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Writing characters, not symptoms: A gamer with autism discusses what our hobby gets wrong

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Many people are aware of autism spectrum disorders, but few people understand them.

The term encompasses a wide spectrum of disorders characterized by impairments in social, communication and imaginative skills that affects everybody who has them differently. That's why the word "spectrum" is used.

Unfortunately, the common image of people with autism put forth by the media is scary and inapplicable to most people with the condition. Pop culture thinks of autistic individuals as nonverbal, temperamental and violent, but also inhumanely smart and misunderstood.

The Big Bang Theory is more or less based around the idea of laughing at someone with autism, while films like Forrest Gump and in Man both showed conditions that were heavily implied to be some form of autism (or at least developmental conditions with symptoms and behaviors similar to autism). But in games, those representations — be they damaging or not — are less common.

In my experience, many people with autism gravitate toward gaming, and many people reading this are bound to be somewhere on the spectrum, but I've never been comfortable talking about having autism. I've always been too self-conscious to discuss this aspect of myself, but April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day; it's important to discuss why autism hasn't had the best time in games up to now.

These portrayals have also impacted me as a person with autism; representation absolutely does have an effect and should be examined more closely.

I racked my brain to think of games featuring autistic characters that have stood out to me, and four came to mind. All of these characters are different kinds of people with autism, and some of them can be interpreted as positive representations. They also bring to light the tropes and stereotypes surrounding the condition that made me so worried about people finding out I have autism.

Amy

The first character is from Amy, the widely panned Xbox 360, PC and PlayStation 3 game.

Amy is a little girl with autism who, surprise, surprise, has an amazing power. She can stave off the zombie infection gripping the world for those close to her, while also having a wider array of psychic abilities. The game is one big escort mission where the player must guide Amy and keep her safe.

Amy is the epitome of the "Rain Man" trope; where autism is rarely seen without the person also being a savant with super powers. The idea that a person with autism has to have super abilities to make up for their perceived awkwardness is the driving belief behind the trope.

Kim Peek, the real Rain Man, wasn't autistic.

Amy's powers are more fantastical than most examples of the trope. This only serves to show how damaging this can be, as the idea that a person with any disability needs some gimmick or gift to be of use to non-disabled people to be considered a person with value. The expectation of being special and useful to non-disabled people is conveyed to people struggling to understand their own condition very easily.

Rain Man and Amy gave me the impression that my self-worth depended on being a savant and having something to offer in order to even the proverbial playing field.

If I struggled with anxiety, and if my social skills weren't up to the standard, then damn, I should be a walking computer. I found it unfair that I had all of these difficulties with nothing to make up for them, and as a young person with autism, that was difficult to accept. It felt like being Harry Potter, only the owl never came.

Only while growing up did I slowly learn to accept just how rare savants are, and that I can have skills without needing them to be superhuman.

Patricia Tannis

Patricia Tannis from the Borderlands series is my second example. While it's never explicitly said within the series that she has autism, her personality and idiosyncrasies certainly hint at it. She is unsociable, struggles with showing empathy and is very scientifically-minded, all of which are fairly common traits of autism.

Borderlands is a series that has both good and bad representations of disability: The game can feature "midget" enemies one minute and a black gay man who doesn't have an arm and a leg the next. Gearbox comes across as very confused with how to portray disabled people, and Tannis is no exception.

On the one hand, she is a character who is respected despite her quirks. She plays a major role in the first game, and can at least almost function in Pandora's society: She's shown commanding her own research team, and is present in the main city hub of Sanctuary in Borderlands 2.

Tannis is unlikable, but she's different from Amy in that she has agency and status that is often not afforded to disabled individuals in the media, especially people with autism, who are often portrayed as nonverbal or unintelligent. Tannis is her own woman with her own motivations, and that is a nice thing to see after Amy, who is dragged around like a psychic machine.

On the other hand, the very fact she is unlikable is a problem, and relates to how I question my own personality and how my autism affects that. She is often talking about characters behind their backs, blunt to the point of offense; she cares little for others' safety and is shown to actively hide away from the world.

While having disabled characters who are unlikable is important for reducing the tendency to treat characters with pity, in Patricia's case that dislike comes in traits that are seen as inherently autistic: unsociability and bluntness.

She's unlikable because of something people with autism simply cannot help, and this struck a nerve with me. I regularly question whether I am likable, or whether I would be more likable if I didn't have autism. Tannis reinforces that feeling by showing the negative impact the condition can have on the people around the person with autism.

An even more damaging part of Tannis' character is the alleged 'source' of her behavior. Tannis has been subjected to immense amounts of trauma and isolation on Pandora, and it is implied throughout the games that her autistic traits are a result of this. Autism cannot be induced. It isn't a response; it just is.

I regularly question whether I am likable

Her traits are exaggerated and made more unstable as a result of her experiences, and this fits into the perceived image that people with autism are unstable, violent and something to be feared.

Ultimately, I feel Tannis is an important representation, because she is a prominent, respected scientist who is also a woman with autism, and I am glad she exists.

But it feels as if her autistic traits appear demonized in a way that may take away from the good her character does. Her traits could absolutely be caused by the isolation and trauma she has experienced, but it also presents itself very similarly to autism. It also calls into question how much a game that regularly features "midgets" as enemies can really handle discussing disability.

Wit, and the accusations of "faking it"

The next example is less about a specific character and more about a scene within a game. The first episode of Red Thread Games' Dreamfall Chapters: The Longest Journey features a specific scene where a character named Mira, who up to then had been portrayed as a crass and vulgar but otherwise good person, goes on a verbal tirade against her nonverbal friend, Wit.  She throws some really horrid names and slurs at Wit, and then finishes up with, "I bet you've been faking your autism since we first met."

This scene caused a bit of a stir when the game came out. Some players calling it discriminatory and said they felt it was put in the game to make it edgier. The developers argued that good people are not universally good, and could say awful things.

The scene contributes to the normalization of slurs without stopping to examine their context. It also puts into question the validity of invisible disabilities such as autism. Both of these can be incredibly damaging to disabled people.

Let's leave the idea of character motivation and personality for a moment, because what people who don't have autism may not understand is that scene can be common for us.

I've had my autism be questioned by people before, and it has always been from people who can't accept that I simply am unable to do some things they would prefer me to do. I was of no 'use' to them, and so rather than accept I have a condition, they would just assume it doesn't exist.

When I was younger, and anxiety, stress and confusion got too much, I would have what is known as a "meltdown." I would need to be taken away from the situation to calm down, because I was unable to cope.

People — often peers in school, or teachers unaware of autism — would become frustrated with me. They would claim that the meltdowns were just me overreacting, or faking to get my own way, simply because it inconvenienced them. This would be the equivalent of telling an epileptic person to 'get over' having a grand mal seizure; they can't help it, and suggesting otherwise is ridiculous.

I've had my autism be questioned by people before

This is the problem with questioning the validity of invisible disabilities such as autism. It erases the difficulties and experiences that a person has because of their disability, prevents people from seeking support for their very real problems.

It ultimately brushes the discussion of disability under the rug, and while the developer absolutely has the creative freedom to include these scenes, they are still both damaging in and of themselves and also representative of comments that have been made to me and people like me. "Good" people often do say awful things, but this one hit a bit too close to home for me.

It shows a believable example of what I have experienced, and I can only assume a large amount of people with autism have experienced the same thing. Our condition is called into question regularly, and we are given grief by others when we are unable to do what they expect us to be able to do. It feels a bit cheap; a character uses an attack against another character to appear "edgy," and that attack is never questioned. It feels like lazy writing.

Wit, the target of this abuse, is also worthy of discussion. He is a large, muscular, physically adept man, but struggles in social situations and has difficulty communicating. This is an archetype that is repeated over and over again, such as Hodor from A Song of Fire and Ice, and of course, Lennie from Of Mice and Men. Wit is also a technological savant.

In other words, Wit is a big ball of autistic stereotypes who is then abused and harassed for no reason in particular. He has no agency, and is there to serve the motivations of the rest of the characters.

Dreamfall Chapters fails to do anything positive with its autistic character, and in a game as otherwise diverse as it is, this is incredibly disappointing. Wit's not a person; he's a plot point.

It's not all bad

There are positive representations of autism in games. The beloved indie game To the Moon comes to mind, as it successfully pulls off a heart-wrenchingly slow revelation about a character named River.

Those who are intimately aware of autism would have picked up on River's condition through the behavior she exhibits, including the obsessive making of origami rabbits. Then there's a scene in which another character explains River's autism. She employs terminology not used by those who don't know much about autism, such as "neurotypical," meaning the general population who doesn't have a neurological or neurodevelopmental condition.

That was the point in the game where my previous suspicions came to the fore to great emotional effect: "Oh dang… she has autism…"

To the Moon explains what autism is for those who aren't aware. It teaches the player about the condition in a way that doesn't come off as preachy or with the expectation of pity.

It doesn't paint River as a dangerous villain or evil monster, like a wide range of media does. She is portrayed as an adult who has difficulties, but also as a person with inherent worth, someone who has people who support and love her for more reasons than some contrived super power.

River isn't defined by her autism; she's a person who happens to be autistic

That is the sort of representation we as a medium should be pushing toward: showing that there is hope for people with disabilities without erasing the very real problems we face. To the Moon is one of the most important games for the future of autistic representation, and every developer looking to do right by people with autism should be paying attention.

River isn't defined by her autism; she's a person who happens to be autistic. That distinction is important.

People latch onto characters and construct their own self-image by the understanding they glean from them. Improving representation allows for more varied storytelling and more believable world-building. It's just as important to not offend or upset, or reinforce negative ideas for, those who are being represented.

The idea isn't to control how people with autism spectrum disorders are portrayed, but to hope for characters on the spectrum to be written as well-rounded people, and not just a bundle of symptoms who may or may not be used by those around them. People with autism are just that, people.

While I am still not entirely comfortable with my autism, and I don't know if I ever will be, media representation allows us to contextualize and come to terms with our own difficulties, and hopefully accept other people's as well.