4/1/2021 0 Comments
Shoshana Weinstein (she/her)
Long before I began to question my sexual orientation, the characters I identified with on TV were the goofy, awkward ones. They misinterpreted the dialogue of other characters, wildly misread social situations, and were generally seen as weird or quirky. They never “got” the joke. And as a kid and younger teen I saw these characters and went, “Hey! That’s me!” I didn’t mind being seen as weird, and I knew I had friends and family who loved me. Yet at the same time, it often felt like every social interaction followed a script and I was the only one who didn’t know my lines. (If only I could have called out for stage directions.) Eye contact was excruciating; facial expressions were impossible to read. Sometimes people acted as if I was supposed to somehow know how they were feeling, but they never told me, so I just… didn’t. Then in my senior year of high school I was diagnosed with autism and I went, “Oh.”
Suddenly a lot of things clicked into place, and one of them was the TV characters I loved. Many of them weren’t just “silly” and “different,” they were coded as autistic. But going back and revisiting some of those shows, I began to realize that autistic representation wasn’t great. To start with, representation was sparse overall. Most of the characters I had connected with weren’t even confirmed to be autistic, it was just heavily implied. Many were presented as perpetual children, too foolish and immature to be taken seriously. Still others were represented as cold, unfeeling people, unable to connect to those around them. Wait a minute… this was starting to feel familiar.
By the time I got my diagnosis, I had known I was asexual for about three years and had been out to a handful of people for a few months. And I had found that asexuality, the lack of sexual attraction to anyone regardless of gender, was hardly to be found in media. Us aces were often erased, infantilized, or presented as unemotional robots. Just like autistic people. Furthermore, many asexual-coded characters are very frequently also autism-coded.
Now, before I take this any further, let me clarify-- having autism does not automatically make one asexual. In fact, little research has been done on whether there is a link between autism and LGBTQ identity, although some studies have suggested that autistic people may be more likely to be queer or trans. Understandably, though, there is some caution in both communities around conflating one with the other. An autism diagnosis shouldn’t suddenly dictate or constrain one’s sexuality. Similarly, as an asexual person I certainly wouldn’t want something so complex and integral to my identity as my sexualty to be diminished as a mere symptom of neurodivergency. Both are unique identities; and, although autism and asexuality are commonly mislabeled as “disorders” in need of a “cure,” neither are.
But that leads me to the crux of this article: If autism and asexuality are different, why do they so often overlap in media?
Let’s begin with infantilization. Autistic people are often infantilized for our failure to comprehend modes of communication used by allistic (non-autistic) people. Difficulties understanding sarcasm, jokes, or non-literal language are often taken as signs that we are simply not smart enough to “properly” communicate, leading to the assumption that autistic people are more simple and childlike. Additionally, many autistic people have sensory processing issues, and as a result are extremely sensitive to touch, light, sound, or taste. This usually manifests as picky eating or having meltdowns when exposed to a specific physical sensation, light intensity, or sound. To uninformed allistic people, this can certainly seem like childish behavior. Similarly, asexuality is sometimes misunderstood to be a lack of interest in sexual activities (rather than its true meaning, a lack of sexual attraction to any gender). Surely, then, since sex is an “adult” activity, asexuals must be childlike, reason many allosexuals (non-asexuals). Furthermore, since our culture is so permeated with the message that sex is impure, sinful, or otherwise wrong, those without sexual attraction are seen as more innocent, pure, and uncorrupted by the ways of the world than your average allosexual. And thus, again, more childlike.
This is of course very frustrating! Autistic and asexual adults are not children and do not want to be treated as such. Constant infantilization denies autistic and asexual people dignity and respect, treating us as less capable or talented than other adults. I want my work, my time, and my presence to be valued equally to that of anyone else’s! I might be ace, but I can tell dick jokes with the best of them; I might be autistic, but I’d like to be included in conversations with allistic people, awkwardness and all. When the media portrays us as children, it influences others to perpetuate infantilization in real life, which feels exhausting and exasperating for myself and many others.
Next, the unfeeling robot. Why are so many asexual or autistic people portrayed as cold and impersonal onscreen? Again, autistic traits are widely misinterpreted by allistics, leading to harmful tropes. Many autistic people are low or lacking in empathy, the ability to recognize, understand, and share the feelings of others. Difficulty reading facial expressions might make it hard for an autistic person to know what others are feeling without being explicitly told. This ability to recognize and label the emotions of others, which autistic people can struggle with, is often differentiated as “cognitive empathy” by professionals. But sharing the feelings of others, usually called “affective empathy,” can be just as strong in autistic people if not stronger. (Or, as I told my doctor before I was diagnosed, “I can’t tell when people are feeling bad, but once they tell me they feel bad so do I, and I want to help them.”) Yet this is often misunderstood as a lack of basic human connection, leading to portrayals of autistic people as emotionless, unfeeling, or even unintentionally cruel.
I think asexuality’s association with the “cold, detached robot” cliche is even simpler. Allosexuals often don’t parse the difference between sexual, romantic, and aesthetic attraction; to them, it all mixes together. (As a “homoromantic asexual” I’m very aware of the romantic attraction I feel towards women and how completely devoid it is of any sort of sexual attraction.) Asexuals are thus often confused for being completely unable to experience any sort of attraction, be it romantic, platonic, or even familial. And that’s simply not true; lack of sexual attraction does not prevent one from forming meaningful relationships with others. But all too often, aces are seen as unfeeling and detached.
Portraying ace and autistic people as metaphorical “robots” inevitably leads to dehumanization. And that dehumanization hurts. It hurt when I was a closeted teenager in high school, wondering if I was broken, feeling certain only that I could never be worthy of romantic love. It hurt when I was a kid, pre-diagnosis, feeling like I would never connect with my parents or my peers in the way that I wanted. And yeah, to some extent it’s natural to feel uncertain of your sexual identity, or to grapple with the symptoms of an undiagnosed neurodivergency. But some of that doubt and fear was a narrative that I had gathered from TV and movies. I didn't know that I was looking at asexual- and autistic-coded characters, just that the people who were weird, awkward, and sex-averse like me were wrong.
And finally, the erasure. There simply aren’t that many autistic or asexual characters out there. The excuses for this go on and on: Ace and autistic people are such a small percentage of the population, why bother? What if we alienate our heterosexual or allistic audience and lose money? Our characters should be “normal,” so that everyone can relate to them. More often, TV and movie writers just haven’t heard of asexuality, or know little about autism. Gatekeeping and prejudice within the industry can serve to keep ace and autistic people out of the writer’s room. (And of course, when compared to allosexuals and allistics we are simply outnumbered in the general population, further contributing to the relative lack of ace or autistic TV and movie producers.) Erasure can cause its own form of alienation; when you never see yourself represented in media, you can start to feel invisible.
Do these striking similarities between the portrayal of autistic and asexual people in media mean anything? Well, it certainly seems that people who relate to those around them in a manner that deviates from the norm, as both ace and autistic people do, are subjected to very specific stereotypes and dehumanizing narratives. There is clearly a need for a counter-narrative, where asexual and autistic people can fully be shown as the intelligent, mature, loving, and compassionate community we are. And as frustrating and exhausting as the status quo is, we can demand better.
As a closeted teen, seeing asexual experiences represented in films and TV shows made me feel validated. Media helped me reach that very simple baseline where I felt like my identity was real and had value. (Yes, I actually burst into tears while watching “Sex Education” when a cannonically asexual character was told, “Sex doesn’t make us whole. And so, how could you ever be broken?”) I’ve far surpassed that now; I’m finally at the point where my queerness feels like something I can celebrate, and I no longer turn to Netflix to remind myself that others like me exist. But as any queer, trans, or autistic person will tell you, representation matters-- seeing one’s own experiences reflected in books or onscreen can be life changing.
LGBTQ characters and stories let queer viewers feel a sense of belonging; they can call attention to important issues, normalize queer existence, and amplify queer joy. And the same goes for autistic characters as well. Autistic and asexual creatives are out there; they are talented, they are making great art, and we just need the media establishment to start hiring them. We’ve already seen a positive shift towards representation with shows and movies like “BoJack Horseman,” “Sex Education,” “The Olivia Experiment,” “Loop,” and “Float.” Change is slow, but I do have some hope that representation will improve.