Andy Gainey

Since July, when I started to truly become aware of the autistic elements of my nature, I have been rewatching a lot of movies that include characters exhibiting some of the outward traits of autism, or who are otherwise socially awkward or social outsiders. These have often been the characters to which I could relate the most, and I wanted to re-explore these characters and plots from the perspective of my new self-understanding. I was initially motivated merely by a desire to extract a little extra comfort from watching something relatable, but it turned out to be a great method for assisting with personal reflection. Not only were there nuances to the characters that I had never noticed before, but by thinking about the characters and plots, I began to discover nuances in my own thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors that I had never noticed before, or of which I had only dimly been aware. This process has also helped me think about and refine my understanding of how I relate to society around me, the expectations that are subtly placed on me by society and myself, and my reactions to those expectations.

I want to note up front that I’m hesitant to ever say, “Such and such fictional character is autistic”, because I think that autism can only meaningfully be said to exist when there is an actual internal mental experience, and fictional characters do not literally have such experiences. Explicitly calling a fictional character autistic could draw too much attention to public behaviors, something that in my opinion many people (and until recently, I myself) already focus on too much. Externally visible behaviors are merely a symptom of autism; they don’t define it. Unless an author intentionally thinks about a character as being autistic and is capable of granting the character outward behaviors and inner monologues which are consistent with the private experience of being autistic, the character is only ever going to be a facade, based solely on the author’s experience of the outward behaviors of people the author has encountered. In the worst cases, the author’s experience consists entirely of stereotypes, or the author only draws on and exaggerates stereotypes for one reason or another despite having a broader experience to pull from.

It is because of concerns such as these that I refer to this activity as “the indulgence of fan-diagnosis”. So there are caveats that I attempt to keep in mind. But it is nonetheless comforting to connect with characters that are relatable in a way that can be rare in everyday social experiences. And despite the caveats, it can be very effective as a tool of self-reflection. And specifically because of the caveats, it can be revealing regarding the attitudes of general society toward the symptoms often caused by but not always consciously associated with autism. You know, the behaviors that get generically labelled as “social awkwardness” or “eccentricity”, and all the subtle stigmas and judgments that frequently follow.

Over time I plan on sharing many of these characters and related thoughts. To get things started, I’ll go ahead and list some of the movies that have already struck a chord. I’ll be sure to blog about these, and already have notes jotted down for some of them. I’ll add to this list as I think of further movies (or books and other forms of fiction) that I might wish to blog about, and I’ll include links as I get around to writing about them.

I have also encountered non-fictional works that I think have particular worth or interest to autistic people, even if that was not the explicit intention of the author. (Sometimes I have a suspicion that this is due in part to the author being an undiagnosed autistic, though that comes with caveats similar to those regarding fictional characters. An impersonal remote diagnosis based only on stuff like written works and generic biographical details is utterly speculative and has essentially no value in matters requiring authoritative knowledge.) So in addition to the fictional works, I’ll also be developing a second list of non-fictional works and real people (mostly historical) that have served a similar role of providing relatability and reflective value.

Fiction

Adam
American Beauty
Bicentennial Man
Donnie Darko
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Finding Forrester
Ghost Town
The Imitation Game

Blog Post: Autism, Privacy, and Fictional Characters

Punch Drunk Love
This movie is pretty much a literal manifestation of awkwardness, eccentricity, and anxiety in audiovisual form. It somehow manages to remain relatively light, pleasant, and optimistic, even while not shying away from the some of the darker and more unpleasant elements of social anxiety.
Star Trek
Spock from the original series. Data and Reginald Barclay from TNG. Odo from DS9. I’ve not yet seen much Voyager, but I have to imagine that Tuvok, Seven of Nine, and the Doctor are also relevantly interesting characters of this variety.
Stranger than Fiction
Watchmen

Blog Post: Neurodiversity in Watchmen

Many of the characters exhibit a disconnect from ordinary society in some form or another. Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, and the young Nite Owl in particular resonate with me, and the Comedian, Ozymandias, and Silk Spectre certainly exhibit interesting elements of a social disconnect as well.

Non-fiction

Nicomachean Ethics, by Aristotle
Virtues as habits, and the difficulty of finding the desired mean behavior between the extremes of excess and deficiency.
Self-Reliance, by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Encouraging a strong sense of self-confidence, and a willingness to be oneself in the face of pressures from society. Also, there are passages where in my mind Emerson sounds like a disgruntled Aspie himself, which made me smile.