For whatever reason, most media campaigns surrounding autism (or its outdated sister term Aspergers) equate the disorder with youth and childhood. Go to the webpage for charity groups like Autism Speaks and you will find several photos of small children and testimonials from non-autistic parents and guardians. It’s much harder to find actual writings and accounts from autistic adults on any of these sites.

READ: Here's how FINDING DORY can be helpful for young disabled people!

The lack of autistic adults in media campaigns reinforces the notion that autism only affects children. This association between childhood and autism perpetuates the idea that autistic people are all children and therefore need a non-autistic parental figure or guardian to guide them. This gives non-autistic adults the power to control how autism is represented and how services for autistic people will work. As a result, the US still has programs such as the Judge Rotenberg Center, which administers repeated electric shocks to its residents to punish them for displaying any visibly autistic traits, such as lack of eye contact or repetitive hand gestures. The center gets away with this because we still believe that autistic people, like small children, cannot tell when something is in their best interest. Through this lens, our society dismisses the many personal accounts of horrific treatment as whining, like a kid who doesn't want to go to the dentist. 

Although this is how dominant media represents of autism, certain popular stories and characters have great potential for positive autistic empowerment. Through subtextual evidence, many Autistic people can recognize themselves in iconic heroes such as the titular character of SHERLOCK and the warrior-like Drax from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, neither of whom are particularly infantile. Autistic representation in certain video games also tackles the association between Autism and childhood, with varying degrees of success. Let’s take a look at a few of these games, including TO THE MOON, UNDERTALE, and Telltale’s THE WALKING DEAD.

River – TO THE MOON (Freebird Games)

Autism

In TO THE MOON, you play as two scientists with a job to create false memories for dying patients in order to help them experience their final wish. The patient that the game focuses on is an elderly man named Johnny Wyles, who lives next to a lighthouse that was beloved by his late wife River – a mysterious woman who silently folded origami rabbits in the final years of her life. Now Johnny is alone and dying with the feeling that what he needed to do was go to the moon, and he has no idea why. This sends the scientists on a journey through Johnny’s memories to figure out why things ended the way they did for him and how to fix it.

Autism

Through these memories, we learn a great deal about River’s life alongside Johnny. During her adult years, a doctor diagnoses River with an unnamed “developmental disorder” and recommends a book by Tony Attwood, a well-known researcher of Asperger's Syndrome. However, River has lived with the symptoms of her disorder for decades before this diagnosis: her hypersensitivity to the sound of clocks ticking, her confusion about logistics when dating, and her difficulty speaking to those she did not know well… yet everyone perceived these symptoms as River just being different and strange.

In fact, this perception of River as different is what initially convinced Johnny to pursue her romantically. In one memory, he tells a close friend that he wants to ask River out mainly because he is sick of feeling normal and wants the weird girl to make him into something else.

Autism

In essence, the foundation of their relationship is based around Johnny’s assumption that River is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. For those unfamiliar with the term, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an eccentric female character with no arc of her own who exists solely to inspire the male lead to reclaim a sense of childlike wonder and live life to the fullest. Basically, her weirdness, interests, and dreams exist solely for a man, not for herself.

Certainly, Johnny believes in the ideal of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and does not intend to reciprocate any of River’s emotional support. As River’s issues with communication worsen in her adult years, Johnny becomes more and more uncomfortable with her. He does not really know how to communicate with River and starts talking about her behind her back to his friends. Although he supports her desires economically, he does not understand any of her interests, like the lighthouse or the rabbits. He even lies to her about their financial status because he does not want to upset her and does not trust her to make the right decisions about her own health. Basically, Johnny barely knows his own wife. He treats her like a crazed child he must provide for rather than an equal.

What is really unfortunate is that, due to early emotional trauma, Johnny has blocked out most of the memories of his childhood, including the moment when he and River first met. In this memory, River and Johnny are stargazing at a festival together, and, for one moment, genuinely understand each other. River tells Johnny how she always wished she could be normal and points out how, like the stars, she feels too distant to connect with others. Johnny is the first person to believe River’s theory that the stars are lighthouses. Together, they make a rabbit constellation out of the moon and promise to regroup on the moon if they ever lost each other.

Autism

When Johnny finally asks River on a date, River assumes that he remembers these things. Due to Johnny's trauma, he does not. River spends most of their relationship believing in a shared foundation of mutual respect and understanding that no longer exists. Meanwhile, Johnny spends most of their relationship expecting a one-sided dynamic where River provides the quirky innocence Johnny was never allowed. When Johnny finally admits that he asked her out because she was so different and special, River realizes he does not really know her at all. Out of anger and heartbreak, she stops being able to talk to her husband and obsessively folds paper rabbits until her death in the hopes that the rabbits might help Johnny remember.

The tragedy here is the dissonance between Johnny’s understanding of River and who she really is. Johnny does not respect River as an independent person during their time together. Instead, he thinks of her as a youthful muse who lives to replace the childhood that Johnny lost. Considering how uncomfortable he is with the less “pretty” parts of her disability taking prominence as she ages, Johnny does not like it when River cannot fit this role. His need to control her and his lack of trust in her as an individual hinder the both of them.

READ: Want to know more about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Read our review of Bryan Lee O'Malley's SNOTGIRL

In the end, the scientists discover that trusting River to succeed on her own is the key to sending Johnny to the moon all along. Had Johnny not gotten romantically involved with River as a child, thus forcing her into the permanent role of cheerful companion, both he and River would have been capable of making it “to the moon” on their own. Here, accomplished adults with a shared passion are able to have a genuine relationship buillt around respect. That happy ending only happens when River gets to grow up and when Johnny stops thinking of her as an extension of him. It is only when they can be there for each other that everything is alright.

Papyrus – UNDERTALE (Toby “Radiation” Fox)

Autism

UNDERTALE follows the adventures of a human who falls into the world of monsters. You can choose to kill or befriend each enemy and each decision has vast consequences on the storyline. This means that every single character is fleshed-out, even the most basic of foes. Two of the most popular characters in this game are Sans and Papyrus, skeleton brothers who form a wonderful comedic duo. Sans is the laid-back, pun-loving older brother while Papyrus is the flamboyant, ambitious younger brother who aspires to join the royal guard. It is a well-known fact that Sans is much more than meets the eye, but people often forget about Papyrus. In fact, we are supposed to.

From his first introduction, Papyrus is quite blatantly autistic-coded. He wants to be an intimidating foe hellbent on capturing you, but he quickly drops the act by cheerfully geeking out the moment either of his special interests — puzzles and spaghetti — come up. When he is overwhelmed, he spins in circles, which is a classic form of stimming — repetitive movements common among autistic people. Any time you try to be sarcastic towards him, he misinterprets it as a compliment. Not to mention that his outfit is a superhero costume he created for a party and has not taken off since, not even to shower.

Autism

These cues trick most players into heavily underestimating Papyrus’ competence. With his difficultly reading social cues, his unabashed love for “childish” things, and his short attention span, how could Papyrus possibly be an intimidating guard?

This setup leads to an absolutely brilliant scene at the start of the battle between you and Papyrus (in the paths where you're more peaceful with the monsters). The arrogant skeleton brags about a special attack, but you assume it’s nothing because of how easy all his other traps were to get through. And certainly the special attack seems pretty harmless, consisting of a barrage of moves that will all miss you as long as you stay still–that is, until the end of the attack. Then, Papyrus turns your soul blue, weighing you down and making his remaining moves way harder to dodge. Papyrus starts laughing and says “YOU’RE BLUE NOW. THAT’S MY ATTACK!” Suddenly, the music gets much more intense, the text reads “You’re blue now,” and the real battle begins.

Autism

In UNDERTALE, Papyrus knows people underestimate him and actively uses it to his advantage. He knows you will incorrectly assume that his trouble with social cues means he is simple-minded or that his brightly colored costume and unusual mannerisms mean that he has not grown up. The players' own ableist assumptions about Papyrus form their downfall. Not only is Papyrus completely competent in a fight, but he is the only character in the whole game who can stop fighting mid-attack. Just like many other monsters, Papyrus only wishes to spar with you, but he is the only one who will never accidentally kill you. This requires a level of coordination and control that is unheard of anywhere else in the game.

However, even after this, most people still think of Papyrus as a child.

Papyrus’s closest friend Undyne, head of the royal guard, refuses to hire him because he is “too nice.” Instead, Undyne distracts Papyrus by teaching him to cook. (It is of note here that if you swap Papyrus and Undyne’s genders, this situation becomes real sexist real fast. Why do we equate kindness with weakness?) If the player character kills off most of the successors for the throne and Papyrus becomes king, Sans tells him everyone just “went on vacation.” It is not up to Sans to decide for Papyrus, now king, whether or not he can handle what really happened. One of those deceased characters is Undyne, and Papyrus deserves to know what happened to his best friend. Not to mention, the second Sans leaves, Papyrus asks the player if Sans is telling the truth or not. He knows what’s up.

READ: Here are some reasons why UNDERTALE is such an important game!

Finally, the fandom infantilizes Papyrus, regularly drawing him as a baby or writing Sans as super over-protective of him. Notably, in most fanworks where Papyrus is romantically interested in another character, Sans is always nearby pulling the strings to end the romance. If Sans is not outright threatening physical violence against the potential love interest, usually this character has to ask Sans for his blessing before pursuing Papyrus. In this way, Papyrus has no romantic or sexual agency whatsoever and all decisions are made for him by his brother-turned-guardian. Considering the ugly history around controlling disabled folks’ ability to reproduce, this is probably not the best thing to romanticize.

Sarah – THE WALKING DEAD: SEASON TWO (Telltale Games)

Autism

Telltale’s THE WALKING DEAD video game series follows its own storyline, separate from the events of the comic or the TV show. The games follow a young girl named Clementine as she grows up during the zombie apocalypse.

Towards the beginning of the second game (SEASON TWO), Clem gets taken in by a group of survivors who had recently escaped from a cult. The group's medic is a man named Carlos, a former doctor. He has a teenage daughter named Sarah, towards whom he is extremely protective. While staying at a sheltered cabin, Carlos coops Sarah up in a bedroom in the second floor and doesn’t want her to leave. He also warns Clementine not to tell Sarah anything about the outside world because she “isn’t like” Clem and “would cease to function” if she knew what was really going on.

Autism

Now, Clementine is a few years younger than Sarah, and Carlos seems to accept that Clem does not need sheltering, so he is clearly not treating Sarah this way just because she is young. The game developers claim that Carlos is so protective of Sarah because she has PTSD. However, from interactions with Sarah, it seems more like she has a number of disorders occurring simultaneously. Certainly, PTSD is one of these disorders, if her difficulties breathing upon cult leader Carver's return are anything to go by.

READ: What happens when superheroes live with illness? 

But this is the zombie apocalypse. Most other characters also have clear signs of PTSD (who wouldn't?), but they don't treat each other like children incapable of interacting with the real world.

Plus, Sarah mentions that she has not had a girl her age to talk to “since way before” the apocalypse, implying that Carlos was treating her this way before the zombies and before Carver. More likely than the PTSD explanation is that Sarah was diagnosed with autism before the apocalypse, and Carlos, assuming this means Sarah will never be able to understand or respond appropriately to certain situations, decided to treat her as his baby forever.

The harmful effects of this decision are present throughout Carlos and Sarah’s arcs. The game quickly sets up Sarah and her father as foils to Clementine and her late father figure Lee from the first game. Lee reluctantly taught a nine-year-old Clem how to protect herself and to be independent in the first game because it was the right thing to do. In one memorable scene, he trains Clem to use a gun, and you can choose what advice he gives her. The second game echoes this when, as Clementine, you can teach Sarah how to use a gun against Carlos’ wishes.

Autism

The fact that you can teach Sarah implies that, under different circumstances, Sarah could have been trained the way Lee trained Clem. However, because of the way Carlos raised Sarah, she becomes exclusively dependent on her father and completely unable to function when he is not around.

Conclusion

In all these cases, autistic and autistic-coded characters are far more competent than their helicopter-like guardians make them out to be.

River could have been an astronaut, but her husband’s idealization of her as a youthful Manic Pixie Dream Girl traps her in a dead-end marriage instead. Papyrus possesses complex emotional ties and a deep understanding of battle, and yet his brother’s over protectiveness, both in-game and in the fandom, keeps him from processing grief over his friend’s death and from pursuing romance. For Sarah, her father’s strict rules prevent her from developing survival skills and heighten her risk of physical harm.

Each of these games challenges the idea that a guardian’s protection is always the absolute best thing for autistic people. In turn, they challenge the entire parent/child dichotomy that autism charities are based around. Keep disturbing the peace here, and maybe someday autistic people will finally hold power in the organizations that control their bodies and futures.

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