[Disclaimer: The views I present in this article are my own. They do not reflect the autistic community at large. Just my own thoughts and feelings as it pertains to my experience as an autistic individual in trying to construct my own identity.]
What do you think when you hear the word ‘Autism’? Who do you imagine when you think of the autistic individual? Take a moment. Sit. Picture the word and what you associate with that word and everything it has come to encompass for you. Let a minute pass. One. Two. And stop. I want you to hold onto that image for just a moment and read ahead.
I am autistic. When I was eight years old, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder. It is a part of who I am and I can’t define myself outside of that diagnosis. To do so would be denying myself and, trust me, I have spent years trying my damnedest to not be autistic. However, that is a subject for another time.
This has never been an easy article for me to write. I’ve come back to this article on and off over the better part of two years, trying to figure out the best approach to tackling what it is I want to tackle in a piece like this. And, I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that I’ve almost tossed out the article entirely more times than I can count. However, despite the fact that I really haven’t seen a lot compared to my peers as it pertains to the horror genre or movies overall, the subject of autism and behavioral disabilities within the realm of horror is a fairly defining one for me.
This is where I ask you to go back to your mental image of “autism” if you’ve still held onto it. What did you imagine? Did you imagine a child? Male? An individual who embodies genius levels of intelligence? Either robotic, devoid of emotion or deep within the depths of a meltdown? All around though, did you imagine this word to represent something “Other” or different? Not of this Earth? You wouldn’t be the first one nor would you be the last. And a lot of that imagery has to do with what we see represented in pop culture, especially in the horror genre.
It’s no secret. The Horror genre is a cinematic tool to show us what society fears. As a result of it being used as a reflection of society, it wouldn’t be surprising that the horror genre can also show the viewer how society often views a group of people. Needless to say, this further perpetuates the general image we have of said group of people rather than expand upon it. As it pertains to autism and trying to find representation of any kind in pop culture, this can also lead us to absorb how society perceives us. I can’t speak for others, but this has had a negative impact on me when I compare it to my experiences with my peers outside of the entertainment realm.
Growing up, the only real place I could see representations of autism was in the horror genre. Like trying to find water in the Sahara, I was starved for something, anything to teach me about who I was. I had been told many things about myself by my peers. That I was a monster, a freak. I knew in my heart that I wasn’t these things, but I had no way to describe it then. It was through diving into horror that I tried to find something that I could take back to them to prove otherwise. To prove to them that I was not this thing that they said I was.
This was not the case.
In almost all of the horror films that I have seen featuring an autistic character, they were always children. Almost always, they had some semblance of special abilities, which further emphasized the “other”-ness that they embodied. They also almost always need to be protected and need to be controlled to keep them from hurting people or causing a disruption. The example that comes immediately to mind is Stephen King’s Rose Red, which features Annie Wheaton, one of the rare female autistic characters featured in media. She is actually written as autistic, is very childlike in her presentation, and has telekinetic powers. She has powers beyond anyone’s understanding, but that’s just about it. There’s no real development involved outside of that “other”-ness she presents and, throughout the course of the mini-series, there is no real growth or change in her.
Annie Wheaton is not the first character that Stephen King has written that could be associated with the spectrum. Many are familiar with Danny from the movie version of Stephen King’s The Shining. After talking with one of my friends, who is also on the spectrum, he explained to me that the book version of Danny fits more of how society sees autistic individuals. Danny has an abnormally large vocabulary, extraordinary intelligence, is uncannily “mature”, has special gifts, etc. The book version of Danny from The Shining is written to embody more of the standard characteristics associated with autism. The movie version actually erases all of that characterization that was found in Danny in the book. I’m sure there’s an argument that could be made out of that, but I digress.
Annie Wheaton is also not the only autistic character in horror that is defined by her otherness. And she is not the only character that really does nothing except to serve as a plot point. As was pointed out to me by several of my colleagues, the most recent The Predator is arguably one of the most blatant examples of an autistic character, who also just happens to be a child, being used as a plot device.
Seldom are autistic characters the main characters in a horror piece. Generally, any autistic representation in horror that I am aware of, the characters are relegated to plot devices. In the case of Annie Wheaton, her plot device is almost relegated to that of the savior. Her powers are needed to destroy the house and, as the only person who possesses these otherworldly gifts, no one else can do the deed. Without her, the plot cannot move forward. This is similar to the boy from The Predator. Upon discovering that the autistic boy reflects the evolution of the next stage of humanity, the boy is kidnapped by The Predator. Because of autism, which places the boy in that sense of “other”-ness, this makes him a commodity and also serves as the plot device needed for the remaining heroes of the movie to hunt The Predator down to rescue him.
There are countless examples like I mention above the autistic individual being used as a plot device. There are countless examples as I mention above of autistic characters that are only depicted as children. Almost all of these characters are depicted as needing to be saved and lacking in autonomy and none of them have ever been depicted as the main character. As someone who looked to horror to figure out where I fit into the rest of the world, these depictions taught me a lot of how society viewed me. And it had a substantial impact on my psychological development and my interpretation of my identity. I grew to loathe the idea of being special, but also of being different. The concept of being Other grew to be such a source of fear that I still have anxiety attacks whenever I think I’m going outside the norm or doing something too different.
I do want to clarify. I’m not blaming horror movies for my own psychological interpretation of autistic representation. However, so much of how we are socialized and how our identities are formatted is through what feedback we receive in school, work, and in media. When you hear or see the same image being reflected back at repeatedly without any deviation from the path as a young child or adolescent, you don’t have a way of tuning that out and, at least in my case, you are left with doubt.
As a child and adolescent trying to understand myself and the world around me, seeing the representations of autistic people in horror movies did little to alleviate me of my concerns. It certainly didn’t help me in separating the cruel words I received from both peers and adults from how I actually saw myself. And, in all honesty, it did do a number on my psyche and it is something that I still struggle with smaller doses today. I know now as an adult that from what I’ve been told about myself through other’s perception of my diagnosis that I’m much more than what is represented in the media. I’m not a monster. Surprisingly enough, I do have autonomy and, while others may disagree, I know that I’m strong enough to protect myself without the interference of well-meaning individuals.
In terms of where we can go in terms of showcasing different variations of autistic representation in the Horror genre, I have to hold up Rhonda from Trick R Treat as an example. While she’s described as an idiot savant in the film, she is arguably the most relatable representation out there in the Horror genre. We see an autistic character who is not superpowered, though she is incredibly in tune with traditions of Samhain and all things Halloween-related. She does not need to be saved from the monsters that haunt the night. And you can’t help but feel with her as her arc takes us through a variety of emotional ups and down, which isn’t something you really see with an autistic character in horror. By the end of her arc, you can see a change in her. We see someone who is well-rounded and three-dimensional. And this is what we should push more when writing autistic characters not just in the horror genre, but all genres as well.
As the Horror genre continues being the medium where outlying voices can be heard and tell their stories, I am curious to see whether this medium can be the place where autistic representation in all forms can truly flourish. As more of us become more comfortable discussing our experiences on social media, I wonder what stories of ours we can tell to provide relatable representations of autism for future generations of horror viewers and not just for family members and relatives to relate to. The more stories we get out, the more we push for more thorough representation of those of us on the autism spectrum in media, perhaps the easier it will be for future generations of autistic individuals to come to terms with their own identity.