From Rain Man to The Maid: Autistic Archetypes in Contemporary Fiction

There is no shortage of fictional works featuring Autistic main characters. That’s because there’s no shortage of creatives among the Autistic population, and many excellent writers are excellent because of their Autism, which offers an outsider-y, unique perspective on the world. Contemporary scholars have suggested the Bronte sisters and Janet Frame as almost certainly Autistic. These scholars spend entire careers studying individuals, and are in a good position to know.

In short, if you’re a reader, you’ve read many Autistic viewpoints. I recommend the autobiography of Janet Frame as the epitome of excellent writing into an Autistic way of thinking and experiencing the world. (Try also the short story collection which saved New Zealand’s greatest author from severe mid-century medical abuse: The Lagoon and Other Stories.

What interests me lately is the way Autism Awareness (TM) is starting to impact reader interpretations of texts which seem to star Autistic main characters.

In 1988 the Barry Levinson film Rain Man introduced a mainstream audience to Autism, putting a label on a fascinating disability which most people didn’t have a name for until then. Rain Man is still mentioned today in discussions around Autistic stereotypes, with the phrase “Rain Man view of Autism” used to mean someone whose understanding of Autism begins and ends in 1988: The white male savant who can’t tie his own shoelaces, can’t communicate to those around him and who needs round the clock care, probably in the form of a sterile institution.

Columbo. Is this ‘what wives are for’, or is it what neurotypical partners are for?

The next tentpole fictional representation of Autism came in the the form of another white boy, this time from Mark Haddon. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) was a massive step forward, because this time readers were encouraged to empathise with the Autistic main character, a fifteen-year-old British boy called Christopher Boone. Haddon’s novel is told via first person narration. Although marketed as young adult literature, The Curious Incident is your archetypal “crossover” book, read by adults and young adults alike. When I was high school teaching in the early 2000s, teachers were recommending it to each other, passing it round. We had “one” Autistic student at our girls’ school of 800 and, looking back, numerous others who hadn’t received the benefit of diagnosis. It was still believed in the early to mid 2000s that Autism mainly affects boys. Autism as it presents more typically in girls was yet to be understood by diagnosing professionals let alone by the general public.

In 2006, while teaching in England, mostly boys, I even attended a training session in which I was told as a young teacher that, in short, “Autism is basically an ‘extremely male’ way of thinking.” Everyone was supposed to laugh. I felt in my bones this wasn’t right, partly because of my long-standing avoidance of gender binary thinking, which I felt in my bones long before I had the phrase ‘gender binary’ in my vocabulary. (Also, the training session was held on behalf of one of our students who had received an Autism diagnosis — a male student who presented as pretty freakin far from your archetypal ‘boy’ in every way. Even back then, I sensed Autism played with gender in ways the mainstream cis gender folk were far, far from understanding.)

Is The Curious Incident really about Autism, though?

Please don’t take this book to be the actual workings of an autistic mind. The author admittedly knows nothing about autism and simply wrote a work of fiction, imagining what might have been going on in the head of a character he invented. He even has expressed irritation that the word autism was used on the dust jacket by the publisher in some editions, because he is sometimes asked to give speeches on a subject of which he is totally ignorant. Enjoy this book as a work of fiction but nothing more. This book is not really about autism, even though the boy has many traits of that condition. The inner workings of his head are not what actual autistic people report the condition to be like. Please do not use this book to try to understand an autistic person in your life, or to gather any information about Asperger ‘s Syndrome or anything else related. Temple Grandin’s books are much better for this purpose.

I wish the author would make a new edition with a disclaimer at the beginning.

consumer review of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I decided to fact check this review, and the reviewer is correct. Mark Haddon has published a statement on his own website and says, quite literally:

i know very little about the subject. i did no research for curious incident (other than photographing the interiors of swindon and paddington stations). i’d read oliver sacks’s essay about temple grandin and a handful of newspaper and magazine articles about, or by, people with asperger’s and autism. i deliberately didn’t add to this list. imagination always trumps research. i thought that if i could make Christopher real to me then he’d be real to readers. i gave him some rules to live by and some character traits and opinions, all of which i borrowed from people i know, none of whom would be labelled as having a disability. judging by the reaction, it seems to have worked.

Mark Haddon

(I note with interest that Haddon avoids all capitals, thereby avoiding the debate about whether Autism should be capitalised or not. I capitalise it because I consider it a culture and identity, much like being Australian is a culture and an identity.)

It’s well-known among writers but not among the reading public that writers don’t get to choose their own bookcovers and marketing copy, and oftentimes, not even their own book titles. All of that paratext is produced by and belongs to the publishing house. The publishers decided to market Haddon’s book as An Autism Book, and it worked. The DSM-IV-TR of the year 2000 had been updated to include a completely section on Asperger’s disorder (a label since gone the way of the dodo now we have the DSM-5-TR).

This opens up interesting questions about author intentions versus publisher intentions. There’s also a discussion to be had about the responsibility of authors. Is it okay to write a clearly Autistic character and remain completely unaware you have done so? Haddon said he only wrote a ‘recognisable’ character. But clearly he had met one or more Autistic people (labelled or not), because his own creation was recognisable to him (and to many who read his book). I will let Mark Haddon off the hook here. Back in the early 2000s, he can’t have been expected to know about Autism because hardly anyone knew about Autism.

By about 2012 this had changed. As Tim Winton was writing Eyrie, he spent the first ~150 pages describing a six year old boy as Autistic. Eventually the main character puts a name to it. When speaking to another character, they discuss whether the little boy may have Aspergers. They consider it may be alcohol foetal syndrome. “But then he wouldn’t be so smart.” Six-year-old Kai is in line with the 2012 popular understanding of what Autism looks like, and uses the language of the day. Aspergers is now Autism; alcohol foetal syndrome is now known to be on a spectrum and is named accordingly: fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). Whenever authors include labels in their fiction, this will set the fiction at a specific time in history.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but as is the case for disabilities (and labels for queer identities), these labels are under constant assault. Descriptive words in one generation become pejorative in the next, precisely because of continuing bigotry and marginalisation. This no doubt influences an author’s decision to not use labels. After all, 2012 wasn’t that long ago, yet the word Aspergers has become mud among a significant proportion of the Autistic community, who know that Hans Asperger was a highly problematic individual, not least because he was a Nazi.

But what happens when authors don’t use any labels, yet describe a characterisation every reader will recognise as labelled?


I’m in a bit of an Autistic bubble. Most people close to me are either Autistic themselves or know a lot about it by now.

However, in high schools all around Australia — and apparently all around the English speaking world — teenagers are currently using ‘autistic’ as an insult, replacing other ableist words we were throwing around in the unenlightened 1990s. Unfortunately some adults are doing this too, and I’ve heard them do it. But most people are kinder than that. Many people, especially those who read books and watch thoughtful films, take an interest in what Autism is, how it can present, and what can be done to support different types of brains in the world.

For this reason, accurate Autistic representation in fiction is especially important. Autistic rep is all the more important at this point in history, where most people have some degree of Autism ‘awareness’, but the culture at large is still far from achieving Autism acceptance.


The terms “encoding” and “decoding” in the context of literary theory originated from the field of semiotics, which is the study of signs and symbols and how they create meaning. These terms were popularized by the French cultural theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes in an influential 1967 essay called “The Death of the Author”.

Encoding refers to the act of creating meaning within a text by authors or creators, while decoding is the process of interpreting and understanding that meaning by readers or critics. It’s a dynamic exchange between the creator and the audience, where ideas are encoded into the text and then decoded through the act of reading and interpretation.

*While Barthes is often associated with popularizing these terms, it’s important to note that the concepts of encoding and decoding can be traced back to earlier thinkers and scholars in semiotics and communication theory, such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Claude Levi-Strauss.

There are a few common misapplications or misunderstandings of decoding and encoding in literary theory:

  1. Authorial Intent: One misapplication is the assumption that the author’s intent is the sole determining factor in decoding a literary work. While understanding the author’s background, intentions, and context can provide valuable insights, it is important to recognize that the meaning of a text is not limited to the author’s intentions alone. Readers bring their own interpretations, cultural perspectives, and experiences to the process of decoding, and the meaning of a text can evolve over time as it is interpreted by different audiences.
  2. One-to-One Correspondence: Another misapplication is assuming that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the encoded meaning and the decoded meaning. We can’t assumed the author’s intended message will be universally understood in the same way by all readers. Readers come from diverse backgrounds and have different interpretations based on their individual perspectives. Multiple interpretations are often possible, and the meaning of a text can be complex and layered.

The language around coding is useful when talking about author responsibility. In Mark Haddon’s case, he never meant to encode Christopher as Autistic, but once he approached a publisher, the decision was out of his hands. He then became (far too) responsible for spreading information about Autism to the general public. Haddon did not encode Christopher as Autistic, but the publisher’s marketing copy ensured readers would decode him as such.


First of all, sociopathy isn’t a label used by diagnosing professionals. Nor is psychopathy, for that matter. ‘Psychopath’ is not a diagnosis. No one goes to the psychologist’s office and comes back with a diagnosis of ‘psychopath’. Psychopathy is a research term used by research psychologists. It overlaps with what diagnosing psychologists might diagnose as antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).

With that out of the way, the concepts of sociopath and psychopath are nonetheless very powerful, because these archetypes help us to understand the social world around us. Most of us today are sufficiently familiar with the term that we feel we know whenever we are presented with a sociopath/psychopath in fiction (or in true crime). The popular understanding of a neurotype is as powerful as the understanding shared by diagnosing professionals. (Perhaps more so.)

We feel we know when we meet a fictional psychopath even if we really don’t. For the armchair psychologist (and aren’t we all, whether we really want to be or not?) it can be difficult to decipher whether a fictional character is ‘meant to be’ a psychopath or Autistic. When our local book club read and discussed Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin some years ago, one mother of Autistic children wasn’t too happy when another woman labelled Kevin Autistic. (Spoiler alert: Teenaged Kevin is an unappealing, unlovable child who turns out to be a murderer. There is no on-the-page suggestion of Autism in either the novel or in the film adaptation.)

Most contemporary audiences understand that Autism has something to do with empathy, and so does psychopathy. Both are to do with some kind of lack. But it requires next level knowledge to understand there’s a difference between affective and cognitive empathy; that many but not all Autistic people have difficulty with cognitive empathy, and that many Autistic people feel a sometimes painful excess of affective empathy.

Inversely, psychopathic individuals have no lack in the cognitive empathy department. Rather, their brains are wired to be much lower in affective empathy. Surprisingly, psychopaths are often able to employ their own powers of affective empathy, but find it more adaptive not to. It’s not that psychopaths are devoid in affective empathy, but rather, the brain mechanisms involved are not automatically activated.

This is worth saying, too:

To what extent is an author responsible for:

  1. Understanding various psychological diagnoses
  2. Understanding the reading public’s armchair understanding of various psychological diagnoses.

The 2011 film adaptation of We Need To Talk About Kevin sparked various conversations about whether a child can ever be truly evil, as it was meant to. This is the major theme. Across mainstream publications, writers opined that a child cannot possibly be “evil” (a religious concept I find wholly unuseful). There must always be a reason for bad behaviour in children, and that reason might be, say, just innocently putting it out there, AuTiSm!

How young is too young to take a kid to a shrink?

I see kids whose parents are concerned about them as young as one-and-a-half to two years of age. You don’t do the kind of psychiatric treatment that you see in the movies where you’re talking and trying to find out why the kid’s angry, but you’d certainly do an assessment. The fact that he was slow to speak is suggestive of some kind of developmental disability. Maybe he has Asperger’s or something on the autism spectrum because he has very superficial relationships, but there was a passion to the kid in his vindictiveness. Autistic kids are just disconnected.

‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’: Do Inherently Evil Kids Exist? at The Daily Beast, first published  Dec. 10, 2011

We can say many things about Lionel Shriver, but she can hardly be held responsible for readers (and film-goers) who subsequently misunderstood her 2003 fictional teenage murderer as “Autistic” when Autism awareness was barely emerging as she wrote the text.

However, novelists publishing today would be naïve not to have noticed a trend: Whenever an author encodes an Autistic character (intended or otherwise) a proportion of the reading public will decode that character not as Autistic but sociopathic.

Below is an example of a reader who believes Mark Haddon’s Christopher should never have been marketed as Autistic because he is an entirely fictional creation who doesn’t fit neatly into any diagnosable box, to the point where he is as much a sociopath as an Autist:

Such a terrible and overhyped book – please, if you want to write a book that is meant to make people feel sympathy (if not empathy) for the main characters, don’t make him a sociopathic spoilt brat who ruins everyone’s lives without feeling sympathy. Yes, he’s meant to be autistic, but Haddon didn’t bother researching autism at all so that point is moot. I can’t describe how much I wanted this little shit to be ran over by a train when he went to fetch his pet rat (which had made an entirely understandable decision and ran away from Chrissy), but alas, he wasn’t and he went on to ruin someone else life.


Make no mistake, I have nothing against autistic people, but I’m pretty sure the vast majority of autistic people don’t think they’re God’s gift and that everyone else deserves to die; my (admittedly limited) understanding of autism suggests that people suffering from autism have trouble expressing emotion, rather than being devoid of it. Haddon’s lack of research seemed to show mainly in the fact that, even though the book is meant to be from the viewpoint of an autistic child, the understanding of autism seemed to be very superficial, as if Haddon had looked at child with autism and said “yep, what they say and act like must be exactly how they think… Better write a book about it.”

consumer review of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The question then becomes: What, if anything, should/could an author do to avoid extremely unhelpful — even dangerous — mainstream misunderstandings of Autism? This question of course extends beyond Autism, to the responsibilities of any author writing about marginalised groups.


It’s one thing for Mark Haddon to say in a work published in 2003 that he did not write an Autistic character. I, for one, believe him, and appreciate his public stance as a non-expert.

But now we’re seeing a completely different phenomenon: Authors are clearly encoding their characters as Autistic while avoiding the labels altogether. Judiciously, publishers are no longer so carefree about acquiring an author’s work and promoting its main character as an Autistic exemplar.

To be clear, most characters are not ‘labelled’ by their creators. We are never told that Walter White is a “drug lord”, though he most clearly is. Viewers are never told Mad Men’s Don Draper is a narcissist, but psychologists look at him and consider that character your archetypal example. So why must writers come down on whether their fictional creation meets the current criteria for Autism? Isn’t that a double standard?

I’ll turn now to an entirely different sort of character — a lonely middle-aged woman character — eccentric, traumatised, impervious to social etiquette. The stand-out example of this archetype: Eleanor Oliphant.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a very popular, dark but heartwarming 2017 novel by Gail Honeyman.

No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine.

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.

Soon to be a major motion picture produced by Reese Witherspoon, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is the smart, warm, and uplifting story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine whose deadpan weirdness and unconscious wit make for an irresistible journey as she realizes.

Eleanor Oliphant marketing copy

Nowhere in the novel does it say that Eleanor Oliphant is Autistic. Personally, I don’t read her as Autistic. I read her as a comedic archetype in the same category as, say, Hyacinth Bucket. The surface similarities are not there, but this female comedic archetype has a long tradition in Britain, where the rules of social etiquette are famously stringent, and where it’s very easy to mess them up (especially if you’re a woman, because etiquette and social rules apply especially to women). These characters are funny because writers send them into social situations where they make massive gaffes, yet remain oblivious that everyone else can see straight through their ruse (or masking).

If writers want to depict Autistic masking, they’d better also depict Autistic burnout.

It’s cringe comedy; you either find it funny or you don’t. Eleanor Oliphant is a more literary example of this comedic archetype because she has a traumatic backstory. (There’s mental illness, alcoholism, a suicide attempt. The comedy is therefore dark.)

Comic filter is a character’s way of viewing reality different from what reality really is. A strong comic character has an identifiable and consistent comic filter, strong in the sense that it’s completely uncompromising.

John Vorhaus, How To Make Any Idea Funny

Eleanor Oliphant is:

  • traumatised as a child (for reasons kept as a big reveal)
  • a lonely woman living in a big city
  • content doing a low-level, mundane job
  • ridiculously impervious to the social gaffes she regularly makes
  • highly critical of other people, who she doesn’t understand
  • completely unreflective.

The following observation reminds me very much of Eleanor Oliphant:

Eleanor Oliphant’s complete lack of reflection marks her out as Not Autistic.

The difficulty in pronouncing a (non-)diagnosis is this:

Autism is a highly individual way of thinking. As the mantra goes, “If you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism.” Knowing this, it may seem authors have carte blanche to create anyone they want, with any constellation of “Autistic” or “sociopathic” traits as their plot sees fit, and so long as they avoid using the word “Autism” anywhere in the text or paratext (marketing, interviews, author website etc.), authors can apparently maintain plausible deniability.

Avoiding the labels doesn’t actually mean much:

If you want to read about a WAY more adorable person with Asperger’s. . . go find Don Tillman. If you want to read about a WAY more delightful curmudgeon, go find Olive Kitteridge.

Eleanor Oliphant consumer review

Eleanor doesn’t ring true to me as a person. She knows both a lot and very little about the same subject. When she talks about emotions and loneliness, she’s surprisingly insightful, yet she doesn’t realize that they apply to her. She judges alcoholics harshly, but doesn’t make the connection to her own alcohol issue. She works in finance, but doesn’t know the difference between laptops, desktops, and tablets. She falls for a guy based entirely on his looks, yet goes on about how she hopes he will love her for who she is.

consumer review of Eleanor Oliphant

The success of Eleanor Oliphant has led to a new crop of similar comedic archetypes. The year 2022 gave us The Maid by Nita Prose, as successful and popular as 2017’s Eleanor Oliphant.

Molly Gray is not like everyone else. She struggles with social skills and misreads the intentions of others. Her gran used to interpret the world for her, codifying it into simple rules that Molly could live by.

Since Gran died a few months ago, twenty-five-year-old Molly has been navigating life’s complexities all by herself. No matter—she throws herself with gusto into her work as a hotel maid. Her unique character, along with her obsessive love of cleaning and proper etiquette, make her an ideal fit for the job. She delights in donning her crisp uniform each morning, stocking her cart with miniature soaps and bottles, and returning guest rooms at the Regency Grand Hotel to a state of perfection.

But Molly’s orderly life is upended the day she enters the suite of the infamous and wealthy Charles Black, only to find it in a state of disarray and Mr. Black himself dead in his bed. Before she knows what’s happening, Molly’s unusual demeanor has the police targeting her as their lead suspect. She quickly finds herself caught in a web of deception, one she has no idea how to untangle. Fortunately for Molly, friends she never knew she had unite with her in a search for clues to what really happened to Mr. Black—but will they be able to find the real killer before it’s too late?

Clue-like, locked-room mystery and a heartwarming journey of the spirit, The Maid explores what it means to be the same as everyone else and yet entirely different—and reveals that all mysteries can be solved through connection to the human heart.

The Maid marketing copy

Nita Prose is the pen name of an author who has maintained plausible deniability by refusing to call Molly the Maid Autistic, but who has revealed a background in special needs education.

Molly the Maid has clearly been encoded as an Autistic adult. Is she a realistic Autistic woman? That’s a separate question, but Molly the Maid is an interesting example precisely because she conforms so well to the general public’s increasing (but as yet insufficient) understanding of how Autism frequently presents:

  • Molly has a strange way of speaking. She has a vast vocabulary but is unable to code switch.
  • Despite her facility with language, she Molly is entirely without a sense of humour. This is very similar to Eleanor Oliphant. We laugh at these characters, not with them. However, the author seems to lampshade this by having her character ask a neurotypically encoded character if she is laughing “with or at” her. (There’s no lampshading that one.)
  • Molly is extremely into her job. She only ever wanted to work as a maid. She does this low-status job to the best of her ability without question. She especially loves to line things up, especially the toiletries of hotel guests.
  • In line with many Autistic people, Molly cannot abide bright lights. More generally, Molly is hyperaware of details authors would typically leave out when depicting the interiority of neurotypical characters.
  • Like Eleanor Oliphant, she grew up with a female relative who cared for her, and when we meet her, she is getting used to living life without the aid of a carer. However, the female carer (Molly’s grandmother) remains alive in her mind, guiding every interaction.

My thoughts:


It is very typically Autistic for a character to possess a wide vocabulary. This is easy for writers to depict, since writers typically also have an excellent command of language. The lack of code-switching also Marks Molly out as quite typically Autistic.

I listened to the audiobook version of The Maid, and some of the strange speech is no doubt down to the way it was voice acted. However, the voice acting didn’t come from nowhere. The voice actor took clues from the overall characterisation. Compared to the other characters in the story, Molly’s dialogue Others her. Written in first person, we could argue that all of the words on the page come from Molly. There’s no difference between her written language and her spoken language (in line with the lack of code switching). Significantly, she keeps busting out with a few phrases which others find annoying. Readers will also find this trait annoying. Hence the Othering.

None of this is a problem in its own right. However, this very specific and easily identifiable way of rendering dialogue is becoming A Thing.

Eleanor has a ridiculously pompous conversational style. So unfamiliar with normal human interaction is Eleanor that she has not realised that most people do not want to be spoken to as if they are in a posh drawing room in the 1950s. It’s like she has lived without tv or radio or newspapers or magazines or anything.

Example number one :

“Let us retire to an inn or public house, Raymond – a quiet one – and please, allow me to buy you some beer in recompense for this wasted evening.”

Example two :

“You don’t need to stay long – just show face; have a cup of tea, eat a sausage roll – you know the drill.” Said Raymond.
“Well I hope they’ve at least got a high meat content and friable pastry, “ I said.

Example three: when she gets a cat (oops, spoiler!) she says :

I will assume the mantle of care… This creature will be looked after assiduously.

Example four :

“You’re a good worker, Eleanor,” he said. “How long has it been now – eight years?”
“Nine,” I said.
“Nine years, and you’ve never had a day off sick, never used all your annual leave. That’s dedication, you know. It’s not easy to find these days.”
“It’s not dedication, “ I said. “I simply have a very robust constitution and no one to go on holiday with.”

Yes, it’s quite funny, but now, come on Gail Honeyman, no one is as loopy or brusque or unaware as that. Even Eleanor would know her remark was inappropriate, embarrassing, too much information – even if she meant it to be funny, which she didn’t, because, like any Vulcan, she has no sense of humour. She is the source of the humour but never understands why anyone is laughing. It did occur to me that Eleanor was somewhere on the autism spectrum but that is never alluded to in the novel. Has Gail Honeyman created an Asperger Syndrome character without realising it or is she just playing Eleanor for some pretty easy laughs?

consumer review of Eleanor Oliphant

If Eleanor Oliphant speaks like this and Molly the Maid speaks like this… and numerous other Autistic-encoded characters speak like this, we’ve got ourselves a female Rain Man: A cultural phenomenon which impacts widespread (mis)understandings about what Autism is and is not.

The difficulty for authors is this: Dialogue is never realistic, and can never be realistic. Also, code switching is not something authors tend to aim for. Authors are far more likely advised to write dialogue so that readers will know exactly which character is speaking even without the dialogue attribution. An unrealistically impossible task, but I’ve seen this exact advice repeated numerous times.


It is, however, very strange to depict an Autistic character with excellent verbal command who also has no sense of humour whatsoever.

Of course, in order to write a funny character, authors must themselves be funny. And let’s face it, most authors are not Hannah Gadsby. Neurotypical authors can never be Hannah Gadsby, and therein lies the rub.

When Tom Kenny, voice of SpongeBob, noticed that a disproportionate number of superfans were Autistic, he listed a number of sterotypes as reasons for the fandom. Importantly, he did not mention the number one reason why SpongeBob resonates with the Autistic community: SpongeBob is hilarious and Autistic people have an excellent sense of humour.

This is why we’re getting a crop of Autistic encoded characters who are the least funny “Autistic” people you’ll ever meet. They’re easy to write.

The ideological problem: Readers who don’t know (that they know) any Autistic people in real life will be left with the wrong impression that Autistic people do not have a sense of humour, and that this lack of humour is a typical feature of Autism.

The reverse is true. Autistic people are probably the funniest people in your life, and not because Autists are hilariously walking around making social gaffes and breezing on by like Autistic Mr Magoos, but because Autistic people see the world differently, see social absurdities, and very frequently have the verbal facility to put these absurdities into words, in real time.


Eleanor Oliphant has a low-level job at a graphic design company, not working on the creative side of things but content working as a clerk in accounts receivable. This is fine, such people exist. Of course such jobs are worthy and necessary. People do such jobs happily their entire lives. Sure.

But then we’ve got a very similar Autistic-encoded character in Nita Prose’s Molly the Maid, who also works at a dead-end task. Molly tells us over and over, how seriously she takes her job.

Don’t think for a moment that I’m sloppy or disorganized in my work just because I cleaned the Black penthouse twice. When I clean a room, I attack it from top to bottom. I leave it spotless and pristine – no surface left unwiped, no grime left behind. 

The Maid by Nita Prose

Adding such characters together, it would seem we are in the era of Autistic encoded character as Good Little Capitalist. Whatever else we say about these people, at least they are great at their job. Subtext: There is a job for everybody, and there’s nothing wrong with low-level, poorly recompensed positions because every job has someone who will slot nicely in.

My feelings about capitalism are this: I am all for unstaffed supermarket checkouts, because I have been a supermarket checkout operator (in high school) and I know exactly how tedious that job is. Checkout operator sits at that highly unpleasant junction between ‘unbearably mundane’ and ‘can’t completely zone out’. I’m all for robots taking those types of jobs, because I am heavily in favour of a some kind of universal basic income, especially as we move further into the era of artificial intelligence.

If Molly didn’t have to work as a maid she wouldn’t come in so handy as a novel character, sure, but she could spend her days lining things up to her heart’s content. She could spend her days helping the elderly people around her neighbourhood, I don’t know. Anything but work tirelessly for a hotel corporation.

If we’re not careful, this Autistic archetype has the potential to tacitly uphold capitalist values without subversion. When I first started listening to The Maid, I felt Molly to be a modern version of Mr Stevens in Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Remains of the Day is one of my favourite stories, and I’ve analysed the film adaptation here. Partly I love it because of its subversion of capitalism. The main character realises he has spent his entire life in service to a man who did not deserve such loyalty. I can’t believe any author is still unironically depicting employee loyalty to employers in the 2020s, when economic inequality is the worst it’s ever been.

I absolutely decode Mr Stevens as Autistic (though it’s clear Ishiguro didn’t write him as such — this is the safest way to write an Autistic character actually, especially if you’re not Autistic yourself).

You will perhaps appreciate then my disappointment concerning my witticism yesterday evening. At first, I had thought it possible its limited success was due to my not having spoken clearly enough. But then the possibility occurred to me, once I had retired, that I might actually have given these people offence. After all, it could easily have been understood that I was suggesting the landlord’s wife resembled a cockerel — an intention that had not remotely entered my head at the time. This thought continued to torment me as I tried to sleep, and I had half a mind to make an apology to the landlord this morning. But his mood towards me as he served breakfast seemed perfectly cheerful and in the end I decided to let the matter rest.

But this small episode is as good an illustration as any of the hazards of uttering witticisms. By the very nature of the hazards of a witticism, one is given very little time to assess its various possible repercussions before one is called to give voice to it, and one gravely risks uttering all manner of unsuitable things if one has not first acquired the necessary skill and experience.

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day. In this scene Mr Stevens evinces a self-reflection more in line with middle-aged Autistic adults than many of the “Mr Magoo” characterisations frequently coded (or decoded) as Autistic in contemporary fiction.

Another character with absolute company loyalty in a repetitive and deadend job: Keiko Furukura, the main character of Convenience Store Woman (literally Convenience Store Human: 便利店人間) by Japanese writer 村田 沙耶香 — Sayaka Murata — published 2016. As you can probably tell by the title, the author of Convenience Store Woman is making a statement about absolute company loyalty, and asks readers to consider what makes for a good life.

Is the main character of Convenience Store Woman encoded as Autistic? Whether she is or isn’t, many English-speaking consumer reviewers think so:

The book tells the story of a woman who works at a convenience store in Japan for 18 years who, from what I can deduce, seems to have symptoms of autism. She deals with it in a very interesting way and seems to be handling her life fine, but people around her keep pushing her to be “normal”. She eventually tried to comply but it actually makes her life worse.

Short comment I really like this book. It shows how weird the so called “normal” people are.

consumer review

The following paragraph exemplifies why some readers will consider Sayak Murata’s character Autistic, others a sociopath. This is from an Autistic reviewer:

While autism is never mentioned in the book, many autistic women have felt a real connection with Keiko and her struggles. Keiko is socially awkward, and a constant worry to her family. She regularly says and does the wrong thing- like hitting a boy over the head with a shovel in school to break up a fight, or asking to eat a dead budgie in the park, struggling completely to understand why these things were unacceptable.

Autism in ‘Convenience Store Woman’ by A Is For Aoife Not Autism

Autistic rep aside, I feel Convenience Store Woman is a very Japanese story. (For context, I have a degree in Japanese language and lived for a few years in the country.) As exemplified by the characterisation of Molly the Maid, absolute company loyalty is regarded as one attribute in the constellation of the simplistically misunderstood Autistic Archetype of the literary West. In Japan, though, unwavering company loyalty is considered a Japanese attribute, and a natural consequence of a population who came of age in the dying embers of Japan’s unprecedented economic boom of the late 20th century, and of an education system which prepares students to be good, cooperative little workers — a system which younger generations of Japanese are starting to critique en masse.

Notably, the author herself works part time in a convenience store. Therein lies the difference. I suspect this is Autism written from the inside out. If you read Convenience Store Woman and then The Maid back to back, you will see for yourself the difference.

Another stereotype we must all make an effort to transcend: That Autistic people all have something they are really, really good at.

Abed Gubi Nadir is a fictional character on the sitcom series Community, created by Dan Harmon and portrayed by Danny Pudi. This guy is not canonically Autistic, but is widely regarded as such. This means he has been written as Autistic, no mistake. Autistic, but with plausible deniability.

There’s another aspect common in Autistics which in fact makes Autistics not so great for capitalism (but great for humanity in general): Lack of respect for social hierarchy. (Autistics usually mean “peace” while neurotypicals mean “hierarchy.”)

Note that this lack of respect for it is separate from ‘failing to see it even exists’, though than can be a factor, too.

On social media, a neurodivergent person asked other neurodivergent people which social norms are the most annoying/baffling. Some of the answers are as follows. I’ve divided them into categories, but if you take a look at the ‘categories’, you’ll see it’s all of a piece: Traditions are bad because they are illogical. Smalltalk is bad because it feels like compulsory dishonesty, and so on. What are the O.G. issues here? Perhaps discomfort and dishonesty, which might encompass illogical reasoning, and oftentimes, hypocrisy. The double standard applied to Autistic individuals is especially infuriating, e.g. the constant lying of neurotypicals, while all the time Autistic people are accused of the ones doing the lying due to the supreme illogical fallacy of the West: that eye-contact equals honesty.

Or we might put it like this: Efficiency over tradition. Comfort and honesty over social hierarchy. Everyone is equal; no one is lesser-than. Truth is king, and leads to better outcomes in the end. All told, dishonesty is a relationship killer rather than a relationship builder, unless your ‘relationship building’ means reinforcing the social hierarchy with some people (probably me and others like me) at the bottom. (How much of Autistic thinking comes from the extra insight which comes from being positioned constantly at the bottom, and how much of it comes from being inherently Autistic?)

You’ll notice that some of the frustration with neurotypical social norms derives from sensory issues, especially around clothing and table manners.

  • adhering to nonsensical rules and traditions e.g.
    • I never understood clubbing dress codes. I walked past one and on the door it said something like “be presentable, wear a dress or something smart” I normally wear a hoodie/t-shirt with leggings and crocs, I’m worried I might be denied entry solely for choosing comfort over looks.
    • no hats inside
    • wearing different clothes each day so people think you own many clothes
    • Gel on your hair for a wet look is OK but actual water after you wash ur hair is frowned upon
    • Headboards
    • Underwear
    • Negative views about body hair, which is just a body part
    • Cemeteries. “Why are we storing dead people?”
    • I have a really hard time w/ clothes so only really baggy stuff feels comfortable, but knowing people will take me less seriously for it makes no sense
    • Casual, casual/formal, formal and black tie events. So you’re telling me, a GROWN person what I can wear. I’ll wear whatever I feel comfortable in. It might be conserve and joggers, might be a suit, it might be thigh high socks and a skirt. It’s none of your business!
    • Women must always be covered up, but men can go walk around half naked.
    • Also, why does it matter what I style myself with or like? It’s not like I’m dressed in a way that’s revealing anything in an appropriate manner!??? so what makes my outfit inappropriate? Maybe it’s out of the ordinary but so what?
    • Having to look a certain way/wear a certain kind of clothes to be taken seriously. Honestly, how does my choice of footwear influence the function of my brain??
    • Utensils being restricted in use; so many sizes and each one being for one thing only. Like, maybe I wanna use the salad fork for my dinner? Why can’t I use the soup spoon for dessert? Waste of extra washing and nonsensical rules imo. Also, some of the forks feel gross. (There is good cutlery and bad cutlery, and only Autistic thinkers seem to realise this.)
    • No elbows on the table when eating… just why
    • Whichever country you are in, the sidewalk traffic should follow the same pattern as street traffic. How it should be instead: If you drive on the right, walk on the right side of the sidewalk. If you drive one the left, walk on the left side of the sidewalk.
    • WAKING AT THE CRACK OF DAWN EVERY DAY because everyone just has to rush around and all do the same bunch of crap all the time
    • People sending flowers when someone dies. Like “i know you lost someone, here are some flowers to make you feel better and make up for your loss”. Another response: why do we cut flowers for gifts? If you think they’re so beautiful, why do you kill them? I don’t think that sends the right message to your loved ones
    • Thank you cards
    • Sending people a card for every occasion. Why does it have to be a specific shape, a piece of paper or a post it note does the same job
    • Greetings and sign offs in emails to everyday colleagues
    • Turning up later than the stated time in an invite so *some* but not all social gatherings.
    • Clapping
    • Despite the constant need for social interaction, neurotypicals love their “go-betweens” e.g. selling a house and never interacting with the buyer
    • Religious rules e.g. getting married without living with your spouse first to see if you get along as domestic partners
    • Traditions. Not in and of themselves, but the idea that they’re anything more than an optional consideration for people is ludicrous to me.
    • not choosing the most efficient way to do something because it has “always been like that”
  • prioritising diplomacy over reality. “It’s exhausting constantly having to self filter and I still mess it up.” “The rampant dishonesty that is considered extremely normal and actually superior to even gentle honesty.”
    • phatic communion, especially questions like “How are you?” in which no one wants a real answer. “I can’t tell when people just want to be polite or when they actually care.”
    • Give me deep conversations or give me silence, thanks.
    • I’d much rather someone be clear up front if they don’t like me, rather than false pretences only to get ghosted/lied to/stabbed in the back/whatever. It’s pointlessly cruel & wastes both parties’ time etc.
    • Being intentionally dishonest and fake cheerful to save or spare feelings
    • No asking clarifying questions. People always seem to take it as a personal attack
    • When people say hello and you reply and then ask how you are, “especially at work when I’m mostly trying to get put through to someone”
    • “If I don’t have something to add to the conversation I won’t talk at all. Which makes small talk impossible to do “naturally”.
    • confirming a thing that you can plainly see? ‘Oh you’re back?’ No. I’m a hallucination brought on by lack of sleep
    • The dual refusal: 1. to go into any subject at any great depth but also 2. to leave any silence longer than two seconds The written version is where you exchange bimonthly emails that may only convey the most superficial info imaginable.
    • A lot of the time I’ll strike up a conversation with someone and they’ll mention an experience they’ve had; I proceed to go “you know, I’ve gone through something similar” or something along those lines and apparently that’s inconsiderate?? The perception that sharing a story from your own life when someone is going through something is “making the conversation about you” or “one upping”. How else am I supposed to relate?!?
    • Saying “let me know if you need anything” and then getting mad when you let them know you need something. Similarly, “helping” and getting mad if you say what they’re doing is actually hurtful and tell them what would actually be helpful instead of just showering them with praise
    • If another person visits someone else in the house, you are supposed to act like they are also visiting you, even though they are clearly not, and be awkwardly available for small talk.
    • Hinting you want something done by saying “do you want to do x” it’s taken me a while to realize this means “please do this now”
    • Saying Hello to strangers: you are not my friend. I don‘t know you. I don‘t owe you a greeting, especially not a „woman kind of hello“. You can have my bro nod but like as I said you don‘t even deserve this.
    • bonding by complaining and talking about problems without wanting solutions, or its very annoying cousin: Providing the answer, then having to go round in circles for weeks while the neurotypicals have endless meetings and discussions, then come up with the same answer and claim the credit for all the work they’ve done
    • Not telling someone when they have TP stuck to their shoe or a booger on their nose or their zipper is down or something. I mean sure, try and let them know discreetly, but don’t just let them go around like that all day!
    • I used to correct people’s grammar all the time, but people seem not to like that. If I’m saying something wrong, though, I would want to be corrected. To me, that’s like running around with my fly open and no one bothers to tell me.
    • If you just correct them, it’s considered rude You have to trick them into figuring it out themselves I’d rather just be corrected so I know the right info
    • Opinions/feelings matter more than data & factual information. Data & factual information perceived as being “rude,” “disrespectful,” or intended to cause problems/conflict rather than helpful. Taking factual information as a personal insult.
    • when people are like “look me in the eyes” or else you’re not “genuine”
    • Sealioning is very annoying to autistic thinkers. Debate can be a wonderful way to exchange different ideas, but some people don’t want to hear counterarguments, so they’ll constantly move the goalposts and wear you down.
  • Not saying what you mean: subtext/doublespeak/dropping hints/white lies/ tongue in cheek/banter/talking in riddles/implications e.g.
    • “when I offer a snack or something to someone and they say “no thanks” the first time, then get mad at me when I don’t offer again because they really wanted it the first time but didn’t want to be rude?? im not going to beg you to take the food! I want to share, just be honest!”
    • That thing where someone says “we should go for coffee sometime”, when they MEAN “this chat was quite pleasant, but if you at any point attempt to make plans to go for coffee with me I will politely fob you off until you stop asking me”.
    • “No, it’s OK we’re cool” when actually they are really mad at you… I mean how am I supposed to know?!?!?! Tell me and we’ll discuss it and I’ll apologize!!
    • Hints and guessing and testing boundaries instead of direct, frank discussions about needs and opinions.
    • Asking questions you don’t want the answer to and then getting mad at the answer e.g.
    • Asking for an opinion when what you want is a compliment
  • Lack of respect for personal space and boundaries e.g.
    • Mandatory hand touching of any kind “Especially the dudes who want to play who can squeeze the hardest. Listen I will crush the bones in your hand if I want this is silly!!!”
    • Mandatory hugging
    • Close talkers
    • Strangers starting up conversations. There’s nothing about my face that invites that.
    • Having a conversation with more that one person in a group. I can’t do it. I can only have a conversation with one person at a time. Small talk in group settings. Way too much going on, I can’t focus.
    • Why neurotypicals actually seem to enjoy being in crowded places??
    • The expectation that if you’re seen online in any capacity, it means you’re available/wanting to talk/text on the phone.
    • having to stay in a room even when you don’t want to… (how is it ever ok to force someone to be uncomfortable) (like if someone isn’t feeling well, shouldn’t it be understandable if they want to leave??) (why do people always think its a personal attack??????)
    • Eye contact while speaking. I always perceive eye contact, especially forced eye contact, as aggression.
    • those honk if you like something bumper stickers
    • Coughing and sneezing into one another’s faces.
    • Changing plans as they think it’ll be fine/ only a tiny change/ there’s a reason for it but then being shocked that the change is distressing. Just communicate! Don’t assume “it’ll be fine” or “I didn’t think you’d mind” or “I thought you’d like this place better”
    • it’s expected you just forgive and forget what someone’s done because it was a long time ago
    • saying sorry, changing nothing afterwards but people see the person pointing it out that nothing change as the bad person because the other one “did apologise”
    • the entitlement of expecting me to cater to what’s “acceptable” behaviour at the expense of my own comfort, especially when I’m not doing anyone harm with my actions

Do not leave your house a lot, except for something that you must do. And do not sit in a gathering in which you do not benefit some knowledge.

Al-Qāḍī ʿAyyāḍ, Tartīb Al-Madārik 2:63, Imām Mālik to one of his companions.
  • Rules around needing to come across as an adult e.g.
    • The societal expectation to give up things that are seen as “childish” when you get to a certain age despite them making you happy
    • like, people expecting you to dress as a “grown up”, it is so weird. I love to choose whatever TF I want and I don’t mind the imaginary rules of “you’re old so you can’t wear this or that”.
  • Rules around social hierarchy including gender hierarchy, especially combined with the expectation that no one acknowledges there even is a hierarchy, probably because when social norms come ‘naturally’, as they do to neurotypicals, the neurotypicals can’t see the rules are even there and it’s like explaining water to a fish. Or to put this another way, neurotypicals learn social rules instinctively, often before they even have full language, certainly before they reach “concrete operational” thinking.
    • Respecting authority figures, just because they are the authority
    • The need to be liked by everyone
    • Having to respect a relative as an authority
    • Not being able to question someone’s instructions no matter what
    • “Because I say so” without any logical explanation
    • Being told the way you understand information or complete a task is wrong, simply because the other person wants it done their way or your way takes more time/steps.
    • not asking people their age why can’t i do that???
    • status-seeking in general is very off-putting
    • “Considering how much I’m disrespected regardless of my status or knowledge I don’t understand why I should give others something that’s barely ever afforded to me.”
    • Always gets me in loads of trouble seeing people as equal.
    • Treating politeness as a substitute for respect, or mistaking one for the other
I just don’t try… to fit into a neurotypical way of being in the world, because frankly, your way is not better!
  • Social networking and popularity contests
    • Socialising/conversing with as many people as you can all at one time.
    • The expectation to frequently check in with friends and family
    • Faking confidence
    • Always being “social” Sometimes I just want to be alone to recharge
    • Constant contact with friends like why do they feel like they have to call and see them all the time and then feel guilty when too much time has passed
    • Why anyone would ever want anyone to visit their house. How boring like there’s nothing to do here.
    • Getting everybody’s attention to say goodbye when you leave a party or something. I get thanking the host or whatever but I hate the idea of getting the whole room’s attention when my social battery is at like 1%.
    • I should be able to leave without requiring a dissertation on why i wish to leave right now, nor requiring me to say Bye to 5-10 different ppl. It shouldn’t take more than 5 seconds to say bye & leave.
    • The worst social norm is laughing at “jokes” that are not actually jokes & not even slightly funny but are just rude / teasing / edgy references that people laugh at to show submission to some perceived authority or kiss ass to a “cool guy” or demonstrate that they “got the joke”
    • Lying about happiness/contentment in relationships to look good socially.
    • A group of people laughing at a person in pain
    • Somehow I am the selfish one when setting up boundaries by not attending events even when attending them would make me miserable. Somehow my family’s and other people’s expectations are valid reasons for me to “just pull through”. My own happiness doesn’t count. “Suck it up.”
    • All of dating is also just nonsensical: not texting back immediately, waiting for X number of days before you do Y, celebration of 1 month/3 month anniversaries, the expectation that relationships must progress in a particular way at a certain speed with certain particular sexual steps otherwise they’re ‘stagnating’. “the idea that’s it’s a bad thing for friends to date or that someone shouldn’t end up with your ex or someone you have a crush on. Dibsing people weirds me out hard”.
    • Blind entitlement to a stranger’s personal space/ time/attention
    • “Fashion” generally – I’ve never been able to wrap my head around how an item of clothing that was in style suddenly becomes lame (and then sometimes becomes cool again!) based on what celebrities and “influencers” do
    • Trying to one-up one another e.g. over whose job is the most interesting, who gets paid more
    • Pretending that you like someone because they are useful
    • I’ll treat people based on their behaviour, needs and skill set
    • Assuming that kids will become INSTANT best friends just because they are the same age and gender. My mom was always making me have playdates with other girls the same age as me and thinking we would be lifelong BFF’s
  • Illogical and arbitrary stuff in general e.g.
    • Being told that lying is bad but when spotting a lie & pointing it out, it’s wrong
    • People wanting employees to go back to the office to do the exact same job that can be done remotely to justify retail space costs
    • Treating social cues like inviolable laws of nature, such that actions that are good and helpful and make logical sense are considered impossible if too few people perform those actions routinely and in public.
    • gender rules such as women needing to smile all the time (which apply to everyone but especially to femme coded individuals) e.g. “apparently it’s very, very important to people that you smile. to the point where it affects your perceived attractiveness”
    • What will happen if I don’t email you within 24 hours? Will we all wither away and die?
  • The expectation that what you do is for the benefit of other people who are observing you at all times.
    • For example, you might chuckle to yourself at a private memory or recollected joke, and someone will ask, “What’s so funny?” thinking you chuckled with the intention of including them. (Infuriatingly, neurotypicals will frequently ask a question which an Austistic thinker will answer, then get offended because the question was “rhetorical”.)
    • Just because I don’t partake in certain things others do, people think I’m judging them. A million thoughts go through my head, and not one was a form of judgement.
    • “Active listening” in meetings, in which you not only have to listen, but you have to look to others like you’re listening. (This is especially problematic for Autistic people because listening does not look like listening to neurotypicals.)
  • Neurotypical apathy
    • Not really caring about anything. If you’re going to do something, do a good job.
    • Not caring about the morality of a situation e.g. walking past injustice without standing up for the downtrodden.

Autistic characters are hugely useful to writers, especially in the crime genres. If Arthur Conan Doyle were writing Sherlock Holmes for the first time today, no doubt readers would decode Sherlock as Autistic. (In fact, there’s nothing stopping us from doing that retrospectively.)

Is Sherlock a realistic Autistic person? Not really. He’s an archetype. He’s more robot than human. This wasn’t a problem the Autistic population of 1892 because, without the label, reductive thinking applied by allistics to Autistics wasn’t possible.

However, I do look at Benoit Blanc (a grandson of Sherlock) and see Autism. Importantly, audiences are not led by our noses to see it. It’s a case of: If you know what Autism looks like, you’ll see it. If you don’t, you won’t. In that case, the work of fiction has caused no societal problems that weren’t already there.


When Nita Prose explained Molly’s aversion to artificial lighting, there was no clearer signal to readers that Molly has been deliberately encoded as Autistic. Aversion to lighting is a real and widespread thing in the Autistic population.

Takeaway point: There is no plausible deniability to be had. Nita Prose has written an Autistic character.


Molly was cared for by her grandmother, who called her “an old soul”. This rings true, and it is in fact important that Molly was cared for by a grandmother because with this detail it is far more plausible that Molly, who is a fictional 25-year-old in 2022, made it all the way through the American school system without anyone noticing she might benefit from diagnostic testing. It is somewhat plausible that the grandmother kept repeating, “She’s just an old soul.” Older populations commonly use different language to describe what we might now call Autistic. I can therefore believe that no one picked up that Molly is Autistic, depite being most obviously so.

Here’s where that falls down: Molly would have worked it out for herself. If you’ve heard about Autism from pop culture, 25-year-old Molly also has, no? She says she was picked on in school. It’s impossible to believe, given the year this is set, that she wasn’t called Autistic as an insult.

This is an example of infantilization. In fact, Nita Prose seems to have written a 10-year-old Autistic girl, not a 25-year-old Autistic woman. This makes sense given the author’s CV: Someone who has taught Autistic children is not necessarily knowledgeable in how Autistic brains mature, and it would hypothetically make sense if, say, the author had spent years teaching Autistic children and has never once got to know an Autistic adult. (I have no insight on that; I’m allowing Molly’s characterisation to speak for itself.)

Complicating this matter is the same old chestnut which aids problematic plausible deniability: Not only is every Autistic person different, but skills are very splintered. This comes in especially handy for fictional plots, because Autistic characters can be stupid and knowing exactly as the plot requires them to be. And the fact is, skills are splintered. A splintered skillset characterises Autism. Even within the same skillset, skills are splintered. For example, an Autistic person might have a very wide vocabulary but struggle with auditory processing. This might typically mask the reality that although communicating is not a problem, understanding others is. This is one example of realistic splintering of skillsets, and will be recognisable to many Autistics:

Imagine my shock as a neurodivergent teen when I first realized that using large vocabulary and eloquent speech doesn’t make you less likely to be misinterpreted, rather it adds an entirely new layer of misinterpretation I had never even realized existed in the form of people thinking you’re being snobbish or condescending when you’re just trying to be specific.

vesper-of-roses on Tumblr

When you understand how splintered skill sets typically work, it becomes obvious when a fictional Autistic-encoded character is being used as a stretchy rubber ball. Sure, Molly the Maid is understands this situation and not that one. One minute the readers understand she’s been dismissed, but Molly thinks she’s just received a compliment. In another scene — at the police station — Molly serves as an astute observer of the situation, and comes up with a good one-liner in the face of hate-sink police officer characters. Splintered skillset, amirite!? No, this is the author writing a tacitly Autistic character, all the while avoiding the huge nuisance of writing an authentically splintered skillset. Unfortunately, only readers with a complex understanding of Autism will see through this tactic. Is it a problem? Well, yeah? Because if readers get it into their heads that Autistic people are completely unpredictable and unknowable and Other, how can they possibly relate?!

In my opinion, Molly the Maid is written as a believably Autistic ten-year-old child. Partly it’s the lack of reflection. It’s realistic that a ten-year-old Autistic girl might have no idea that the bullies are bullying her. But sans significant intellectual impairment, it’s nigh on impossible to make it through the teen years as an Autist without developing a very keen sense that you are different from your peers, that nothing comes naturally, that the allistic social world is ridiculous, that you frequently mess things up and now you must try and figure out how you messed up. Over years, this inevitably results in a specific form of trauma. It results in daily self-flagellation. Ultimately, this form of trauma results in deep and painful reflection. Ergo, Molly the Maid is not a realistic Autistic 25-year-old. And as I’ve hopefully made clear, Nita Prose has most definitely aimed to create an Autistic 25-year-old.

Could a character like Molly exist in the world, hypothetically? Well, sure.

Hannibal Lecter isn’t a realistic psychopath. According to psychologists, Hannibal is a completely fictional invention. So no problem, right? Fiction is fiction. Authors need licence. Etcetera, etcetera.

Except serial killer cannibals with doctorates and Houdini capabilities are hardly a marginalised class. Autistic people are real. Fictional representation affects Autistic reality.

So the problem arises when the fictional Molly Maids (and Eleanor Oliphants) of the literary world turn into the New Autistic Archetype, replacing (or adding to) the culturally dominant archetype of Rain Man. I suspect the Rain Man understanding of Autism hasn’t died. Instead, the Mollies and Eleanors together form a new Female Autistic Archetype for the popular imagination.


This is why we need Autistic authors writing about Autistic experiences. The fact is, we already have that. We have no shortage, in fact, due to the creativity of neurodivergent minds. And when readers and film-buffs finally understand what Autism is (and what it is not), then you will see just how many Autistic-POV fiction we have in the world.

The most dangerous positioning for a non-Autistic author writing Autism seems to be this: If everything about your character points to Autism, if your readers will decode your character as Autistic, yet you refuse to write a character with any degree of self-awareness, beware. You may be doing damage, especially if your character is Othered, infantalised and otherwise a comedic archetype whose social gaffes are a large part of the ‘humour’.

No one who knows the absolute basics of Autism can avoid decoding Molly of The Maid as an Autistic character. Readers can keep this assessment to ourselves to avoid arguing the toss online, but we can’t stop ourselves from thinking it if certain commonly understood Autistic details have been described, very purposefully, by the author.

For this reason, no good arguing that unless a fictional character is labelled Autistic (either on the page or in the marketing) that an Autistic character has not been encoded as exactly that. Readers reserve the right to critique these unlabelled Autistic characters as Autistic. Authors can no longer pretend to themselves that they didn’t know they wrote an Autistic character. Ignorance is no defence, not in the 2020s.

Authors who have some experience with Autistic people, especially with Autistic children, must be extra careful not to write Autistic adults as if they are still children. Infantilization is harmful. The disabled community has plenty to say about this. Infantilization leads to desexualisation, vastly reduced independence, lack of own voices representation and so on.

It’s tempting for writers to throw responsibility back onto readers, isn’t it? No one should be armchair diagnosing anyone, right? Except realistically, this isn’t possible. For one thing, literature serves to teleport readers into the minds of people who are different from ourselves, with the aim of helping us to understand what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes. Stories can increase empathy. Readers will happily acknowledge that. Readers must likewise acknowledge that literature can also be harmful to marginalised groups when written poorly by voices from dominant groups.

We must listen to Autistic voices, in fiction, in non-fiction, in everyday life. That’s the only defence we have against inadvertently forming a view of Autism which works in the service of fiction, but which cannot, must not, be applied to real life individuals who we may think we know, informed by increasingly dominant fictional archetypes.

But I’m loathe to say that one must identify as Autistic before writing Autistic characters. First, I don’t believe autism looks like any one thing, and certainly not like how the DSM describes it in any given edition.

If a story about an Autistic character highlights the social norms which neurotypicals tend to accept without critique, then a story fulfils an important role, regardless of who wrote it.


A complicating factor in all of this: There really is no such thing as “neurotypical”. Ergo, every single character an author writes could arguably attract some kind of armchair diagnosis.


Grahame Simsion, author of The Rosie Project series (beginning 2013) had so many readers tell him about his Autistic main character that he had to make Don Autistic in the end. He never meant to write Don Tillman as Autistic. He thought he was just writing about a quirky professor of genetics, and says on record that he “has worked with Don Tillmans all his life” in his field of database design.

But was there any excuse for this? In the first volume, Don Tillman is indeed on-the-page Not Autistic:

I was wired differently. One of the characteristics of my wiring was that I had difficulty empathising. This problem has been well documented in others and is, in fact, one of the defining symptoms of the autism spectrum.

The Rosie Project (2012)

(For more context see this article.)

Although Grahame Simsion later made Don on-the-page Autistic, that’s because readers taught him something he should have known from the start. Simsion is proud of his Autistic series these days, and boasts about how many readers have had their own epiphanies after reading his books. But how many people read that paragraph and left less informed than before? He surely doesn’t hear from the readers who read part of the novel then threw it to one side (like me).

Still, The Rosie Project Publishing Phenomenon is interesting. (Another interesting aspect to this story: Grahame’s wife is a psychiatrist as well as a co-writer. You might think she’d have had something to say about Don during the writing of the first novel.)


Helen Hoang is an Autistic author who write Autistic characters. Hoang’s experience is interesting because it exemplifies the way in which marginalised voices are The Product alongside their books as Product.

I’ve been surprised by the focus on my personal story as opposed to the one written in my book. Many times, people have complimented me by saying something along the lines of “the best part of the book was the author’s note where you shared your own experience getting diagnosed,” and that gives me mixed feelings every time. As an author of fiction, my ambition is to reach people with the stories I create, not the one I live, but at the same time, I feel responsibility toward other women on the spectrum (especially those who are living with undiagnosed autism) to share what I’ve gone through and to own the label without shame.

Graeme Simsion and Helen Hoang on the power and challenges of autistic representation in literature (2019)

This is why I’m careful to point out that every reader is already reading plenty of Autistic stories. Many actors of your favourite shows are also Autistic. We should not expect authors to share the intimate details of their lives.

Related to that, we can’t expect every Autistic author to produce documentation before they are allowed to write Autistic characters. The older you are, the less likely you are to have a diagnosis. Diagnosis is difficult to obtain and also expensive. Diagnosis is also of limited value to older adults, and not even a good idea if, say, you’re thinking of emigrating to a country which discriminates against Autistic people (most of them).


Even pop psychology is starting to acknowledge (without actually acknowledging the people who are already excellent at it) that there are things to be learned from Autistic thinkers.

See: Clear is Kind. Unclear is Unkind by Brene Brown.


I’ve limited discussion to tentpole examples I’ve personally read, but these are the tip of the iceberg. Another similar example: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (2012)

See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor

From the earliest days of medical research into autism, both psychologists and the general public have characterised those on the autism spectrum as literal-minded, unimaginative and lacking in empathy.

While in recent years a fresh emphasis on neurodiversity has served to sweep aside this kind of reductive thinking, many people still view autistic readers as limited in their capacity to engage with literary texts. In his new book See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor (Duke University Press, 2018), professor at Grinnell College and author Ralph James Savarese challenges the notion that autistic readers are unable to immerse themselves in figurative language or get lost in imaginative worlds.

Instead, Savarese, himself the father of a young autistic man, explores the many diverse and illuminating ways in which neurodivergent readers can engage with literature. From a young reader who identifies with the cetacean “antagonist” of Moby Dick to a woman who provides stunning new insights into Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, See It Feelingly foregrounds the unique perspectives of autistic readers and highlights their inventive approaches to literary analysis. In this podcast, Professor Savarese speaks to Miranda Corcoran about the impetus for this project and his experience working with neurodivergent readers.

New Books Network

On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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