be an aspie kid in the mix. Fregley of the Wimpy Kid series is one example.

Fregley

There are political issues about the representation of aspies in Hollywood. One big problem is that most aspie protagonists are white and male.

  • Lars and the Real Girl
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • Donnie Darko
  • One Hour Photo
  • The Never-ending Story
  • A Serious Man
  • Bladerunner
  • Imitation Game
  • The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
  • Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You
  • What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
  • The Boy Who Could Fly
  • Dear John
  • etc

However, lack of diversity in Hollywood is certainly not limited to aspies. When the aspie protagonist is a white male, there is a character arc, of course, because a story is not a story without a character arc. Beware stories in which the character arc involves our aspie meeting a neurotypical woman (a variant on the manic pixie dreamgirl?) who helps him to ‘get over his autism’ and integrate into normal society via camouflaging his uniqueness. Sometimes the autistic traits of a man seem to fade away after he has fallen in love. (I include Stranger Than Fiction in that, a film which is regressive in a number of ways — after all, the romantic thread features a woman who wins a man over by baking for him, and a man who wins a woman over by playing the guitar.)

Writers (usually) don’t like to say that they’ve created a character with an ASD, for the obvious reason that they will be accused of ‘getting things wrong’, as if any individual on the spectrum is the same, anyway. One exception is in Doc Martin, in which one psychologist tells the doctor he has Aspergers syndrome. Doc Martin does not believe a word of it, but some of the writers’ intentions for the character become apparent in that scene.

It’s impossible to put a fictional character through any of the diagnostic tests. With all that in mind, who else might fall into the fictional ASD typology?

Hop O’ My Thumb

Is this Charles Perrault fairytale the eldest fictional aspie?

The youngest [son] was the greatest inconvenience of all; he was a weakling and a mute, and they mistook his debility for stupidity.

Hop O My Thumb Poucet river

Andy of Shawshank Redemption

Andy's self-revelation

The prison of this storyworld is utopian (apart from the murder and bullying from the prison guards, that is) in that Andy is accepted and respected and seems to understand how to become king rat of that mid-century prison, where prisoners can still swap food in the dining hall and families can be cross racial boundaries. In reality, an ASD person would struggle big time with the intense social network of a prison, and be easy pickings for the sociopathic characters. Apart from that rather unrealistic reality (in a metaphorical story, yes), Andy seems written as your classic Aspie: Attention to detail, many varied passions, an inability to win over a judge by fudging the truth a little in order to perhaps save his own skin. His former wife left him because he was ‘a closed book’ and ‘hard to get to know’. He realises this about himself in prison, after two months in solitary confinement, which is possibly not as hard for him as it would be for some of the other guys. Andy is extremely loyal and stands firmly by his principles, even if it means great personal sacrifice. He is saved somewhat within that prison system by his friend the narrator, played by Morgan Freeman, who is very good at navigating the prison hierarchies, and has found his niche. Ultimately, it is Andy who saves Red, by persuading him that he is not necessarily a victim of institutionalisation, and that once he gets out, freedom can once again be his.

Juli of Flipped

Flipped_poster

Juli is a nature-loving, tree-hugging, chicken-rearing, exuberant and basically very annoying girl who has a crush on her neighbour for years, despite no evidence that he reciprocates affection in the slightest. Juli does eventually get the hint and backs off, which allows Bryce to finally see her good points. ASD may well run in Juli’s family. Her uncle in care — is he perhaps at the low-functioning end of the same spectrum? A lot of female ASD characters have more typically ‘male’ difficulties, such as very high attention to detail coupled with lack of empathy. So it’s nice to find a girl who displays the more typically feminine version.

Elphaba of Wicked

Dorothy, whom we see only briefly in the prologue, appears properly in the final part of the book. She is a country girl, good, but a bit dull-witted.

But it would be wrong to assume that what Maguire has achieved is merely a clever creation of opposites: Elphaba = misunderstood heroine, Dorothy = villain.

Inkscrawl

I really like the reading that Elphaba is autistic, as proposed by Caroline Narby at Bitch Media in her Double Rainbow series. I happened to read that article before reading the book, and it’s now impossible not to notice all the autistic traits. That said, I wouldn’t say Maguire necessarily portrayed Elphaba as autistic deliberately. In fact, when this book was written (presumably 1994 and before) the DSM-IV was known only among psychology and research professionals, and most of us didn’t know the word ‘Aspergers’ let alone what it entails. I believe Elphaba would only today be profiled for autism, and there are many, many Elphabas in literature as well as in real life who were never labelled as such.

As Narby says in her article, Maguire initially turned in a whole heap of extra material on Elphaba’s childhood and this was edited out. (Interesting for writers to know this.) While Narby and other extremely interested parties (such as me) will naturally want to know what exactly was edited out, it was nevertheless the sensible editorial choice. Instead we end up with just three stages of Elphaba’s childhood:

  1. Her birth, in which she memorably bites off a woman’s finger
  2. Toddlerhood
  3. A few glimpses of middle childhood
  4. Then a jump to her time at boarding school, via the perspective of the neurotypical, haughty and fairly unlikeable Galinda.

 

 

Millicent Min, Girl Genius

Millicent Min cover

Millicent is a similar character to Juli of Flipped, but has the advantage of being at the very high-functioning end of the spectrum. The beauty of this middle grade novel is that neuro-typical readers will understand all the social snafus Millicent is making before Millicent does. This leads to a more cerebral type of comedy.

Hermione Granger of Harry Potter

Hermione Don't You Two Read

Hermione has a special interest of ‘magic’ and is inclined to talk at length about what she has absorbed from books without seeming to notice that her diatribes are unappreciated by the neurotypical Harry and Ron. Hermione is very keen on upholding ‘the rules’ and can’t stand minor breaches. People who know the Harry Potter series better than I do also suggest Luna Lovegood.

Harriet of The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

The Little Friend cover

Harriet is ‘rude’ (which can also mean ‘unaware of social niceties’), has a real problem with ambiguity (the Bible says don’t lie, so saying you like fruit cake must therefore send you straight to hell), is a constant questioner (and her questions have a ‘grim pedantry’). Her friends are boys, who are younger than her. She reads a lot, and has done so from a young age. She uses books to fuel her imaginative play. Plus, she even speaks with a strange accent and no one knows where she got it from.

All of these things fit the profile of an aspie girl.

Uncle Quentin of Famous Five

Uncle Quentin enjoys Christmas

I remember this father as one of the scarier from my childhood reading. With a special interest of science, he was also a hermit, which is not how most scientists work in the real world. I suggest George, too, as a candidate for Aspergers. Enid Blyton had a bias against only children, and put her traits down to that, but in fact George is not an ‘only child’ in the sense that she has three cousins with whom she spends a lot of time. So I wouldn’t put it down to that at all. To back up my theory, George has significant gender dysphoria, which is common in children on the spectrum, failing to fit properly into the gender binary. Others have called George a ‘proto-lesbian’ but that is not necessarily the case, especially when you take into considering the heritability of autism.

I have a theory that Enid Blyton was herself on the spectrum, though she was born too early for any sort of awareness.

Dwight Schrute of The Office

Dwight-schrute-quotes

Dwight is another of those characters it’s easy to laugh at. His lack of emotional maturity is constantly a source of humour, like for example when we see him in his karate class, learning alongside seven-year-olds. Dwight is a sycophant rather than a person who snubs the hierarchy, but he doesn’t even do that well, as even the rather socially obtuse Michael can see right through him. Dwight’s intelligence is an important part of his identity and he is particularly sensitive to being thought a fool.

Arthur of Six Feet Under

Arthur Sims Six Feet Under

Rainn Wilson plays this kind of personality well, and he acts a similar but far kinder character in Six Feet Under. Arthur is not the slightest bit interested in Ruth’s affections, and doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, so he packs up and leaves. For this guy, playing Sims on his computer is safer than interacting with people in the real world. His lack of emotion comes in handy as an undertaker though, and I propose he’s well-suited to the job. He’s able to disassociate from the emotions that may affect neuro-typicals. The female undertaker in the skimpy outfits and the wildly inappropriate sex talk is another candidate for ASD.

Milton of Office Space

Milton red stapler

Speaking of offices, Milton of Office Space is another source of Aspie comedy. There’s his laughable attachment to the red stapler and his inability to garner respect. He’s obviously very bright on some levels, and can work out in a pinch that the cake to people ratio isn’t going to work out. Eventually though, enough is enough, and he exacts revenge. There’s no doubt that he’s remembered every slight against him.

Roy Cropper of Coronation Street

Roy Cropper

In England the term ‘anorak’ does not mean what it means where I come from. In England, it refers to the type of person often seen wearing anoraks rather than to the garment itself. Roy Cropper is certainly written as an anorak because he’s often wearing one. He may also be an aspie. Unlike many fictional aspies he is not depicted as being of super intelligence — he finds his niche running a diner. In mid-life he meets his longterm partner, a trans-woman, Hayley, both of them outcasts from mainstream society. One night at a pub quiz, Roy and Hayley demonstrate that they know each other better than anyone else knows their partners. Initially introduced as a potential pedophile, Roy Cropper turns out to be one of the most genuine and kind characters in the cast of Coronation Street.

Elphaba

Dorothy, whom we see only briefly in the prologue, appears properly in the final part of the book. She is a country girl, good, but a bit dull-witted.

But it would be wrong to assume that what Maguire has achieved is merely a clever creation of opposites: Elphaba = misunderstood heroine, Dorothy = villain.

Inkscrawl

I really like the reading that Elphaba is autistic, as proposed by Caroline Narby at Bitch Media in her Double Rainbow series. I happened to read that article before reading the book, and it’s now impossible not to notice all the autistic traits. That said, I wouldn’t say Maguire necessarily portrayed Elphaba as autistic deliberately. In fact, when this book was written (presumably 1994 and before) the DSM-IV was known only among psychology and research professionals, and most of us didn’t know the word ‘Aspergers’ let alone what it entails. I believe Elphaba would only today be profiled for autism, and there are many, many Elphabas in literature as well as in real life who were never labelled as such.

As Narby says in her article, Maguire initially turned in a whole heap of extra material on Elphaba’s childhood and this was edited out. (Interesting for writers to know this.) While Narby and other extremely interested parties (such as me) will naturally want to know what exactly was edited out, it was nevertheless the sensible editorial choice. Instead we end up with just three stages of Elphaba’s childhood:

  1. Her birth, in which she memorably bites off a woman’s finger
  2. Toddlerhood
  3. A few glimpses of middle childhood
  4. Then a jump to her time at boarding school, via the perspective of the neurotypical, haughty and fairly unlikeable Galinda.

 

Gilmore girls

gilmore-girls-cast-2005-lg

At least half the cast? Kirk, Paris and Mrs Kim are the stand-out examples, but the writer does love quirky characters. I would include Emily Gilmore, who can’t keep a maid for longer than a week, coupled with her cold, high-expectations parenting. I’m not sure about Lorelai Gilmore, but she seems about ten years younger in maturity than her age, even despite being a young mother. She has no luck in relationships with men, little respect for the town hierarchies (allowing the audience to revel in how she pokes fun at people who are full of self-importance) and although Rory admires her mother’s confidence in the world of romance, the adult viewer can see Lorelai floundering all the way. The young Rory Gilmore seems to have escaped the ASD that runs in her family, probably because her father is a neuro-typical who eventually makes his way in the world of work as well as finding a new relationship.

Here is my overall analysis of the Gilmore girls series.

Ponyo

ponyo and sousuke2

Andy Carvin makes a case for the character of Ponyo as a metaphor for autism.

And here, I make a case that Wolf Children — another Japanese anime/manga — is an allegory for autism.

Howard From Fresh Meat

howard fresh meat

This student house in Manchester is full of unlikeable but funny young people, and although the character of Vod seems to have the widest audience appeal, my favourite of the lot is Howard. JP asks him at one stage, “Are you sure you’re not on the spectrum?” The audience is no doubt supposed to regard Howard in that way. Another character who is also probably on the spectrum: Sabine. As the series progresses, I feel Sabine becomes less autistic, a bit more sociopathic, which is a shame because Sabine was my other favourite character.

I don't really drink

What do you mean

I felt a little disappointed that the scriptwriters didn’t give more interesting episodes to Howard. The title of the show seems to mark him out as the ‘main character’ (he works at an abbatoir in the first series), but he really only gets some ridiculous scrap scenes. The other characters are equally ridiculous, and perhaps it’s only because I like him so much, but I did want to see a bit more of Howard and less of JP, Kingsley and Josie, with their musical beds and various pretensions.

Grey from Tokyo by Mo Hayder

Tokyo by Mo Hayder

You’ve no doubt heard of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, whose titular character many interpret as autistic. Around the time of publication where was a crop of thriller novels starring young women whose dogmatic attitudes and fascinating quirks make them great protagonists for thriller plots, often sadistic and gory in nature. This is another of them, published 2004. Is Grey autistic? She was home-schooled, which may either explain why she is different, or else her autism might explain why she was home-schooled.  This is a character with a complete lack of artifice. She is determined to get to the bottom of an esoteric part of history few others really care about, at the expense of failing her actual exams. She dresses from head to toe in black in the middle of a Japanese summer. She has a very fine memory for times and dates, and so on and so forth.

Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer

rudolph1

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer had a very shiny nose, which is symbolic of his neuro-atypicality. All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names, perhaps because Rudolph had ADHD as a co-morbidity and annoyed the heck out of everyone, until one stormy Christmas Eve Santa realised that Rudolph not only had a luminous nose but also had a sense of direction on par with the best GPS, so made the most of his abilities and put him to work. After that, Rudolph’s peers had respect for Rudolph and there was no more bullying.

Anne of Green Gables

Anne Of Green Gables tantrum

GreenGables5

For Anne’s brilliant imagination, her ability to come top of her class even though she missed most of her formal education until the age of 13, for her violent outbursts and inability to know when Gilbert was joking about her hair (albeit in a super-annoying way), and for her wish for one ‘bosom buddy’ (rather than a wide circle of girl friends).

Millie of Freaks and Geeks

serving drinks at the ball

The great thing about this character is that it is revealed that — despite being your archetypal mathletes geek — she’s not all that good at maths. ‘High functioning’ simply means ‘an IQ in the normal range’ — a fact which is often forgotten. Here she dances at the ball, but behind the security of the drinks table. While neurotypical Lindsay is forced to stand there, Millie will have volunteered, because having something to do allows her to be at ease.

Freaks and Geeks stars a wide range of aspies as well as Eli, with his more obvious difficulties and echolalia.

Eli in the cafeteria

Eli asks girls out

happy aspie

An aspie who has absolutely mastered happiness by refusing to (or genuinely not) care about what others think of him. This elevates him to the level of mystic.

the mystic dishes out advice

Bill and Neal. Sam is stuck with them owing to his being very small for his age.

Bill and Neal. Sam is stuck with them owing to his being very small for his age.

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