Finding Yourself In Accidental Representation

Being told an autistic character will be presented for my amusement is like being handed a menu where everything is expensive and I hate every option.

Will I partake in the classic “uncomfortable introvert with savant-like abilities”? How about we split the “loud nerd who doesn’t know how to take social cues and annoys all their friends” and get appetizers? I’ve heard the “emotionally stunted genius who can never be understood by this cruel, wicked world” is nice when it’s in season, but I’m also partial to “walking caricature of tics and quirks”. Oh, what’s on tap, by the way? “Infantilized burden who only serves to enable another character’s development?”

I’ve been disappointed so many times before. I could honestly just make the article a list of ways in which I‘ve been let down by the media industry, the conversations we keep having without making any real progress. It’s as recent an issue as Sesame Street, the one show I counted on to not completely screw this up, using autistic puppet Julia to promote an Autism Speaks’ 100 Day Kit for Young Children, which suggests parents approach their child’s autism diagnosis as one would the five stages of grief.

And being a Gen Z kid, I’ve been around for a lot of the big shifts in how we discuss autism; the movements to denormalize the r-slur, to fold the “Asperger’s” diagnosis into the broader autism spectrum diagnosis (I myself being one of those who were diagnosed with Asperger’s before it was no longer medically supported), to promote autistic self-advocacy and open discussions about mental health. The ASD community’s come pretty far, but I can hardly say we’ve finally reached Autism Nirvana.

While we’ve mostly moved away from award-baity autism dog-and-pony shows - mostly, unless you want to catch some serious secondhand embarrassment from John Travolta’s K-Mart Joker ripoff The Fanatic (or Joker itself, for that matter) - there’s still little in the way of good representation. Ultimately, the problem with getting that good representation is that there’s not very much of it, which is an issue when the experiences you’re representing are on a very wide spectrum.

For example; not every person with ASD is going to relate to characters who have physical tics. Not every person is going to relate to those who don’t. It would seem that the obvious solution, then, is to create a healthy balance of autistic characters who do and do not express themselves with physical tics — but there’s already so much hesitation to introduce these characters at all that we wind up having to take what we can get, or just not take it, period.

I’ve spent most of my life opting for the latter.

It began with Drax.

One of the most well-known stories to emerge in the wake of Guardians of the Galaxy’s smash hit debut in 2014 was a tale of a little boy who was enthralled by a scene in which it is revealed that stoic, revenge-hungry beefcake Drax the Destroyer cannot recognize metaphors. Difficulties with metaphor comprehension is not uncommon for those with ASD, and as the story spread across the vast, usually unforgiving maw of the internet, many came out in support of the boy, including director James Gunn. Neither Gunn nor actor Dave Bautista have ever explicitly canonized Drax as being autistic, but that didn’t stop a Drax-hungry populace from taking that interpretation and running with it.

I didn’t particularly latch onto this interpretation at the time, being neither a huge musclebound man or a person with any history of failing to recognize metaphors, but even I had to admit there was something special about people adopting Drax as an icon for the ASD community. Sure, it wasn’t for me, but it was for other viewers, and I wasn’t gonna be the No Fun Lady just because it didn’t reflect my experiences.

And then Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 rolled around and changed everything.

Well, no, not everything - our boy Drax is still nowhere near picking up metaphors, but he is a little more open with his team. In fact, he’s a lot open with his team. He’s probably more open with his team than he really should be at times, but it’s a clear byproduct of becoming more comfortable with the other Guardians. For all the cues he misses, he picks up on things the others don’t, such as the uneven nature of Ego the Living Planet’s relationship with his ward, Mantis. He doesn’t pull punches: he speaks his mind. He laughs now, and he laughs loud.

And the rest of the Guardians don’t always necessarily get where he’s coming from. ( “I thought Yondu was your father…you look exactly alike.” “One’s blue!”) But at no point, ever, do they demean him or treat him as less than because of this. He’s not an annoyance or a burden to them. They still respect him, they still care about him, they still consider him to be a part of their family.

Family - that’s a rare plot point where adult characters on the spectrum are concerned. Drax is still all about his family; that is, his deceased wife and child. He lost a loving marriage and a daughter he adored, and he’s still not over it. Even if he’s happy with the Guardians, the movie makes it clear that Drax carries the weight of his loss with him everywhere, albeit quietly. It’s an incredibly mature plotline - another rarity, when you consider that characters who are not dehumanized or written as unfeeling knowledge machines are more often than not infantilized.

It was, for the first time I was aware of, more of myself than I was willing to admit to seeing in a fictional character. Someone who was funny and loud and human, with no caveats. Someone who was secure and supported in a dynamic I’d always wanted to have.

And I 100% believe Gunn and Bautista when they say it wasn’t on purpose.

I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if Gunn, knowing that there was an audience who viewed Drax as a sort of surrogate, chose to keep doing what he had already successfully done versus deliberately trying to cater to viewers with ASD. As well-meaning in theory as it would be for Disney to come out and declare Drax to be autistic (a move that would be unsurprising, given that they’re pretty excited to congratulate themselves for anything these days) tacking that label on him may, in fact, undermine the nuance that allowed the popular interpretation of his character to become so widespread. Now, to an audience that never intended to read him this way, he needs to prove that he’s autistic, justify what some might view as a superfluous choice to diagnose him.

Why doesn’t he do that thing other autistic characters do? He’s not super smart - aren’t autistic people supposed to be smart? How can he have such a good relationship with his dad after his dad had to go through the five stages of grief post-diagnosis, as detailed in the Autism Speaks 100 Day Kit for Young Children?

At least in terms of the sources I’ve found, the general consensus amongst those in the community who’ve welcomed Drax into the fold seems to be that they’re content with his characterization the way it is - that while having it confirmed outright could be nice, there’s something equally encouraging about just letting the community have something they’ve said already works. Not making a statement is, to some, in itself a statement: that there’s no need to make it a big deal because autism shouldn’t be treated as a big deal anyways.

What was a big deal, however, was the idea that I could control where I found my representation - that I could be represented in the media I loved, even if it wasn’t being written deliberately to represent me.

Thumbelina is a hot mess.

I have a vivid memory of first seeing this movie while visiting my grandparents in Cape Cod. My great aunt lived down the road, and owned a bountiful library of video tapes which she invited her family and extended family to plunder while they were in town. My dad and I drove over at that period of time young kids can only really identify as “late”, grabbed a tape and went right back to Grandma and Grandpa’s. I don’t know why I picked this one.

I don’t even know why I never forgot it.

I didn’t start to consider this film on an academic level until I rediscovered the whole thing on YouTube - couple million views, great quality, completely free. Not even being absorbed into the Disney Monopoly and added to Disney+ could get it taken down. As of this article’s publication, it’s still there, which says as much as you need to know about its quality.

Admittedly, it was always difficult for me to remove the filter of childhood nostalgia when watching this particular film for a reason I couldn’t ever place - I am fully cognizant of this film’s numerous flaws, but I am far nicer than I likely would be to any other film with the dire structural issues plaguing it. Up until recently, I chalked this up to it being a guilty pleasure - the last bastion of a youthful fascination with being a tiny person and living in a makeshift Mouse World where everything was huge and exciting and dangerous.

After my reevaluation of Drax’s role as an ASD icon, however, I realized that what kept me from being too mean to Thumbelina is the fact that the film reads as a fascinating allegory for adult life on the spectrum, if viewed from a particular angle.

AKA, my angle.

The plot of Thumbelina the movie is the plot of Thumbelina the fairy tale. It is, barring a few additional story beats, a 1-to-1 adaptation. A woman asks a local witch (as you do) for a child and is given, in some monkey’s paw-style twist of irony, a minuscule sixteen year old. After falling in love with a fairy prince, said sixteen year old is almost immediately spirited away into the wild by salacious characters who would wish her ill, is forced to fend for herself against the forces of nature, and ultimately believes in herself so hard that she reunites with her boyfriend and grows magic fairy wings because Why Not.

The archetype of the outcast, especially where it concerns female characters, is one that often chronically misunderstands the reality of actually being a social outcast. You just have to find the right group of people who are nice enough to accept you, and then you’re not an outcast anymore! The onus of banishing one’s role as the outcast is then made to rest on the outcast themselves: of being appealing enough in the right ways to attract the pity of the right people, or functional enough that you are considered to be of sufficient use to include in the “in-group”. Otherwise, you’re more or less consigning yourself to the wild.

What makes Thumbelina so eerily prescient for someone on the spectrum is that very often, this perceived responsibility to those who conditionally accept her is what keeps turning her around on her journey. Most of the people (okay, bizarrely anthropomorphic fantasy critters) she meets are dismissive of her love affair with the fairy prince, instead demanding she accept the help of those who know better than she does; people who belittle her, who turn on her as soon as she’s no longer grateful for their idea of “help”. These situations are difficult for her to navigate not only because of her relative inexperience with the world, but because of her desire to be engaged in a social circle on her own level, literally and figuratively.

Shockingly, the clown makeup is the least of his crimes.

Exacerbating the issue is her helpful sidekick Jacquimo(maybe less emphasis on “helpful,” as Jacquimo is a swallow who never once suggests he fly the defenseless teenager back to her mom) whose major contributions to the plot are deciding how Thumbelina’s problems should be solved for her and offering her trite platitudes instead of any actual help. If any experience is recognizable to the point of being uncomfortable, it’s this one: the fact that for as many people who choose to be ignorant about ASD, there are just as many well-meaning people who cannot recognize the gap between the social difficulties faced by those who are on the spectrum and those who are not. It’s telling that Thumbelina’s lowest point in the film comes not when she is told her boyfriend is Disney Dead (so, “dead until the heroic third-act twist”) but when she is reunited with Jacquimo in a moment of extreme doubt. Instead of extending any emotional support or offering to talk her through her problems in a constructive way, he spouts more baseless encouragement and abandons her in order to continue the search for the legendary Vale of the Fairies, a quest that was only ever a massive waste of time (both in-universe and in the film’s narrative) and cost her the chance to get home before a severe winter front.

This beat is the moment Thumbelina’s patient temperament breaks; when she allows herself, for the first time in the film, to be actively angry. Angry at her friends for seemingly abandoning her, angry at herself for believing she could pursue her own dreams in a world that doesn’t care about her, and angry at those who manipulated her and demeaned her into serving their own purposes. It’s the latter slight which finally compels her to run out on her last would-be suitor, throwing all caution to the wind and declaring that she’s going home, winter be damned. Autistic characters have rarely been permitted to be angry, much less towards the people offering them broken support systems they don’t want. Distressed or upset, perhaps, but angry with the level of autonomy neurotypical characters enjoy? You’re dreaming.

The fact that it takes the majority of the movie for Thumbelina to stand up for herself isn’t something I can defend as a deliberate choice when the screenplay was written in a week. It’s a decision that primarily exists to keep the plot of the original story moving, while adding certain scenes to keep us emotionally engaged - and although these additional beats really do help the film, they do not save it. However, the final product we got, for as scattershot as it is, is a stronger picture altogether if you don’t ascribe to the idea that Thumbelina is neurotypical - if you frame her problems from the perspective of someone with ASD, you start to recognize that many of her struggles are rooted in her issues with navigating social situations and advocating for herself, which anyone on the spectrum will tell you do not become easier once you’ve learned to identify them.

It retroactively gives her final story beat - earning a magical pair of wings - more power because the wings are no longer some obligatory reference to the original fairy tale, or a last minute gift from the plot to its main character: they’re the symbol of her growth into someone who recognizes the power within themselves to do the seemingly impossible.

The point I’m trying to make here is, admittedly, more of a downer than I’d like it to be.

The fact that I need to construct elaborate interpretations of films which never set out to represent me, yet resonated enough that I felt obligated to justify those interpretations at length, speaks to the progress we still have yet to make in terms of ASD representation. Even if I’ve come to be somewhat at peace with overthinking that representation into existence, I don’t speak for everyone. It’s simply irresponsible to pretend I can do so.

On the other hand, the idea of someone unintentionally reflecting my specific experience through art is not only kind of the point of art, but some level of evidence that speaking to those on the spectrum is not as impossible as those working in the entertainment industry would make it seem. There are so many ways to tell these stories that they will, inevitably, slip into narratives that were not explicitly designed for them in ways that are, ironically, more dignified than the feel-good inspiration porn hole most fall into.

I grew up with such a Very Special Episode view of my ASD - that it was something I had to justify and explain to the people around me, that I was some kind of walking teaching moment. It’s such an old way of thinking: it’s a relic from an era where we needed to make autistic people make sense. Well, it’s 2020, and I’m done making myself make sense. I’ve spent too long trying.

I’m finding myself wherever I please, and if I cannot find it, I will make it.