Autism representation is scarce in film and television, and when we do get it, it’s often less than savory for one reason or another. But there might be more out there. Sometimes, because the true expanse of autism is still largely unknown, writers and actors may create characters that mimic autism perfectly without even realizing it. In this article, two of 25YL’s writers will be examining some such characters.
It is Autism Acceptance Month, and understanding the many different experiences of autistic people is one stepping stone along the path to that acceptance. These characters were more than likely not written as autistic, but the fact remains that they mimic classically autistic behaviors, and therefore can be read that way. As stated above, autistic people do not have many explicitly autistic characters in media to identify with, so we have to look elsewhere, and wind up finding ourselves where you’d least expect it.
My name is Lor Gislason; I’m 30 years old. I only got my autism diagnosis a few years ago but I’ve always felt a bit disconnected from other people and have difficulties expressing this. It was always seen by my parents and doctors as anxiety or shyness. Knowing what I do now, a lot of events from my childhood make sense. Everyday I’m learning more about myself and watching films where I can relate to the characters as autistic is part of that.
My name is Emma Gilbert; I am 21, was diagnosed at the age of 16, and have come a long way in accepting myself as autistic. It was something I used to dislike about myself, but I have come to understand all the ways it impacts my life positively, and how many core things about myself are because of autism.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Emma: Is it possible for a movie itself to be autistic? I say yes, and if we are all in agreement on that, I’ll add that Napoleon Dynamite is the most autistic movie ever made.
Multiple characters in this are easily, just about instantly, diagnosable as autistic if you know what to look for.
The title character is the most obvious example. The way he talks, moves, and generally behaves is classic ASD. He exhibits various symptoms, such as tics/stims (closing his eyes almost every time he talks), displaying a grand total of two different facial expressions, having absolutely no clue how to act in certain social situations (receiving the call from Trisha), and speaking in an almost monotonous tone at all times. There are so many little things about him that I’ve seen in myself and other autistic people. You could water it down to him just being awkward and a bit out of touch, but neurotypical people who are simply awkward and from small towns aren’t necessarily as…off as Napoleon.
Autistic people often have trouble with facial expressions, aren’t aware of whether things they do or say are considered strange, and don’t comprehend certain social cues or energies. For example, you’d think one would understand that a girl like Summer, the supposed “queen bee” of the high school, wouldn’t be interested in playing tetherball with the weird open-mouthed kid who always tucks his shirt way too far into his pants, but Napoleon asks anyway because he doesn’t completely comprehend that divide. He doesn’t recognize or acknowledge that the way he dresses and acts is peculiar, and it’s possible he won’t. Some autistic people simply don’t understand such things.
Other examples include Kip and Deb, the latter of which is perhaps the most autistic girl ever put to film. One needs little more than her introduction to see the plethora of symptoms she exhibits, such as avoiding eye contact, carrying herself rigidly, and her odd reaction to a mere awkward interaction. Aside from that first interaction, though, she seems generally more comfortable in social situations, as is common for women on the spectrum.
As for Kip, he is clearly quite similar to Napoleon, just a little older, like a slightly more adjusted version of his little brother. He still has his fair share of…quirks, though. Riddle me this: what neurotypical person grates an entire block of cheese onto their tortilla chips? You can’t answer that.
Lor: Spoiler Warning for the film. Charlie is the 13-year old daughter of the Grahams and an important character to the plot of Hereditary. While there is a bit of hinting that she might not actually be Charlie but Paimon possessing her body the whole time…I’m not going to get into that. The Charlie we see in the film is very much the “outcast” or weird kid in class.
When a pigeon smacks into the glass window of her classroom, she doesn’t really have a reaction unlike the rest of her class. Many people with ASD don’t have “expected” reactions to events. Charlie generally has a blank expression on her face. She’s not perturbed by the death of the bird at all. In fact she seems fascinated by death and while not very hygienic, snips off the bird’s head with scissors and takes it home to use in her art projects.
Charlie also prefers to sleep in the treehouse rather than her bedroom. This could be a comfort thing, or her bedroom may give her sensory issues like having too much noise or irritating textures on the bed. She’s given a space heater so it’s not like the treehouse is inhospitable, it’s just “weird”.
Unfortunately Charlie dies in a pretty gruesome way, going into anaphylactic shock after unknowingly eating nuts and then accidentally decapitated as her brother Peter rushes to drive her home. It’s an event that sets into motion the rest of the film and is unforgettable. Milly Shapiro does a great job in the role and I’m interested to see what she does in the future.
The Penguins of Madagascar (2014)
Emma: With autism on the brain along with any knowledge of this franchise, you can probably guess I’m about to bring up Private, Rico, and Kowalski—and I am. I do also think Skipper exhibits symptoms, but truthfully that mostly pertains to the television series, so I’m going to omit him here.
The easiest example is probably Rico, the nonverbal chaos machine. He communicates entirely through unintelligible noises, but can understand the other characters just fine, similar to how nonverbal autistic people can hear and understand those around them.
Second easiest is Kowalski, the technical man of the team. It is common for autistic people to be engrossed in technology and science, which are solid things they can learn about, explore, and understand. I could just point to that character trait and be done with it, but I actually think his romantic fixations are the kicker. He’s very quick to fixate on the single female character in the film, and doesn’t seem to grasp boundaries or the fact that he hasn’t known this girl very long. In my personal experience, I find some autistic men tend to hyper-attach to objects of any slight romantic attraction and take it to 11 immediately, and just generally crave romantic success more than most. Kowalski exhibits such behavior very clearly, and even more so in the television series.
Last is Private, the sort of “little brother” of the team. To me, most of his “autistic-ness” is present in the manner in which he speaks and some of his behaviors, though the plot of the movie also feels reminiscent of autistic experience. To start, I’m not calling having a British accent a speech impediment; some of Private’s dialog execution feels a little bit awkwardly strung together, intentional or not, which reminds me of both myself and many autistic people I know. To explain the actions I referred to, early on in the film, he compulsively hits buttons he definitely shouldn’t. Because it’s buttons, man, he has to hit the buttons, no question, much like I absolutely have to touch anything chain link whenever I see it. This could be an SPD thing or an autism thing, but honestly the two sort of go hand in hand.
The plot of the film partially revolves around Private’s quest for the acceptance of his teammates, and to be viewed as a valued contributor rather than remain on the sidelines or be thrust into smaller roles. A lot of the time, if someone knows you’re autistic, they’ll give you the easy stuff in projects because they think you’re delicate or incapable of basic things, infantilizing you. Private is the youngest penguin, and thus his treatment is likely because he’s seen as the “little brother” like I said earlier. But if you’ll allow me to take a kids’ movie way too seriously for a moment, Private is stated to be at least 10, which is rather old for a penguin, especially one of his species. He still tends to act a bit juvenile, but is treated even more like a child by his teammates, and is very annoyed by this, as many autistic people are by this sort of treatment.
So…The Penguins of Madagascar is partially about an middle-aged autistic penguin trying to be treated like an adult, I guess!
Lor: Amélie was the first time in my life that I saw a character in a movie and thought “oh, they’re just like me!” The film follows Amélie from childhood to her mid 20s and she exhibits several “tells” that she could be on the autism spectrum. Her parents mistakenly believe she has a heart condition and homeschool her. She spends most of her days in her own world and seems completely comfortable with this.
As an adult, she takes pleasure in sensory experiences most wouldn’t pay a second thought to: running her hand through a sack of grain, or using a spoon to break Crème brûlée. Sometimes the simple act of touching something can help ground you. I know for myself, I get extremely overwhelmed in public so having things like this can help you stay focused (I listen to music).
Amélie also has difficulty talking to other people besides the basic pleasantries. When the man she is attempting to romantically pursue talks to his co-worker instead of her, Amélie’s body dissolves into a puddle of water, a literal expression of how she feels. While it was a misunderstanding, she might be feeling rejection sensitive dysphoria, jumping to the ultimate conclusion and giving up ever dating this guy. She seems rather lonely but has difficulty relating to other people.
She also has a tendency to hyper-focus on things. Sometimes this is also referred to as a “special interest”. After finding a small box of childhood treasures, Amélie tracks down and returns them to their owner. She then makes it her life’s mission to bring happiness to others. She is almost single minded in this quest and some of them are quite elaborate. You might be familiar with the garden gnome traveling the world. This was a prank started in the 1970s and made more popular due to the film. (It even became a marketing campaign for Travelocity for a while.)
Autism is so ill understood that many autistic people do not even know they’re autistic. So much of the disorder is equated with stereotypes that encompass only one fraction of autistic experiences, and therefore we come to understand those ulterior experiences as not autistic at all, just “quirky” or perhaps “weird”. The result of this can sometimes be characters portrayed and/or written in a very autistic “fashion” without the creators even trying. Autism is a disorder where creatives can very easily accidentally create characters under its umbrella.
These are just a handful of characters from four movies that two different autistic people saw themselves in. Not every autistic person will feel the same, just as the two of us will not feel the same about other characters other autistic people view as representative of their experiences. But in expressing these characters and their traits as autistic, maybe more people will come to understand us and our true diversity.
If you would like to know more about what autism is, you can check out the Autism Self Advocacy Network’s page on various autistic experiences.