Voices From the Spectrum #38: Ada Hoffman on Autistic Characters
Ada Hoffmann is a writer and computer science PhD student who has authored over 60 published speculative short stories and poems and six papers that she has presented at conferences around the world. Ada was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at the age of 13, and is passionate about autistic self-advocacy. Her Autistic Book Party review series is devoted to in-depth discussions of autism representation in speculative fiction. This week she shared some of her experience reading and writing about autistic characters and advocating for individuals on the spectrum.
Could you offer an overview of how you’ve seen individuals on the spectrum portrayed in fiction? What about the portrayals is helpful/important for readers? What about the portrayals is harmful/damaging?
Compared to a few decades ago, there’s a lot more attention paid now in fiction to the fact that autistic people exist, and more of an effort to educate readers about us. This is mostly good. There is still a lot of work to do in terms of the attitudes and the level of understanding.
We shouldn’t underestimate the power of representation. Even a flawed portrayal can be intensely helpful for readers who are not used to seeing representation at all. But that doesn’t mean we as authors should settle for something with obvious flaws. My favorite portrayals are not only accurate, but involve autistic characters who have agency and get to do cool things. They take seriously the need for other people to respect and accept the autistic character and they show understanding of what that actually entails.
My least favorite books are ones that portray the autistic character as a burden: someone that it’s ok to use, talk down to, violate the boundaries of, or forcibly “fix”, because they are too weird or difficult to be taken seriously. We also need more diversity in the kinds of autistic characters who are represented, but many authors are making strides there.
For a more detailed discussion of the tropes in fiction that can be hurtful to autistic people, I would highly recommend the article “Autistic Representation and Real-Life Consequences” by Elizabeth Bartmess.
Do you use autistic characters in your own writing? What are some of your goals with these characters? What do you hope readers glean from your writings?
I don’t always write autistic characters, but I sometimes do. For instance, I have a steampunk novelette with an autistic protagonist, a story about an autistic girl at a science fiction convention, and a story about a priestess whose autistic girlfriend gets lost on the moon. I have a few more autistic stories in the pipeline that haven’t come out yet. My novel, for which I recently attracted an agent, is a space opera with two very major autistic characters, plus another disabled character who doesn’t use oral speech. I also sometimes write from an explicitly autistic perspective in my poetry.
My goal with autistic characters is to show a variety of autistic people with agency in a variety of roles. I want to write stories where it’s clear that their concerns are valid and their feelings are real, even if the NT characters around them don’t always see it.
What have the people closest to you done to support your development that you found especially helpful?
I’m a little uncomfortable with this phrasing. I’m an adult who lives independently. I’m less concerned with people supporting my development and more concerned with them supporting my value as a person, my right to exist and participate, and offering help when I need it without trying to make my decisions for me. I am, of course, still developing – everyone can keep developing throughout their lifespan – but that is my own responsibility.
I appreciate when people show consideration for me in small ways, like by offering an alternative if the place that we’re going is noisy, or making sure I have a quiet place to retreat to. Right now I especially appreciate my supervisors at grad school. My mind is well suited to the academic work I’m doing, but I need to work flexible hours because of sensory, cognitive, and emotional overload. My supervisors actively encourage me in finding ways to work, both in school and after, that suit my needs. I appreciate the heck out of that.
Do you have any advice for parents teaching their autistic children to self-advocate?
The best thing that parents can do is read a lot of writing – nonfiction writing – by autistic adults. Blogs, and books like “Loud Hands” or “The Real Experts“. Contrary to stereotype, the people who write these things come from all over the spectrum – there are even some non-speaking individuals. I’m not a parent, but I imagine that one of the biggest learning curves involves discerning the dynamics of power, oppression, and invalidation that will affect their child. Autistic adults who can look back on their childhoods with an adult understanding are uniquely positioned to understand these dynamics.
What mistakes do neurotypical autism advocates make?
- Centering the needs of caregivers rather than those of the autistic person themselves.
- Assuming that caregivers and parents are NT, even though autism has a strong genetic component.
- Assuming that an autistic person, especially a higher-support autistic person, doesn’t have knowable opinions.
- Inspiration porn.
- Assuming that autistic people are all good at the same things and that being good at these things is what makes our existence worthwhile.
- Forcing or bribing people to be our friends when they don’t want to.
- Failing to distinguish between social skills based in consideration for other people’s boundaries and needs, and social skills based in blind compliance. Over-teaching the latter while failing to teach the former.
How would you rate society’s acceptance of people on the spectrum today?
“Society” is really a patchwork of many interconnected groups. There are some really good places in society, some really bad places, and many in between. Overall, I think we’ve made a lot of strides. I think most people today have a basic awareness of what autism is, and at least a surface understanding that autistic people should be supported somehow, even if they don’t have a good idea of what that means. In fiction, compared to a few decades ago, I am seeing a lot more sympathy towards autistic characters in recent work, and more depictions of NT characters at least trying to accommodate them. I’m also seeing more and more people who include neurodiversity in their lists of diversity topics, which is gratifying. Most recently, I’m pleased by the current trend of stim toys in classrooms, for both disabled and non-disabled students.
We still have a ways to go in many areas. One thing that worries me is that abusive autism therapies are a huge industry right now. Parents demand ABA despite its risks because they’ve been taught that it’s the only way to give their children a future. Direct violence towards autistic children, by parents, teachers, and police, is more common than most people realize and is often explained away when it comes to public attention. This is awful and needs to stop. Finally, I would like to see more understanding that autism can look like a lot of different things. It can be masked, it can occur in women and older adults and people of colour and not only the stereotype that we see on TV. I still see a lot of invalidation of autistic self-advocates, either because we don’t look stereotypical enough, or because it’s assumed that if we can type about our problems, we’ve never had really bad ones.