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. Some fandoms with a reputation for having many autistic fans are:

Special Interests

Autistic people are known for having special interests, formerly known as obsessions. ASAN says special interests are "deeply focused thinking and passionate interests in specific subjects."[1] Autistic people may have an entire fandom as a special interest, or it may be 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.

Autistic people are known for creating crossovers that combine their special interests, like Sonichu, Pooh's Adventures or Ponification.

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."Fanfiction is therapy/salvation for the autistic writer" by tohdohsibir on r/fanfiction [2]

Cringe Culture

Fandoms as a whole are often mocked for being "cringey" or weird when they have many autistic members. Autistic people also are sometimes harassed in fandom and may have their fanworks used without permission in cringe compilations.

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.[3]
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.[4]
My problem with “DeviantArt Cringe” videos

TW: bullying, ableism

I’m not going to name names in this post, but I think you all know the people I’m talking about.

There seems to be a new genre of videos on YouTube where edgelords like to make fun of fetish and amateurish art made by kids and teens. Autistic and LGBTQ kids seem to get it much worse. I wonder why that could be? It’s a total mystery.

I know that kinkshaming has become a meme, and people don’t take it seriously, but I still think it’s a shitty thing to do. Maybe you think it’s okay to laugh at adults who post fetish art since they posted it and therefor invite all types of feedback. Even if you think certain fetishes are weird, and are maybe even disgusted by them, that doesn’t mean you should be needlessly cruel to someone over it. You could just use your free speech to not be a giant dickbag.

Where I personally draw the line is putting a kid’s art in your video (without their permission) and making fun of it.

“But these kids need to learn how to take constructive criticism”, you might say.

You’re right, especially if these kids plan on going to art school. However, what these people are doing isn’t constructive criticism. They’re taking a child’s art and exposing it to a crowd of people who get off on bullying. I started posting on DA when I was 15. The stuff I made was pretty bad and got little attention, but I don’t think I would be posting art today if people like this harassed me over what I posted. There’s a huge difference between “your shading could use some work” and “your art is cringey and you should kill yourself you autist”.

“But these kids lash out at anyone who gives constructive criticism and deserve the hate they get”, you might say.

So you’re telling me that a kid without the interpersonal skills and emotional maturity of an adult gets angry when someone says their art is bad? I’m shocked!

I’m not saying it’s okay for kids to behave this way. However, I do think it’s on you to be the adult and not let these online conversations escalate into a flame war. DeviantArt lets you block people.

But what about adults who post bad art?

Not everyone has to be good at making art, and not every adult who makes art is doing it for a living. Lots of them are hobbyists. It’s okay to be bad at something. To quote Jake from Adventure Time: “Sucking at something is the first step to becoming sort of good at something.” I don’t think online hazing is going to make someone want to continue making art.

Finally, if I have to explain to you why bullying LGBTQ and autistic kids is bad, I’m probably wasting my time. I don’t know how to explain to you that should care about other people.

I’m not saying you have to like the art these people make. I’m just asking you to not be cruel to people who did nothing wrong.[5]
Okay like… No one is going to want to hear this, but I think there is an inherent ableism in hating furries.

The people who make fursonas are the people who want to reimagine themselves as nonhuman in nonhuman worlds because they don’t feel they fit into society. They’ve been made to feel different and, in a way, making a fursona allows them to embrace being different. Now, what sort of people fit that descriptions better than neurodivergent people? People that are made to feel animalistic, people that get treated like animals…

I think a majority of those that were in early online communities like neopets and deviantart making fursonas were neurodivergent. Why? Well, I feel like most of those people started spending a lot of time online for the same reason I did: because I couldn’t make a lot of friends in real life and never went anywhere. And so that’s why like everyone in those days had a fursona or a Sonicsona or generally a reimagining of themself as some kind of nonhuman creature. And then like. Actual professional art people started joining those communities and being critical. Then everyone else that previously had no dependency on the internet for social interaction started trickling in when social media became Big. And then you can kinda get a gist of what happened from there.

And I think that’s why most franchises that involve animal characters or even just mostly nonhuman characters get kinda. Shoved into the cringe pile while people can freely geek out over superhero stuff, Disney, or Harry Potter. Because the ostracization of neurodivergent people causes such neurodivergent people to connect more with nonhuman characters and so stuff like Sonic and Undertale gets labeled cringy to weed out anyone that’s too obviously autistic from your geek community. You associate the act of simply having a fursona to the “cringier” neurodivergent traits like talking a lot about a special interest, meltdowns, having no filter, stimming, etc.

Not that all furries are neurodivergent in some way, but I still think it’s fair to say that outcasting and making fun of some guy that draws himself as a sparkly pink and green fox is a thinly-veiled way of implying that he’s a r*tard.

Allistics, don’t clown on this post.[6]

Autistic Interpretations

Autistic people may see characters as autistic-coded or headcanon them as autistic. They may write meta explaining their viewpoints, like the mobisautistic[12] tumblr arguing that Kageyama Shigeo is autistic.

Sometimes autistic headcanons were the subject of discourse, especially if they were seen as infantilizing, stereotypical or unrealistic. Nevertheless, many blogs dedicated to autistic headcanons existed.

Some television shows criticized by autistic fans for ableism were The Big Bang Theory and Atypical.[7][8][9]

Autism in Fanworks

Archive of Our Own has 4643 works in the Autism tag.

Curatorial Fandom

Autistic people often enjoy memorizing facts about canon. This has resulted in them being labelled as curatorial fans, which some find inaccurate or disparaging. In a 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![10]
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)[11]

Repetition

Autistic media fans may be known for watching the same movie or episode repeatedly. This could be related to autistic people's needs for a rigid routine, but could also be a form of stimming. Stimming (from "stimulation") refers to a type of sensory-seeking that makes autistic people feel better.

qwerytnerd97 on Pillowfort proposed:

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.[12]

Responses from autistic and allistics:

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 could see that! It's the same sort of soothing feeling.coldwind-shiningstars
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
interesting. I may not know what I'm talking about because I do not have the diagnoses most commonly associated with stimming (but do have some compulsive behaviors with overlap such as nail biting etc.) but I do do a lot of re-watching and to me, they feel like different things because I think of stimming as something that can be done almost compulsively/without much thought or effort to soothe, i.e. tapping your foot or flapping your hands or whatever in a stressful situation. but while you can just do either of those things with little effort and possibly without even realizing or controlling it, choosing to re-consume media takes effort and planning - the thought "I should rewatch that again" and taking the intentional steps to do it. it couldn't possibly be subconsciousOffBrandBoston
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

Another fannish act of repetition would be developing a strong attachment to a piece of merchandise, such as a plush toy or a sippy cup.

Notable Autistic Fans

References

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  11. https://autisticsansa.tumblr.com/post/170269746020/not-to-be-petty-but-the-divide-between
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