Autism and Fandom

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Related terms: autistic fans
See also: Ableism in Fandom, ADHD and 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. The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (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 actor, or a self-developed OC or AU; or they may focus on technical aspects of production, set design, etc.

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

[Tohdoh at r/FanFiction]
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[note 1] 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.[2]

Curatorial Fandom

Autistic fans may enjoy collecting and 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 by patrexes, some autistic fans wrote:

[schafpudel]
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![3]
[autisticsansa]
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)[4]

Stimming

Repeated Consumption of Media

Stimming (short for "self-stimulation") is known as stereotypy in clinical parlance. It refers to repetitive or ritualized behaviours that autistics engage in because they feel pleasant, calming, or help deal with sensory overload. The term was originally a deliberate takeoff on masturbation, coined by Dr. Ivar Lovaas, who used shock and other brutal means to "extinguish" behaviors associated with autism, including these repeated motions or actions. He believed he could train autistic children to choose (or at least mimic) normality through reward and punishment.[note 2] As LGBT people have reclaimed "queer", many autistics have reclaimed "stimming" in a positive sense.

Some non-autistic neurodivergent people, including variable attention stimulus (officially 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 October 2018, a post on Pillowfort explained:

[qwertynerd97]
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.[5]

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 fanfic

Klavier

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,[6][7][8] Harry Potter,[9] and Game of Thrones.[10] Others seek to evoke specific moods, themes, or aesthetics, such as "winter stims"[11] or "80s-core stims."[12] Others seek to appeal to specific groups, such as "witchy stims" for witches and those interested in the occult,[13] or "trans stims" for transgender people and their allies.[14]

There is also a mascot - Tbh (aka Yippee Yippee) - used especially on Tumblr.

Stim images are also collected on Pinterest.

Autistic Characters

Explicit and Implied Representations

Explicit representations of autism are still relatively uncommon in mainstream media. There have been a few notable examples (see the list below). 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 an autistic friend, 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."[15] 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.[15]

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.[16]

Canonically Autistic Characters

Examples of canonically autistic characters (confirmed either within the text, or by creator Word of God) include:

Fan Interpretations

Due to the rarity of canon examples, some fans interpret characters as autistic-coded, or personally view them as autistic. They may write meta articles explaining their perspective, sometimes citing detailed canonical evidence. There are blogs entirely devoted to autistic headcanons.[24][25][26] Some fans also write fics focusing on their autistic interpretations/headcanons. As of 2023, there are 40,073 works in the "Autism" tag on Archive of Our Own.[27]

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. Other fans have emphasized the importance of maintaining a distinction between canon and personal interpretations/headcanons. In 2021, controversy arose when writer Gita Jackson characterized Hermione Granger as "annoying" and a "know-it-all" on Twitter, leading autistic Harry Potter fans to accuse her of perpetuating ableist stereotypes on the basis that they see Hermione as autistic-coded.[28] This sparked debate in fandom about the line between between intentional coding and personal interpretations.[28]

Sometimes acafans have waded into discourse to voice concerns about autistic character interpretations. In 2012 and 2013, medical student wellingtongoose released a series of controversial meta, arguing against autistic interpretations of Sherlock of the eponymous BBC series from a clinical perspective.[29][30][31] In the earliest meta, she argued that Sherlock could not be on the spectrum because he displayed an understanding of human emotion and empathy for other characters, claiming that autistic people are "physically unable to experience empathy as evidenced by brain scans" and that "One of the defining features of autism is below average IQ."[29] Wellingtongoose also asserted that "diagnosing" fictional characters was harmful, but subsequently proposed that he fit the criteria for schizoid personality disorder.[32] The metas were roundly called out by autistic fans for propagating ableist myths and talking over autistic voices. Autistics have long spoken of "feeling too much" and experiencing others' perceived emotional pain as intensely as their own (affective empathy), but may have difficulty describing what they are feeling (alexithymia).[33][34][35][36] Neurological research has shown that the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with the regulation of emotion, is hyperactive in autistics.[37][38] Thus, autistics may appear to be remote or nonreactive in intense situations in order to avoid being emotionally overwhelmed.

Creators have occasionally commented on autistic interpretations of characters. Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller has repeatedly refuted the idea that Will Graham is autistic. In one interview, he stated that Will has an "empathy disorder where he feels way too much," and in another he described Will's empathy as "the opposite of" autism.[39][40][41] Autistic Fannibals have criticized these statements as perpetuating ableist myths.[42][43][44]

Characters Frequently Interpreted As Autistic

Helaena Targaryen of House of the Dragon depicted with a millipede (art by lilharko.png). Some fans interpret Helaena's canonical fascination with insects as an autistic hyperfixation or special interest.

Fanworks Focused on Autistic Characters

Further Reading

  • Paul Collins, Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism. Bloomsbury, 2008.
  • Steve Silberman, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. Avery, 2015.
  • NOS Magazine, a news and commentary source for thought and analysis about neurodiversity culture and representation. Folded in 2018 due to lack of funding but according to @NOSEditorial on twitter they will "...figure out the $$$. Patreon has been put on hold until we get a new funding stream".
  • Autism Is Me, published in Disability and Society 37 (2022, Issue 3). A study in which autistics were asked to explain and describe autism as an identity rather than a disease or disorder, and discussed the effect that medical and popular stereotypes have on them and how they manage and correct them in everyday life. "Such methods included reframing to more positive understandings of autism, the reclamation of language, and using concealment and disclosure strategically."

Notes and References

Notes

  1. ^ In 2013, the DSM-5 removed Asperger syndrome as a separate diagnosis, merging it into the diagnostic class of autism spectrum disorder. Many autistics still use "Asperger's" or "Aspie" as self-identifications, especially if they were diagnosed before the DSM-5 changes. Some autistics have reservations about the term given its namesake Hans Asperger's history.
  2. ^ Don Moser, "Screams, Slaps and Love: A surprising, shocking treatment helps far-gone mental cripples". Life, May 7, 1965, photographs by Allen Grant. This extremely graphic article is now available in many places on line along with criticism and analyses from autistic writers and professionals. Aversive "therapy" is also discussed in Don Katz's "The Kids with the Faraway Eyes", Rolling Stone, March 8, 1979.

References

  1. ^ "About Autism". Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Archived from the original on 2017-03-29.
  2. ^ Tohdoh (2019-12-17). "Fanfiction is therapy/salvation for the autistic writer". r/FanFiction. Archived from the original on 2023-04-11.
  3. ^ schafpudel (2018-01-22). "I, for example, tend towards curative fandom trends because I'm autistic …". Tumblr. Archived from the original on 2022-03-30.
  4. ^ autisticsansa (2018-01-29). "Also portraying "caring about details" as some sort of …". Tumblr. Archived from the original on 2022-03-30.
  5. ^ qwertynerd97. "I feel like rewatching, relistening, and …". Pillowfort. Archived from the original on 2023-04-11.
  6. ^ Bulbasaur stimboard by stimmypokemon on Tumblr
  7. ^ "Galarian Ponyta stimboard for anon" from soft-stims on Tumblr
  8. ^ Shiny Wooloo stimboard by chewynecklace on Tumblr
  9. ^ superhogwartsstims blog on Tumblr
  10. ^ "Sansa Stark stimboard for anon" from stimmywombat on Tumblr
  11. ^ winter-calm blog on Tumblr
  12. ^ earth-stim-and-fire blog on Tumblr
  13. ^ raenwitch-stims blog on Tumblr
  14. ^ bluepinkwhite blog on Tumblr
  15. ^ a b Alan Sepinwall, "How TV shows try (or choose not) to depict Asperger's syndrome: Sepinwall on TV", NJ.com
  16. ^ Meta by ladyautie on Tumblr
  17. ^ "Strange Empire: inside the character of Rebecca Blithely" on YouTube
  18. ^ Liam Nolan, "Power Rangers Features Prominent Character with Autism," CBR.com
  19. ^ Caitlin Chappell, "Why She-Ra's Entrapta Means So Much for Autistic Representation", CBR
  20. ^ Matthew Rosza, "These Are The TV Characters Getting Asperger's Wrong, From Someone Who Has It", Mic
  21. ^ Rosemary Collins "Saga Noren, the Autistic Superwoman of 'The Bridge'", The Toast
  22. ^ Jason Wiese, "7 Great TV Characters Who Are On The Spectrum", Cinema Blend
  23. ^ Allegra Frank, "Overwatch fan theory about Symmetra finally confirmed by Blizzard", Polygon, March 9, 2017
  24. ^ autisticheadcanons blog on Tumblr
  25. ^ autismheadcanons blog on Tumblr
  26. ^ autism-headcanons blog on Tumblr
  27. ^ "Autism" tag on Archive of Our Own
  28. ^ a b Reuban Baron, "'Autistic Hermione' & 'Queer POC Snape' Show Potter Fandom Misunderstands Coding", CBR
  29. ^ a b "Walking Nightmares For Medical Student - In Defence Of Mycroft And Sherlock's Normalcy" by wellingtongoose on LiveJournal
  30. ^ "Sherlock, Himself and His Asperger's" by wellingtongoose on LiveJournal
  31. ^ "Sherlock Does not Have Asperger's or Autism - Thanks, From 4 Psychiatrists" by wellingtonboots on AO3
  32. ^ "Diagnosing Sherlock - Schizoid not Asperger’s" by wellingtongoose on Tumblr
  33. ^ Marga Vicedo, "Between Happy and Sad Lie Partly Cloudy; Jessica Park's Loving Intelligence." Beacon Press, May 25, 2021. Artist Jessica Park, who was considered "profoundly autistic" as a child, synthesized personal terminology using mathematics and weather to communicate feeling "too good" as well as "hate" and nuanced emotions in between extreme states.
  34. ^ Rebecca Brewer & Jennifer Murphy, "People with Autism Can Read Emotions, Feel Empathy". Scientific American, July 13, 2016.
  35. ^ Maia Szalavitz, "Asperger's theory does about-face". The Toronto Star, May 14, 2009.
  36. ^ Steve Silberman, It’s time we dispelled these myths about autism. BBC, October 6, 2015.
  37. ^ Jared Wadley, "Overactive brain keeps teens with autism from adjusting to social situations", Michigan News
  38. ^ Sarah Deweerdt, "Amygdala, the brain’s threat detector, has broad roles in autism", Spectrum News
  39. ^ Denis Faye, "It's a Matter of Taste", Writer's Guild of America
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