Autism and Fandom

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Synonyms: autistic fans
See also: Ableism in Fandom
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Autistic fans are extremely common in some fandoms and have made notable contributions. Autism has also been portrayed in various ways in fanworks.

Special Interests

Autistic people are known for having intense, specialized, and sometimes limited interests. ASAN describes these special interests as "deeply focused thinking and passionate interests in specific subjects."[1] Autistic fans may have an entire fandom as a special interest, or their interest may be in a specific character (even a minor one) or a self-developed OC, AU, etc.

Autistic people can be quite prolific in documenting canon or creating fanworks involving a special interest:

Recently diagnosed Aspie/high-functioning autistic here, and have been writing fanfiction since 2007. I speak from my personal experience, but I write this in hopes that other writers on the spectrum can relate. Given that one of the core traits of Aspergers in particular is an intense preoccupation in special interests, to me, fanfiction serves as the perfect creative outlet to channel and share those obsessions in a healthy way. An interest in fanfiction is even mentioned in Tony Atwood’s Complete Guide to Aspergers Syndrome: a resource that opened up my eyes to the characteristics of Aspergers. I resonate with that so much. I would get these intense bursts of nonstop thinking about a favorite fictional character, ship, or fandom. I want to talk about that favorite thing all the time, read all about it on Wikipedia, Tumblr, TV Tropes, etc.

Maybe you’ve heard that a sign of Aspergers is the Aspie constantly talking about their interest to the point of annoying others. Well, fortunately I haven’t annoyed anyone, because I don’t talk about it the way most people do. Instead, I write. And best of all, people like that! Writing about that favorite thing is the perfect release to my pent up thoughts that would consume me if I didn’t write. This is what drives me to give way more depth than probably necessary to minor characters and pairings. This is what drives me to explore and dig deeper into characters and worlds that fascinate me.

Most of all, those acts of investment help me grow as a writer and apply those characterization techniques to original work, which I’ve been focusing on lately. I’ve been paid and published for a few of my short stories, and I intend to keep going at it, but I’m so grateful that fanfiction exists as the foundation I could work from, how it got me to the point I am at now, and that I could still return to it when I run into a block on original work.tohdohsibir on r/fanfiction [2]

Curatorial Fandom

Autistic fans may enjoy memorizing facts about canon, such as cataloguing Pokémon types or learning the extensive lore of the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or ASoIaF/Game of Thrones universes. This tendency may lend itself to participation in curatorial fandom. However, some autistic fans have objected to or outright rejected the "curatorial fan" label, as they find it inaccurate, limiting, or disparaging. Others point out that it is possible to belong to both the curatorial and transformative "sides" of fandom, and that having a detailed knowledge of canon may allow a fan to deeply engage with a fictional world, helping them to create varied, imaginative, or canon-faithful fanworks.

In 2018, in response to the Tumblr post Not to be petty but the divide between “curatorial” and “transformative” fandom is completely arbitrary, some autistic fans wrote:

I, for example, tend towards curative fandom trends because I’m autistic and like collecting and organizing information related to my special interests. Being told that one of my main ways of enjoying fiction is basically an “entitled straight white boy thing“ and therefore inferior to transformative fandom, kinda sucks!schafpudel[3]
Also portraying “caring about details” as some sort of regressive, reactionary, male thing that isn’t pure and progressive is super shitty to autistic people, bc even autistic ppl into transformative works still tend to engage with things in a v curative way just as a symptom (and also gives fanfic way too much credit)autisticsansa[4]

"Cringe Culture"

Fandoms as a whole are often mocked for being "cringey" or weird when they are perceived as having many neurodivergent (especially autistic) members. Autistic people are sometimes harassed in fandom and may have their fanworks used without permission in cringe compilations. In one case, an autistic fan has attracted a hatedom that has obsessively cyberstalked her for years, documenting every aspect of her life and harassing her and her family offline.[5] Fans have called out such bullying as an example of ableism.

As fans have also noted, fandom and special interests are often a source of connection and refuge for autistics, who can often find non-fannish spaces overwhelming and may have difficulty making friends in them:

One of the major characteristics of autism is having “special interests,” that is really specific/narrow subjects you’re interested in to an “abnormal” degree. That’s the textbook sort of way of putting it.

in my personal experience, special interests kind of help you interact with the world. You connect everything to your special interest, and when you talk to other people, you usually talk about your special interest because that’s a reliable thing you know how to navigate. for example, Star Wars used to be one of my special interests. lots of people like Star Wars, but I knew the names of ALL the aliens and even minor background characters and insane amounts of lore and I thought about Star Wars all the time. I could hold a really animated, enthusiastic conversation with you about Star Wars, but couldn’t do small talk or very much else. but telling people facts about Star Wars was a way of connecting, and connecting conversations to my special interest helped me with them! it’s also kind of something you can retreat into when the world gets stressful, like, when everything is bewildering and you don’t understand, you can just think about all the stuff you know and love about your special interest and it’s familiar and it belongs to you.

the thing about special interests is that they’re often one of our first experiences with social shame, because people get annoyed with you when you talk about the same thing all the time, and sometimes can be very nasty. Special interests mark you out as “weird” and “different,” and that often sticks with you.

special interests can be kind of odd…for example one of mine was Lewis and Clark, and though it was very intense and I brought up Lewis and Clark in nearly every conversation, there’s not exactly a fandom for very many 19th century explorers. They can also be considered “age-inappropriate” for example if an autistic adult liked a children’s tv show that would be considered shameful.

autistics generally hate cringe culture because it targets people who are interested in things “wrongly” whether they’re interested in something “uncool,” something they’re “too old” for, something they’re “too obsessed with” or something they use as a coping mechanism.

It’s considered acceptable to make fun of people for being “too” involved in a fandom, using it for emotional support, or just being a big fan of something that’s getting dragged online right now for whatever reason.

Cringe culture also extends in general to a lot of “weird” or “socially awkward” behaviors, which is…also a major trait of autism.headspace-hotel[6]
I’ve seen so many posts on my dash about “cringe culture” and while I like how these posts talk about how we should stop saying certain fandoms and interests are “cringe-y”, and to stop adults from being awful and mean towards the stories and art children make, but they all seem to forget something: a lot of the stuff that is commonly considered “cringe culture” tends to have a large, or highly visible, autistic fanbase.

Autistic folks usually have our interests mocked on a regular basis by allistic folks, be it online or offline. I’ve seen how certain fanbases and interests have been mocked by explicitly being called “autistic”, and I’ve had bullies, both in my childhood and adult life, mocking me for the stuff I find interesting.

So seeing all this talk about “cringe culture” and not examining how it is interconnected to how allistics mock and belittle autistic folks interests, is getting more than a little frustrating.grrlofswirls[7]

Stimming

Repeated Consumption of Media

Stimming (short for "stimulation") refers to to repetitive or ritualized behaviours (known as stereotypy, in clinical parlance) that autistics engage in because they feel pleasant, calming, or help deal with sensory overload. Some non-autistic neurodivergent people, including those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), also engage in stimming behaviours. In a fannish context, this may cause autistics and people with ADHD to enjoy watching the same movie, episode, or scene repeatedly, or to enjoy re-reading a favourite book or re-playing a favourite video game.

As qwerytnerd97 on Pillowfort explained:

I feel like rewatching, relistening, and rereading the same media over and over is possibly a stim. Even canon rewrite fics (my favorite kind!) could fall under this category. They are all a soothing, repetitive behavior, albeit a bit more extended than “typical” stims.qwerytnerd97[8]

Other autistics and fans with ADHD echoed qwertynerd97's thoughts in the comments:

I was reading about how ADD/ADHD tends to come with not-very-great emotion management, which would explain why I sometimes find consuming even garbage escapist media to be exhausting sometimes. I get way too invested. So I also like to return to the same media over and over because I know what to expect with them, the emotional shocks are blunted into something more manageable and pleasant. When I come across a good joke or good moment in an internet video, I do experience a compulsion to rewind and rewatch it multiple times to get that emotional hit of dopamine over and over. Would that count as stimming, maybe?lazaefair
I definitely agree and I think this is a common one for me. I watched 101 Dalmatians every day for the ages of three to five, and I've seen Fellowship of the Ring well over 100 times at this point. I totally understand the comfort aspect of it too, even now these two films are a go-to if I'm feeling down/drained/third emotion.Galen
I completely agree re: repetition of media being soothing. When I was younger, I used to dislike re-reading stories "too soon" (i.e. when I still remembered most of the details.) My willingness to re-read my old favorites goes up with how stressed I am, and my willingness to read new things goes down.buttonsbeadslace
I hadn't thought of it before, but complete agreement here! I know I do this the most with music, which is a bit more immediate, but I know watching or reading the same things over and over to get those consistent predictable feelings is just a slightly more complex version of more automatic stims. I know my very-autistic family does this kind of thing a lot, haha. My little sister's Peter Pan Three Times A Day Every Day stage will never be forgotten. For me, I totally read my favorite things, including fanfiction, repeatedly. I'd never considered it related before but I can definitely see it!Flower
I’m the exact same, I rewatch the same music videos over and over, drive my brother mad by always watching to watch shows I’ve already seen, almost never read books by new authors, and also have an obsession with canon rewrite fanficKlavier
Huh, I never thought of this. The fact that I have a very bad habit of re-watching shows I already know instead of diving into the gigantic list of other media I want to get through is sometimes very stressful to me. Just the idea of getting into a new show sometimes seems like so much WORK. I never connected that to ADHD before but it makes so much sense. Like, seeking stimulating but of the laziest kind lol.VivaRockSteady
Yes, I do tend to read and watch the same sorts of things, over and over and over again. And I never got bored. Thank goodness for headphones, or else I’d drive my coworkers insane by listening to the same exact playlists of the same exact 30 songs day after day. I also notice that when I really like something, I’ll get super involved with it. I’ll find and watch all the related videos. I’ll read all the related posts and such. So when I fell into a highly established fandom, I fell pretty hard. It’s taken over my free time for the past 3.5 years. But it brings me comfort and it brings joy into my life. It turned into an almost-obsession, but I’m in good company and don’t feel any guilt or regret whatsoever. And that explains my hyper-focus.TapBluesNLindayhopDancer

Stim Content

An example of Tumblr stim content.

"Stims" are a form of fan-generated content that has emerged within autistic and ADHD circles of fandom. They generally consist of images, gifs, and other visual content designed to elicit a soothing or pleasant feeling, similar to ASMR content. Moodboards created for stimming purposes are referred to as stimboards.

An entire subculture of stim content creators has emerged on Tumblr. Blogs dedicated to stim content are known as stimblogs, and may be considered a form of aesthetic blog. Some stimblogs seek to appeal to specific fannish interests, creating and curating stim content inspired by fandoms such as Pokémon,[9][10][11] Harry Potter,[12] and Game of Thrones.[13] Others seek to evoke specific moods, themes, or aesthetics, such as "winter stims"[14] or "80s-core stims."[15] Others seek to appeal to specific groups, such as "witchy stims" for witches and those interested in the occult,[16] or "trans stims" for transgender people and their allies.[17]

Autistic Characters

Explicit and Implied Representations

Explicit representations of autism are still relatively uncommon in mainstream media. Examples of canonically autistic characters (confirmed either within the text or by creator Word of God) that have generally well-received include Abed Nadir of Community,[18] Entrapta of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power,[19] Saga Norén of the The Bridge,[20] and Spencer Reid of Criminal Minds.[21]

In other cases, characters have been implied in canon to be on the spectrum, but the creators have declined to confirm or deny fan speculations. One example is Temperance Brennan of Bones, whose creator, Hart Hanson, has stated that he based the character on a friend with Asperger's, and that if the show had been on cable "we would have said from the beginning that [she] has Asperger’s," but because it got picked up by network television, they "decided not to label a main character, for good or for bad."[22] Another example is Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory. The show's creators have stated that they chose not to "diagnose" Sheldon because they feared doing so would require them to accurately depict autism and that this would be too difficult on a sitcom.[22]

Many representations have drawn criticism from autistic fans. They view them as perpetuating harmful myths and stereotypes about autism, such that it always makes a person rude, immature, or totally devoid of empathy. Characters that have been widely criticized by autistic fans include BBT's Sheldon Cooper and Sam Gardner of Atypical.[23]

Fan Interpretations

Due to the rarity of canon examples, some fans interpret characters as autistic-coded, or headcanon them as autistic. They may write meta explaining their perspective, sometimes citing detailed evidence from canon. There are blogs entirely devoted to autistic headcanons. Some fans also write fics focusing on their autistic interpretations/headcanons.[24][25][26] As of 2020, there are 6,339 works in the "Autism" tag on Archive of Our Own.

However, these interpretations and headcanons haven't been met with universal support within fandom. Some autistic fans object to labelling specific characters as autistic because they see it as reinforcing negative stereotypes. Sometimes acafans have also jumped into discourse to voice concerns about autistic character interpretations. For example, in 2012-13, medical student wellingtongoose released a series of controversial meta, arguing against autistic interpretations of Sherlock of the eponymous BBC series from a clinical perspective.[27][28][29] In the earliest meta, she claimed that autistic people "are physically unable [of experiencing] empathy as evidenced by brain scans," and that because Sherlock had displayed an understanding of human emotion and empathy for other characters, he could not be on the autism spectrum.[27] Wellingtongoose also asserted that "diagnosing" fictional characters was harmful, but subsequently proposed that he fit the criteria for schizoid personality disorder.[30] The metas were roundly called out by autistic fans for propagating ableist myths and talking over autistic voices.

Characters Frequently Interpreted As Autistic

Examples Wanted: Editors are encouraged to add more examples or a wider variety of examples.

References

  1. ^ "About Autism", Autistic Self Advocacy Network
  2. ^ "Fanfiction is therapy/salvation for the autistic writer" post on r/fanfiction on Reddit
  3. ^ Post on schafpudel's blog
  4. ^ Post on autisticsansa's blog
  5. ^ "Cringe" by ContraPoints on YouTube
  6. ^ Post on headspace-hotel's blog
  7. ^ Post on grrlofswirls's blog
  8. ^ Post on qwerytnerd97's blog
  9. ^ Bulbasaur stimboard by stimmypokemon on Tumblr
  10. ^ "Galarian Ponyta stimboard for anon" from soft-stims on Tumblr
  11. ^ Shiny Wooloo stimboard by chewynecklace on Tumblr
  12. ^ superhogwartsstims blog on Tumblr
  13. ^ "Sansa Stark stimboard for anon" from stimmywombat on Tumblr
  14. ^ winter-calm blog on Tumblr
  15. ^ earth-stim-and-fire blog on Tumblr
  16. ^ raenwitch-stims blog on Tumblr
  17. ^ bluepinkwhite blog on Tumblr
  18. ^ Matthew Rosza, "These Are The TV Characters Getting Asperger's Wrong, From Someone Who Has It", Mic
  19. ^ Caitlin Chappell, "Why She-Ra's Entrapta Means So Much for Autistic Representation", CBR
  20. ^ Rosemary Collins "Saga Noren, the Autistic Superwoman of 'The Bridge'", The Toast
  21. ^ Jason Wiese, "7 Great TV Characters Who Are On The Spectrum", Cinema Blend
  22. ^ a b Alan Sepinwall, "How TV shows try (or choose not) to depict Asperger's syndrome: Sepinwall on TV", NJ.com
  23. ^ Meta by ladyautie on Tumblr
  24. ^ autisticheadcanons blog on Tumblr
  25. ^ autismheadcanons blog on Tumblr
  26. ^ autism-headcanons blog on Tumblr
  27. ^ a b "Walking Nightmares For Medical Student - In Defence Of Mycroft And Sherlock's Normalcy" by wellingtongoose on LiveJournal
  28. ^ "Sherlock, Himself and His Asperger's" by wellingtongoose on LiveJournal
  29. ^ "Sherlock Does not Have Asperger's or Autism - Thanks, From 4 Psychiatrists" by wellingtonboots on AO3
  30. ^ "Diagnosing Sherlock - Schizoid not Asperger’s" by wellingtongoose on Tumblr
  31. ^ a b Juliette Dunn, "Five Characters Coded as Autistic", Mythcreants
  32. ^ "Luna Lovegood Is Autistic!" by jacobsjottings on Tumblr
  33. ^ "Autistic Luna is definitely my favorite" by disabledharrypotter on Tumblr
  34. ^ Amy Luder & Victor Chan, "Why I’m Convinced Now More Than Ever That Newt Is Autistic", MuggleNet
  35. ^ "NEWT SCAMANDER IS AN AUTISTIC ICON AND YOU CAN’T CHANGE MY MIND" by aliengirlfriendss on Tumblr
  36. ^ Evidence that Newt Scamander is autistic by mj-irl on Tumblr