Typing Autistic Characters in Media
Finding a fictional character who is explicitly stated (or at least heavily implied) to be autistic has always been a surprise for me, no matter how old I get. I grew up relating to a lot of characters who were not intended to be on the spectrum, but were nonetheless influenced by the creator’s life in some way.
In recent years, there have been more frequent attempts to create thoughtful and accurate depictions of autistic people in the media, which I appreciate. Despite the many creators who are careful about these portrayals, many people consuming said media still reduce the characters to stereotypes.
A phenomena I’ve personally encountered lies on the website Personality Database, which is a forum-turned social media site dedicated to voting on the personality of celebrities, historical figures, fictional characters, etc. Although the comments section is not usually filled with the best arguments, I find an especially annoying disparity around canonically (or heavily implied) autistic characters.
Many autistic characters do happen to be either ISTJs or INTPS, but it is absurd to believe that autistic characters (and therefore people) will all have functions such as high Si and Tx, and low Fx. This shows a blatant misunderstanding of cognitive functions, behaviour versus personality, and the overall meaning behind what it means to be autistic.
In order to prove my point, I will be comparing and contrasting Abed Nadir of the TV show Community (2009) and Gin Ibushi of the video game Your Turn to Die (2017). These two characters showcase how sharing autistic traits does not equate to being the same personality type (seeing as they are an INTP 5 and ESFP 7, respectively).
Abed Nadir is implied to be autistic throughout Community, with jokes and references to being on the spectrum since the very first episode. However, underneath the comedic aspect of Abed’s “awkwardness” and “obsession with movies” lies an accurate representation of the autistic experience.
In many episodes (including his first appearance) Abed is clearly shown to be collecting and infodumping facts without prompting. This is usually either dramatized to a ridiculous effect for a joke, or serving a distinct narrative purpose, such as giving Jeff (who doubles as an audience stand-in) exposition for the 5 other main characters.
Aerodynamics of Gender is based on the common autistic trait of being blunt in terms of speech. The women of the study group pick up on this aspect of Abed, and manipulate him into being a jerk to other people for their own entertainment.
There is a cold open in Curriculum Unavailable where Abed is seen being comforted by Troy and Annie while the study room’s clock is being changed for daylight savings time. This is clearly meant to show the common hesitate to accept change in our environments and need for consistency.
In Advanced Criminal Law, Troy explains how friends sometimes mess with each other by lying. Abed doesn’t understand that the other person is supposed to know that it’s a joke, and goes completely overboard for the entire episode in order to keep up the lie that he is an alien.
These are all examples of ways in which autistic traits are exhibited in areas related to communication, interests, and sensitivity to changes.
Next we have Gin, who was widely considered autistic-coded throughout the first few chapters of Your Turn to Die, but was explicitly stated as being diagnosed in chapter 3 through a flashback to his past.
Gin wears an outfit consisting of a hat attached to a cape, paw gloves, and a tail, with patterning similar to a cat and a plushie that he is often seen holding onto. He feels most comfortable talking to other people with these clothes on, but was discouraged from wearing the outfit at school.
Gin also has vocal stims, often saying “meow” or “woof” at the end of sentences (which I actually share, as one of my biggest special interests is cat behaviour). Each of these elements is tied into his interest in animals; his favourites are cats and dogs, but he enjoys alligators currently.
Only one other character has been shown to have a gameplay gimmick; the detective Keiji uses his experience as a detective to interpret other characters’ true thoughts.
In comparison, Gin is able to see clues the other characters miss, as his perceptive abilities are quite pronounced. Many autistic people have similarly strong perception, with the caveat of being more sensitive to sensory input.
Finally, Gin is shown to have Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA), which is an aspect of autism that has been proposed to be added to the official list of traits.
PDA describes someone who avoids expectations being placed on them, due to a feeling of excessive anxiety and lack of autonomy. These feelings are triggered even when the individual usually enjoys the activity, and describe Gin’s experiences in school very well.
In Gin’s case, his most prominent traits seem to be stimming and sensory perception, but he also presents intense interests and bluntness similarly to Abed.
From these character examples, we can surmise that autistic traits and personality traits are separate aspects of a person’s identity, and are not a 1:1 match in most cases. The constant bickering over whether an autistic character is a Si dom for liking routine has no reason to exist, given that these are completely different discussions (and Si ≠ liking stability in the first place!).
I hope this post might encourage others to expand their definitions of autistic people (and correct their interpretations of the cognitive functions, for that matter).
Relegating autistic people to just a few possible personality types is not only unrealistic, but also serves to deny us of the autonomy which is automatically given to others.