A Friend Like Me: How I Found Autistic Representation In Unlikely Places
I remember the first time I saw myself represented on screen: I was blue, I was fast, and I was voiced by Robin Williams.
Do you remember the first time you saw yourself represented in the media you consume?
Do you remember the feeling of seeing a character, person, or story that made you point at the screen and go “That’s me!” like an ecstatic Leonardo DiCaprio meme? Do you remember the first time you truly saw yourself?
I was blue, and fast, and voiced by Robin Williams.
Brand Of Magic Never Fails
Corporate children’s media in the 1990s was all about diversity. This usually meant cartoons where a white kid, a black kid, a non-specific Asian kid, a capital G Girl, and, budget permitting, a kid in a wheelchair, got together to defeat villains with names like The Greedozoids by harnessing the power of recycling used syringes.
The focus-grouped tokenism of these characters/products made them about as relatable and endearing as the multi-tiered marketing plans that spawned them. That, and there was a looming feeling that you had to feel represented, or else. My friend who used a wheelchair hated it when he had to be Professor X when we were playing X-Men. He wanted to be Gambit, because, in his words: “Gambit loves card tricks and the ladies love Gambit.”
Not that I had to worry about any of this. I was a little middle-class white boy who liked dinosaurs and ??? else. I could be Dr. Alan Grant, James Wheeler, heck, I could be god damned Gambit if I wanted to, and no one could say a thing. I fit the media’s prevailing race/class/gender mould (sexuality wasn’t a consideration), and I wasn’t in a wheelchair, the only disability, so that was that. I was an everyman.
And yet…I remember the feeling, that spark, upon first seeing myself ‘represented.’ I would have been about five or six when I watched Aladdin on a VHS in my cousin’s basement. When Robin Williams burst onto the scene as Genie and began singing ‘Friend Like Me’ while transforming between this, that, and everything, I remember this creeping tingling at the base of my spine shooting up to my head and whispering: “That’s you, dingus.”
Can Your Friends Do This?
A couple of years after receiving my autism diagnosis, I found myself watching Star Trek: The Next Generation for the first time. I’d always avoided Star Trek for the same reason I’d always avoided heroin: I knew I’d love it too hard too fast, and I’d seen what doing so had done to enough friends to be wary of it. But there I was, in my shoebox room in Brooklyn, mainlining Star Trek like a Ferengi Sick Boy.
I sent a friend who knows me too well a message: “I’m watching TNG for the first time and this one character is resonating with me so hard.”
“It’s Data,” they replied. “You are Data.”
It was Data, the all-knowing android Pinocchio who longs to be a real boy. It was Data, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.
Immediately after I was diagnosed, I told one of my oldest friends, who told me: “Nonsense, you’re not a robot.” Exactly, I thought, I am not a robot. “You’re too excitable,” they added.
I saw the autistic traits that I was most fond of in myself: the info-dumping, the excitability, the obsessiveness, the disarmingly unexpected charisma, and best of all, the exceptional otherness.
Exactly, I was too excitable. I was bipolar, wasn’t I? Was I still bipolar!? I wasn’t sure how it all worked at that point, but I remember thinking, who’s ever heard of a manic robot? Not two days later that same friend texted me a picture of Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner with the message: “Lol this MF reminds me of you.”
When I was coming to terms with my diagnosis, I found myself clinging to certain characters and texts as both shields and ciphers. In that time of Officialised Autism it was androids like Data, Roy Batty, Android 16, and texts like Ghost in the Shell.
I moved from androids to psychics by way of an Akira rewatch, then making good on a very autistic New Years resolution to “become a true weeb,” which lead me to a new show called Mob Psycho 100 about a little psychic boy who was, to me, the greatest realisation of a child on the spectrum I’d seen yet, pipped perhaps only by Ludo, the boy genius from Helen DeWitt’s spectrum splintering novel, The Last Samurai, which had become a sort of walkthrough for me at that stage.
In these characters, I saw the autistic traits that I was most fond of in myself: the info-dumping, the excitability, the obsessiveness, the disarmingly unexpected charisma, and best of all, the exceptional otherness.
The other commonality between these characters was their deep longing for acceptance and understanding from those who were not like them. Be it Data’s desire for humanity, Mob’s quest for popularity, or Ludo’s search for his real father, what these characters journey’s shared were their methods, which relied on observation, absorption, and mimicry to help them appear typical in spaces where they were not.
I clung to Mob, Data and Ludo like pool floaties as I found myself floundering in a sea of autistic identity discourse that I’d til then been blissfully ignorant of. The more you find yourself presented as something, the more you’re asked to represent it, while being simultaneously tasked with assessing all and every other representation of it.
Well Looky Here
The conversation around autistic representation seems to be one designed by and for neurotypical people to help them gauge the acceptable boundaries of minstrelsy.
Pop culture’s representations of autistics has gone beyond the Rain Man/Young Sheldon polarity it found itself stuck in since before Boo Radley could say, well, boo, and on into a fairly insufferable pablum of gentle mumblers, flat-toned savants, and socially awkward telly tubby types. It is limiting in an entirely different way, one that is hard to explain to the non-autistic.
Whenever a character or text is capital A autistic I am often asked to write about whatever show or movie or comedian cooked them up, and I always invariably pass on the assignment after 15 minutes of being bored to death by what I’m told is meant to make me feel ‘seen.’
I can’t say shows like Love on the Spectrum, Atypical, or even Everything’s Going to be Ok (a show about autism with an autistic cast and an autistic writer/creator) are not for autistics, but I can say they are not for this autistic. I am yet to come across an ‘explicitly’ autistic text that feels as though it is for an autistic audience, and I am beginning to understand that that may be because such a task is impossible, as there is no such thing. A spectrum can not be ‘represented,’ and that’s fine.
I am fond of thinking of the spectrum as one of light projected through a personal prism, a prism carved out of the various facets of your loves, lives, and histories. Sometimes a piece of art comes along and reshapes that prism, changing the angle and colour of the spectrum in a way that can be both imperceivable and immense at once. In that reshaping, in that moment of transformation, is our representation, fleeting and mercurial, and that, perhaps, is why it remains impossible to grasp.
For this reason, I continually argue that true autistic representation will arrive through form rather than content. But for that to happen neurotypical audiences and industry gatekeepers must be more willing to get lost in autistic modes of thought, stories, and memory — to truly succumb to our infinite transformations — rather than have it translated into something familiar for their benefit and their benefit alone.
Until then, representation is where we find it. Is it so odd that a person labelled ‘divergent’ diverges from the basic path or rote representation and turns instead to deeper instances of recognition that may be beyond the comprehension of the “typical”?
For me, representation can be the stimming and ticks of Paulie Walnuts, or the compulsive mischief of Bart Simpson, or the stream of consciousness melodies and playtimes of B-MO, or the sensory sensitivity and artistry of Reynolds Woodcock, or the consciously curated social graces of Sten Nadolny’s John Franklin, or the zero to 100 emotional jumpstarts of Mob, or the prideful otherness of Roy Batty, or the unmasked humanity of Data, and certainly, the shape-shifting, self-hopping, mask-swapping, bound but bursting excitement of Robin Williams’ Genie.
You might think you ain’t ever had a friend like me, but we’re there. It’s just a trick of the light.