So, you want to write an Autistic character. That’s great!
Unfortunately, most writers fall short of portraying Autistic characters well. If you want to avoid offensive stereotypes and make your Autistic characters accurate, doing the proper research is essential. There’s a lot of misinformation about autism in mainstream media, so even if you think you already understand it, be prepared to learn with an open mind! This article is the single longest one on the entire site, but all of this information is important for addressing the nuance of the topic.
This topic is one that I’ve been planning to write about for a long time, and it is very personal to me because I am Autistic myself! Good representation for the Autistic community can be hard to come by, so I wanted to make sure I could provide as much useful information and advice as possible.
I hope you stick around to the end!
I will be using identity-first language throughout this article out of respect for the wishes of the Autistic community.
What Exactly is Autism?
Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a Neurodevelopmental Disorder characterized by a broad range of unique behaviors and experiences across many different areas of functioning, including (but not limited to) socialization and communication, repetitive behaviors, sensory sensitivities, talents, passions, and executive functioning.
“Neurodevelopmental” means that someone who is Autistic was born Autistic. They have always been, and will always be, Autistic. It cannot be caused by anything (like vaccines), cured, or prevented.
Autism is not something that a person has, but rather, it is something that they are. It’s as much a part of someone’s identity as the color of their eyes or the country in which they were born. As such, most people in the community prefer the use of “identity-first” language, such as “Autistic person” instead of “person with Autism,” in the same way other identities are referred to (such as Blind person, Deaf person, Gay person, Norwegian person, etc.).
Autism can be a really positive thing in a lot of ways. I credit a lot of my creativity and work ethic to the unique perspectives I have as an Autistic person. Everything about how I experience the world is completely different from how someone who isn’t Autistic experiences the world, and I think that’s the coolest thing ever.
With that said, Autism can still be a disability. It is not just a fun quirk. It can be difficult to deal with at times, and that should be conveyed. I’ll get into the specifics of what I mean by that in the following sections.
Make Your Autistic Character an Individual
Before we move on to the part you’re obviously here for, I need to include a disclaimer. Your Autistic character is an individual, first and foremost—a human being, not just a series of behaviors. They must be treated like any other character, with flaws, strengths, goals, hobbies, etc.
Long before you start thinking about how to make them “act Autistic,” you should be thinking about their past, the things that bring them joy, their personality, their family, and the things they love to do. Autism shouldn’t be an afterthought, but it also shouldn’t be the only thought. Autistic people are just as diverse as any other group of people, with varied interests, backgrounds, and personalities.
Many characters in media are claimed by the Autistic community, despite them not being specifically intended to be Autistic. One such example is Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series. She is eccentric and delightfully odd, with hobbies, depth to her personality, and a sense of true loyalty and love for her friends. Characters like Luna are some of the best representation for the Autistic community, despite only appearing Autistic on accident.
The reason for this is because they’re characters first, and their unique behaviors are seen as just a part of who they are, rather than being some kind of “condition.” Their personalities don’t revolve around a diagnostic label. Writers who specifically set out to write Autistic characters, however, often end up relying on old misconceptions, stereotypes, and tired clichés.
The fact that you’re reading this article, however, means you are at little risk of committing the same mistakes as those before you. Doing the research to understand what Autism actually is and how it presents in different people is the first step in making sure your Autistic characters are still fully realized, complex individuals.
Here are some other topics to help you out with this stage of the character creation process:
Autism Terminology for Writing About Autistic Characters
This section is a glossary of some terms you will need to know when writing Autistic characters.
- Autistic: A person with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses in the areas of socialization and communication, sensory differences, repetitive behaviors, and interests. Autism is a neurotype that influences the way a person experiences the world, and can affect every single aspect of life.
- Allistic: A person who is not Autistic. However, an allistic person may have other neurodivergencies, such as ADHD or OCD.
- Aspergers: An outdated term to refer to Autistic people who are capable of adapting and conforming to modern society. It should generally not be used, but especially not by allistic people.
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): The diagnostic label that applies to everyone previously diagnosed with Autism, Asperger’s disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, or pervasive developmental disorder.
- Neurodiversity: A movement intended to celebrate Autism and other neurological disorders as part of natural human biodiversity. It has made large strides in reshaping how people talk about Autism, though it is often criticized for being overly optimistic.
- Neurodivergent (ND): A person who has a neurotype that differs from the majority of the population; ie: ADHD, Autism, OCD, Dyslexia, etc.
- Neurotypical (NT): A person who has a neurotype that conforms with the majority of the population; someone without any neurodivergencies.
- Overstimulation: A condition that occurs when there is too much information for an Autistic person’s brain to process effectively. It is a type of pain unique to the Autistic experience, and it can be brought on by emotional stress, too much information, or overwhelming sensory environments. Also known as “sensory overload.”
- Understimulation: A condition that occurs when there is not enough information for an Autistic person’s brain to process, resulting in boredom, anxiety, and restlessness. Understimulation can make it difficult to focus and be productive, but fidgeting, listening to music, and other means of stimulating the brain can help. Understimulation can also affect individuals with ADHD.
- Stimming: A type of behavior that Autistic people engage in to help regulate their emotions and manage stimuli. Stims, which can look like hand flapping, rocking back and forth, humming, and countless other behaviors, can be used for comfort, expressing emotions, stimulating an understimulated brain, or releasing unwanted energy from overstimulation.
- Autistic Meltdown: An intense, involuntary reaction to severe or prolonged overstimulation. From the outside, an Autistic meltdown can look like crying, screaming, spacing out, hiding, running away, and lashing out. From the inside, however, it feels like an overwhelming amount of energy that has nowhere to go. It is frightening and painful, but it is an important coping mechanism for Autistic people to manage overstimulation.
- Autistic Shutdown: Another type of reaction to overstimulation, characterized by social withdrawal, depressive symptoms, heightened sensitivity to stimuli, lethargy, and spaciness. It may also render the person unable to move or speak, regardless of their environment. Sometimes, a meltdown can turn into a shutdown, though it can occur on its own. Although a shutdown is less obtrusive than a meltdown, it is important to note that it is not any less severe than a meltdown. A shutdown can continue for many hours, or even an entire day.
- Autistic Burnout: A period of exhaustion unique to Autistic individuals, resulting from the intense pressures of everyday life. Quite like occupational burnout, which occurs from the daily stress of work, Autistic burnout results from the effort of conforming to a society that does not accommodate anyone who differs from the norm. Managing daily chores, work, school, relationships, expectations, holidays, and other aspects of life can become overwhelming if stress levels aren’t managed properly, and can result in depression, anxiety, self-harming behaviors, alcoholism, and loss of skills. A person experiencing Autistic burnout may appear “more Autistic” than normal, in the sense that they may struggle to communicate and stim more often. This condition can last months, years, and even decades if accommodations are unavailable.
- Nonverbal: A state of being unable to speak (ie: “he is going nonverbal”). It can also be used to describe a person who is currently, or always, unable to speak (ie: “she is nonverbal”). Nonspeaking is another synonym for this term.
- Semi-Verbal: A state of being unable to speak reliably or in full sentences, though able to make some noises and basic words. It can also be used to describe someone who alternates between being verbal and nonverbal.
- Verbal: A state of being able to speak normally. It can also be used to describe someone who is currently, or always, able to speak.
- Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC): A method of communicating that doesn’t rely on speech. These methods include everything from sign language and gestures to writing and drawing.
- AAC Device: An electronic device used to facilitate communication without the use of voice. Many of these devices are speech-generating, meaning an electronic voice reads out whatever the user inputs.
- Functioning Labels: A clinical method of categorizing the “severity” of one’s Autism. These labels (ie: low functioning, high functioning, or Autism level 1, 2, or 3) are generally rejected by the Autistic community for being overly simplistic and not a good representation of an individual’s strengths and support needs.
- Comorbid Conditions: A term used to describe health conditions that occur alongside Autism. Commonly comorbid conditions include EDS, ADHD, OCD, Epilepsy, and many mental health conditions.
Writing About Autistic Traits
Autism is a spectrum, but it is perhaps easier to contextualize if you imagine it as being a series of many different spectrums, with each individual trait on its own spectrum. Someone who struggles with social interaction may not have any difficulty with sensory sensitivities, whereas the opposite may be true for someone else. In fact, not every Autistic person is going to express every single one of these traits, nor will they express them the same way as anyone else. The same person may even experience different traits at different intensities depending on their context and mood.
Be mindful not to reduce your Autistic character down to just their behaviors, or you’ll make them feel more like a plot device than a character.
Sensory sensitivities are a big part of the Autistic experience, and can impact any of the five senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing). However, just because this is such a large part of being Autistic does not mean that it is experienced universally. Someone may be sensitive to smells, but not sounds, or they could be sensitive to intense flavors, but not flashing bright lights. In addition to that, a person may be sensory-seeking or sensory-avoidant, and that could be different for different senses and at different times.
Autistic people who are generally sensory-avoidant will tend to use “sensory aids” to help them manage the onslaught of sensory stimuli they are faced with in a given day. These aids include things like earplugs, weighted blankets, sunglasses, noise-canceling headphones, gloves, and comfortable clothing.
Keep in mind that sensory sensitivities are not always a bad thing. Being overly sensitive can also result in finding more joy in pleasant sensations, like fresh-smelling laundry, the sight of sunlight filtering through trees, and the sound of an instrument being played.
I’ll use my personal experience as an example to help you contextualize this. My most sensitive sense is hearing. I can become overwhelmed very easily in noisy environments—particularly those in which multiple people are speaking at the same time, such as at a party or a shop. However, when I am overwhelmed, I often blast my favorite songs on repeat through noise-canceling headphones to calm down. The type of noise is extremely important.
My other most sensitive sense is touch. I can only wear soft, comfortable clothing with no tags or noticeable seams, and I have to meticulously smooth out the wrinkles in my bedsheets before I am able to sleep. I cannot wear makeup, hair products, or most jewelry, and I often have to get changed several times in a day until I find an outfit that I can tolerate. Something like a hair or piece of lint on the inside of my shirt causes me physical pain. However, I find a lot of comfort in weighted blankets and holding something soft to my chest. A gentle breeze, the feeling of sunlight on my skin, and being in water are among some of my favorite sensations.
When you are creating your Autistic character, consider their relationship with each of their senses.
- Are they often sensory-seeking, or sensory-avoidant, and with which senses?
- Which of their senses is the most sensitive?
- How does their relationship with their senses change when they are overwhelmed?
- Do they have favorite scents, flavors, textures, or sounds?
- How do they engage with their senses in a way that is different from their allistic peers?
When writing about a character’s reaction to stimuli, it can help to compare it to something allistic readers can sympathize with. For example, rather than just saying a character cried because of the feeling of a tag in their shirt, you could say that they cried because the tag felt like a cactus or a piece of glass on the back of their neck. This way, the character’s reaction feels more relatable to readers.
In addition to the five main senses, there are also interoceptive (internal) senses, which help a person determine what is going on inside their own body. These include senses like temperature, pain, hunger, balance, time, and spatial orientation.
Autistic people often have different ways of processing interoceptive senses. Some Autistic people have an unusual relationship with pain; some feel pain with increased sensitivity, while others may have a decreased awareness of pain. Challenges with other senses, like the vestibular and proprioceptive senses, may make the Autistic person clumsier and more prone to sitting in awkward positions or fumbling with things. Autistic people may also have a harder time with knowing when they are cold, hot, hungry, full, tired, or itchy—or, alternatively, they may have an increased sensitivity to those senses.
Socialization & Communication
Many Autistic people communicate in ways that might seem odd to Neurotypical (NT) people, and you should keep that in mind when crafting dialogue for your Autistic characters.
Autistic people tend to think very literally, which means they often have a harder time understanding figures of speech, sarcasm, expressions, and other nonverbal cues.
Social expectations can also be difficult for Autistic people to navigate around. Things like gift-giving, handshakes, eye contact, and small-talk can seem pointless and confusing, and are often easy to mess up. In addition to that, some social expectations, like handshakes and eye contact, can result in sensory distress, and make interacting with NT people even more stressful and challenging.
Communicating verbally in general can also pose some challenges for Autistic people. Some Autistic people speak monotonously and don’t vary their tone of voice. They can come across as blunt or insensitive, regardless of how they actually feel. Other Autistic people may struggle with selective mutism and going nonverbal when overwhelmed (or even without warning). Alternatively, an Autistic person may be “hyperverbal,” and use too many words to convey what they mean. It’s also not uncommon for Autistic people to have auditory processing issues as well, which means they can hear fine, but can’t always make sense of what they are hearing.
Autistic people often share their own personal stories to show others that they relate to their experiences, but NT people often interpret this as being self-centered. Autistic people also tend to overshare and talk more about the things that they are interested in, with little interest in talking about mood, the weather, airline food, and whatever other topics tend to come up in small-talk. This phenomenon of inherent difference in communication styles is referred to as the “Double Empathy Problem.”
As a result of these social differences, many Autistic people develop social anxiety (estimated to be around 50%). However, Autistic people rarely struggle to communicate with other Autistic people. This is mostly true for other Neurodivergent (ND) people too, like those with ADHD, BPD, and OCD. Communication issues only arise between Autistic and NT people, since the ways in which we communicate tend to conflict.
It is important to keep in mind that Autistic people are not inherently antisocial. Autistic people are just as likely to crave interpersonal connection and social relationships as any other person, it’s just that socializing can be more difficult for Autistic people in most circumstances.
Special interests are intense interests that Autistic people develop at some point in their life. They can last only a few weeks, or they could be lifelong passions that the person builds their life around.
Special interests are different from hobbies in that they have a much larger scope in an Autistic person’s life. Special interests dictate how they spend their time, what they talk about, what they think about, and what they want to do with their life. Special interests provide a sense of comfort and routine, and often a way of escaping from the stresses of everyday life. If an Autistic person is unable to engage with one of their special interests for a while, then they may find themself getting burnt out.
Since many Autistic people engage with their special interests regularly, they often become quite knowledgeable in matters relating to those interests. They may also collect and organize information relating to their interest with lists, charts, graphs, folders, images, and collections, and constantly strive to learn more.
Special interests can develop for just about anything. They can be topics, educational subjects, games, objects, movies, hobbies, and more. To give you an idea of what these look like, here are some examples:
- Collecting things (pencils, coins, shark teeth, marbles, etc)
- History (or a specific historical period)
- Candles and candlemaking
- A specific movie, game, or show
- Folklore and mythology
- Roller coasters
- Ghosts and the paranormal
- Making Jewelry
- A specific band
- Cars (can be general or more specific, like trucks or muscle cars)
- Animals (can be general or specific)
- Fictional characters
Special interests are a huge part of being Autistic. When you give an Autistic character a particular special interest, you need to be ready to do extensive research to make sure you can write about it convincingly. If your character has a special interest in dinosaurs, then you’re going to need to know all about different kinds of dinosaurs, where they lived, what they ate, and the different time periods in which they existed—at the very least. It can also be a good idea to prepare a long list of fun facts for the character to share throughout the story ahead of time.
Stims (short for “Self-Stimulating Behaviors”) are repetitive or unusual behaviors that help regulate an Autistic person’s level of stimulation. These behaviors look like flapping hands, rocking back and forth, humming, blinking rapidly, fidgeting, and much more.
Stimming has many purposes for Autistic people. The primary function of these behaviors is to manage stimulation—both overstimulation and understimulation. Aside from that, certain stims can be used as part of Autistic communication, and indicate mood, comfort level, energy levels, boredom, and many other things, as well as ease anxiety and discomfort. Stimming can also improve focus!
Each person usually has different stims for different moods, but they may default to the same stims each time they are feeling a particular emotion. For example, they may rock back and forth when they are nervous, but they may flap their hands when they are excited or happy.
Just about any sort of behavior can be considered a stim, but here are some ideas for stims that you can have your characters use:
- Flapping their hands
- Blinking rapidly
- Shaking their fists
- Clicking their tongue
- Picking at their nails or skin
- Crossing their arms tightly (and squeezing)
- Squeezing their hands together
- Listening to the same song on repeat
- Echolalia (Repeating a word or phrase with no communicative intent)
- Squirming or wiggling
- Chewing on their lips
- Rubbing their skin
- Rubbing their hands together
- Rolling their head around or repeatedly turning their head in different directions
- Organizing or lining things up
- Self-harming behaviors
- Tapping on surfaces (like phones, desks, cups, etc)
- Cracking their knuckles
- Playing with their hair
- Tapping their teeth together
- Tapping their foot
- Walking on their toes
- Rubbing their eyes or face
- Watching a ceiling fan rotate
- Waving their hands in front of their face
- Using a fidget toy, like a Fidget Cube, Tangle Toy, or Rubiks Cube
- Chewing gum or other candies
- Clicking pens
- Fidgeting with jewelry
- Tearing things apart (like paper)
These are just some examples to get you thinking about what kinds of behaviors can be considered stims, and it’s by no means a master list. Some stims are involuntary, and the Autistic person may not be aware that they are even doing it, while others are deliberate.
When you are creating an Autistic character, you should consider how each of their stims look depending on their mood. A happy stim for one character (such as flapping hands) may be an anxious stim for another character.
How does your character stim when they are:
Sometimes, the same stim can be applied to more than one emotion or state of being. Excited and scared stims can often look very similar, since both are intense and high-energy emotions.
Once you have decided on your character’s stims, keep them consistent throughout the story. Your readers will pick up on those behaviors, and can use them to help determine how the character is feeling in a given scene (especially if the character in question has an unusual way of expressing their emotions, which is also fairly common in Autistic people).
In addition to regular stimming, Autistic people’s body language can look quite different from NT body language. The way they hold themselves, gesture, and express their emotions can all be quite distinct.
“Raptor arms” are a common phenomenon among Autistic people. This colloquial term describes a way of holding one’s arms when they are at rest. Rather than keeping their arms straight at their sides, Autistic people are more likely to keep their elbows bent, with their hands hanging loosely closer to the abdomen or chest (thus the raptor comparison).
Aside from raptor arms, there are many other differences in how Autistic people hold themselves. Some Autistic people are very stiff and don’t make many gestures, while others gesture wildly (often hitting things with their arms on accident… speaking from experience). The way an Autistic person walks may also look a little stiff or unusual, like not swinging their arms, shuffling their feet, or walking on their toes.
Autistic people are also more likely to sit in strange ways, like on their knees or cross-legged, and prefer sitting on the ground or in beanbag chairs. Even standing, they may cross their ankles, shift their weight, balance on one leg, and lean against things.
Routine and Resistance to Change
Routine is another big element of the Autistic experience, and in a lot of ways, it dictates the way Autistic people navigate the world and live their day-to-day lives.
Whether it’s taking the same route to school or work every day, or following the same ritual before bed every night, routines provide a sense of comfort for Autistic people. Some choose to eat the same foods every day, listen to the same song every day, go to the same place every week, or build routines out of the order in which they do their chores or errands (like always taking out the trash before walking the dog).
Routines are often repetitive and predictable, meaning the person can anticipate what is about to happen and plan for their day. When unexpected things happen that disrupt the routine (like road work, a store closing, holidays, etc), the person then has to process the new information and decide how to respond, which can pressure them into making decisions quickly when they didn’t anticipate it. This can make them feel overwhelmed, but also frustrated and sad that the routine can’t be completed like normal. It feels almost like when someone pauses your favorite song before it’s over, but much more intense. The enjoyment you get from the song is diminished by the interruption in the middle.
Likewise, change, unpredictability, and spontaneity can all result in severe anxiety.
When going somewhere for the first time, an Autistic person may look up directions, study the roads they will have to travel on to get there, look up pictures of the location, and gather whatever other kind of information they can before they have to leave. When doing something they’ve never done before, like paying at a restaurant with a card, going to a new store, or navigating to a new place, they may get overwhelmed and look to others for direction.
“Masking” is a strategy used by Autistic people to blend in to society. Some Autistic people are able to “mask” (hide) their Autistic traits in order to protect themselves from unwanted attention and ridicule.
Autistic masks are often created and maintained using a variety of techniques. The Autistic person may mirror the behavior of the people they are talking to, such as their tone of voice, gestures, and body language. Another technique is known as “scripting,” and it’s pretty much what it sounds like; the person may think about the conversation before it happens and prepare an internal script for possible scenarios and topics to talk about. They may also rehearse parts of this script or variations of it beforehand so they can be more prepared for the conversation. Another technique is to watch people, either real or on TV, and adopt the mannerisms those people exhibit. Often, masks are created subconsciously, even by people who don’t know that they are Autistic yet.
Not every Autistic person can mask, and that has its own challenges associated with it, but masking isn’t all fun and games. When an Autistic person has to maintain a mask for a long period of time, they can become burnt out. Masking is exhausting, and it can often feel very high-stakes. In addition to that, even if the character is consciously trying to mask, they might not be very good at it.
Even if your character does not know that they are Autistic, they will still probably get the sense that they are different from the other people around them. They are probably going to feel the need to hide their “true self” around others, and may constantly police their own behavior to make sure it appears normal. They’ll likely pay more attention to their own body language and tone, and their expressions may come across as forced or inauthentic.
When your character finds another character they trust and can be their true self around, they will be able to let down their mask and be themself. Finding someone who won’t judge them for the way they naturally behave can be a liberating experience.
Aside from the traits listed above, there are countless other behaviors that are associated with the Autistic experience. Some of these are used as part of clinical evaluation, while some of these are simply behaviors that many Autistic people share and have unofficially recognized as Autistic traits. Many of these traits overlap with ADHD and other neurodevelopmental disorders as well. (Remember that not every Autistic person is going to display all of these traits!)
- Strong attention to detail
- Executive Dysfunction
- Auditory Processing Disorder
- Pathological Demand Avoidance
- Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria
- Vivid imagination and creative thinking
- A tendency to overshare
- Emotional Dysregulation
- Staring and “zoning out”
- Inability to multitask
- Poor eye contact (or too much eye contact)
- Rigid thinking (also often called “black and white thinking”)
- Selective mutism
- Difficulty with authority and social hierarchies
- Rule oriented
- Strong sense of justice
- Logical thinking
- Bad at lying
- Uncertainty of self
- Gender nonconformance
- Talking to self
- Strong connection to animals and/or young children
- Picky eating
- Difficulty with phone calls
As always, this is not an exhaustive list. The total number of behaviors that can be traced back to Autism are far too numerous to count (and would make this article too long to read in a single sitting!)
A lot of these traits can be complicated by comorbid conditions. I am Autistic and have Combined Presentation ADHD (along with a few other diagnoses), and I can attest that it is maddening how the two conditions contradict in ways you wouldn’t expect. Autism is characterized by an adherence to routines, while ADHD is primarily characterized by impulsivity—yet despite this apparent contradiction, the two conditions seem to occur together more often than not. ADHD can influence the way Autistic traits are experienced, and the same is true for OCD, BPD, and any other disorder that can occur alongside autism.
How to Write an Autistic Meltdown
There are many different ways an Autistic meltdown can manifest. It’s not all screaming and getting violent (and it is not a tantrum). A meltdown can look (and feel) like a lot of different things, and the way a person experiences one can differ depending on the context around them. Different people will also experience meltdowns differently.
The following sections are some examples of some of the things your character might feel before, during, and after a meltdown. Not every person is going to experience each of these options, and each meltdown a person has can be different from their previous experiences.
The Buildup to the Meltdown
Before a meltdown happens, your character might be able to feel “warning signs” that a meltdown is coming. If they take the right steps to handle their situation, they might be able to prevent the meltdown before it happens. These steps usually involve getting somewhere safe and quiet, getting away from stressors, stimming, and doing something calming that they enjoy.
These warning signs can feel like:
- Increased heart rate
- Numb or tingly hands
- Shallow breathing
- Hypersensitivity (to sights, sounds, feelings, etc)
- Fight-or-flight response
- Inability to concentrate
- Inability to speak (“going nonverbal”)
Remember that not everyone is going to feel all of these warning signs. Pick and choose from this list to create a reaction that matches the scene and the character’s personality.
Also, keep in mind that sometimes a meltdown can happen with no warning, so your character may skip this step altogether if they get overwhelmed quickly.
What a Meltdown Feels Like
Meltdowns are often described from an outside perspective, so it can be difficult to know how to describe what it feels like if you’ve never had a meltdown yourself. Even if you have had a meltdown before, it can still be hard to put into words.
A meltdown happens when there is too much information (whether sensory or otherwise) for the brain to process. It is an intense and involuntary reaction, and once it starts, it cannot be stopped prematurely. Everything that a person feels during a meltdown is a result of their brain trying to sort through the mess of information it has been inundated with.
Here are some of the physical sensations that a person might feel during a meltdown:
- Noise sounding distant or garbled
- Other people’s speech being harder to understand
- Tense muscles
- Panic (a meltdown can be extremely frightening, especially if they don’t have them often)
- Sensory agony (every sound will feel like the loudest sound imaginable, every light will feel blindingly bright, etc)
- Loss of awareness
- Vision getting blurry
- Trouble breathing
However, there’s more to a meltdown than that. A description of the symptoms doesn’t describe the unique psychological experience of having a meltdown. Many Autistic people use metaphors to relate their experiences to neurotypicals, which is also a good tactic in writing. If you want to give readers a sense of what the character is going through while they are having a meltdown, comparing it to something of great magnitude can help to emphasize the depth of what they are feeling.
Here are some metaphors that are often used by Autistic people to describe what a meltdown feels like:
- A volcano. Heat and pressure build up beneath the surface before the volcano explodes violently, destroying everything in its path. It seems like it erupts without warning, but magma has been building up out of sight long before the actual eruption.
- A soda bottle. When you shake a bottle of soda, it gets fizzy. You know that if you keep shaking the bottle, the pressure will build up and it will explode. If you stop shaking the bottle and let it rest for some time, you will be able to open it without an explosion.
- TV static. When having a meltdown, everything can go numb. It’s harder to feel things in a meaningful way, and all senses just become confusing and painful. Often, limbs become tingly from hyperventilating, which contributes to the “staticky” feeling.
- A supernova. When a large star goes supernova, the center of it collapses and the star explodes, expanding rapidly and sending shockwaves through space on an incomprehensibly large scale. Except, a star has infinite space to expand, whereas a meltdown is confined within a body that often feels too small to contain that much energy.
- Being underwater. A meltdown can feel like you’ve been underwater your entire life and have just surfaced for the first time. Everything is louder, brighter, more grating, and feels indescribably different. However, other people use the opposite analogy: a meltdown can feel like being submerged underwater, where everything is dampened, you can’t understand what anyone says to you, and you feel the pressure of the water all around you.
- A computer running too many programs at once. When a computer tries to do too much at one time, it can overheat, freeze up, or crash. A hard reset (the meltdown) is often required to bring the computer back to the point where it can function normally again.
- A thunderstorm. When a thunderstorm is coming, you can often see the storm clouds moving in. You cannot stop the thunderstorm from forming, but you can get somewhere safe to weather the storm. You cannot do anything until the storm has passed. More intense weather systems can be used as analogies as well, such as hurricanes or tornados, to emphasize the scope of the meltdown.
- Possession. A meltdown can feel like you aren’t in control of anything that happens, like you’ve been possessed by a belligerent spirit that wants to hurt you and break all your stuff. You can watch the spirit pilot your body around, but you can’t do anything to stop it.
- “Trying to fit ten pounds of stuff in a five-pound bag.” Obviously, if you try to put too much stuff into a bag, the bag is going to break. The stimuli that trigger the meltdown can feel like “too much stuff” to fit inside a single person, and the meltdown is the inevitable break.
- A short circuit. An electronic device can short circuit if the electrical current within it is overloaded or diverted somewhere it shouldn’t be. Too much power or energy inside a system that wasn’t designed to handle it can result in destructive consequences.
- A sunburn. Think about the worst sunburn you’ve ever had—now imagine it worse than that. It hurts to be touched, it hurts to wear clothes, it hurts to move, and it hurts to be in the sun. It even hurts when the wind blows. Now imagine you have to wear the scratchiest sweater you own and do hard labor in the sun, while everyone keeps touching and prodding you.
- A cup of water. If you try to pour water into a cup that is already full, the water is going to overflow out of the cup and onto the table, the floor, the cat, etc. The cup cannot reasonably be expected to contain all of that water, and you make a huge mess.
Many of these analogies describe the process of something (usually something preventable) building up over time until a reaction is not only imminent but expected. Obviously, when you shake a bottle of soda, you know it’s going to explode. To prevent the explosion, you have to stop shaking the bottle. Likewise, most meltdowns can be avoided if the Autistic person is accommodated in a way that takes their individual needs into account—but this is often beyond the Autistic person’s control and dependent on other people in their surroundings.
What a Meltdown Looks Like
A meltdown is a reaction to stress, so it can end up looking a lot like a breakdown, a panic attack, or just regular old crying. To an outside observer, it might not be obvious that the character is experiencing a meltdown, or it could be a textbook example of what a meltdown looks like. As always, the reaction depends on the character’s personality and the situation that triggered them.
A person experiencing a meltdown may:
- Stim (hand flapping, rocking back and forth, and hitting things are common)
- Hurt themself (some stims can become harmful, such as beating on their legs, arms, or head, or pulling their own hair)
- Repeat the same word or phrase over and over again
- Curl up in a ball
- Run away
- Lash out at others (kicking, flailing, punching, biting, etc)
- Squeeze their eyes shut
- Cover their ears
- Cover their face
- Zone out
After the Meltdown
Usually, a meltdown ends when the Autistic person has exhausted all their energy. This can happen in ten minutes, or it could drag on for hours. At that point, however, the person transitions into a period of meltdown recovery.
Your character isn’t going to be able to bounce back from a meltdown right away. They’re going to have to recover emotionally (and often physically too) from the stress of the ordeal. Here are some things they may be feeling in the hours or days after their meltdown:
- Sore muscles
- Bruises or scratches
- Inability to speak (at all or in complete sentences)
- Feelings of guilt, shame, or frustration
- Excessive sleeping
- Loss of skills (temporary)
- Depressive symptoms
If the character can not take the time that they need to rest and recover from the meltdown, they could easily get overwhelmed again and trigger another meltdown. Depending on how bad their meltdown was, it may take them all week to get back to baseline.
How to Write a Nonverbal Autistic Character
Some Autistic people go their whole lives without ever saying a word. However, just because a person cannot speak does not mean that they cannot think.
Nonverbal does not mean “not understanding.” Your nonspeaking character should be able to understand and contemplate their surroundings, and they can help solve problems in the plot just like any other character in the story. They should be able to help the other characters achieve something they couldn’t do without them. Don’t be afraid of showing readers what the character is thinking, either with their behavior or by narrating their thoughts.
When writing a nonspeaking Autistic character, you need to rely on other methods of communicating their thoughts to readers. They shouldn’t be just a puppet or plot device in your story, and they shouldn’t just have other characters speaking on their behalf. Give them agency, and let them make their own choices.
There are many ways of letting your character communicate with other characters and your readers that don’t involve their voice, including:
- Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Devices
- Sign Language
- Gestures, Vocalizations, and Expressions
I go over each of these in-depth already in another article: How to Write a Mute/Nonspeaking Character. Check that out if you want to include a nonverbal (or semi-verbal) Autistic character in your story!
Autism and Intersectionality
Everyone seems to think that when your character has multiple overlapping identities, they are unrealistic. That’s bogus. Your character can be Black, Autistic, physically disabled, Pagan, and LGBTQ+ all at the same time. In fact, they’re more likely to have intersecting marginalized identities than not.
Autism (despite widespread misunderstanding) is just as likely to occur in males and females, and just as likely to occur in different races. Women and racial minorities are misdiagnosed more often than white men as a result of diagnostic bias and a difference in the way symptoms present, but that does not mean they are less likely to be Autistic.
Autism also has many known comorbidities, including neurological disorders like epilepsy and physical conditions like Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS). It also often presents with other conditions like ADHD, learning disorders, anger issues, PTSD, depression, OCD, dyslexia, anxiety, and others.
Interestingly, many studies have shown that Autistic people are far more likely than the global majority to be part of the LGBT community. Roughly 15-35% of Autistic people report being bisexual, gay, or lesbian, compared to 4.5% for the global population. Additionally, Autistic people are 2-3 times more likely to be transgender when compared to their allistic peers, and are far more likely to fall onto the nonbinary spectrum of identities. I myself identify as nonbinary and queer!
For help writing about nonbinary characters (or if you just want some explanation of what that entails), check out How to Create Nonbinary Characters!
Resources for Further Research
This article covers a lot of good information, but this should not be where your research ends. This topic is so broad I couldn’t reasonably cover everything in a single article. Even if I could, it’s much more valuable for you to learn from other Autistic adults about their personal experiences.
When doing research for writing an Autistic character, you have to be extremely careful about where you are getting your information from. There is a huge disparity between the clinical understanding of autism and the ways Actually Autistic people talk about autism. Always look for resources that are run by actual Autistic people. Who better to talk about autism than Autistic people themselves?
Here are some good resources to get you started:
- Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) is a nonprofit organization run by Autistic adults, and it can help you locate additional trusted sources for information.
- Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network (AWN) is a nonprofit organization with news, webinars, and other helpful resources to educate people on autism research and empower Autistic people of marginalized identities.
- Autistic Inclusive Meets (AIM) is a nonprofit organization created by Autistic adults to provide support and education to the general public to promote acceptance of Autistic individuals.
- Embrace Autism is another fantastic resource run by an Autistic psychotherapist, Dr. Natalie Engelbrecht, and Autistic psychology student (as of Dec. 2021) Martin Silvertant.
Aside from that, another great place to get information about autism is from Autistic individuals themselves. There are many incredible Autistic self-advocates on social media that provide insightful information about their lives as Autistic adults. Some of the accounts that come to mind (on Instagram) include:
You should never trust any information that comes from (or is in any way endorsed by) Autism Speaks (A$).
Autism Speaks is an extremely harmful for-profit organization that aims to spread fear and misinformation regarding autism, lobby for a “cure” that Autistic people don’t want, further stigmatize an already misunderstood disorder, and line their own pockets with profits they receive from donations. They have an outdated understanding of what autism even is, and almost everything they post is deliberately misleading. Additionally, some of the propaganda they have released in the past (like the “I am Autism” film) has been so damaging that the Autistic community has labeled Autism Speaks as a hate group.
Unfortunately, there are many more bad organizations like A$ than there are good ones, and it’s not always easy to tell if you can trust a resource that you’ve found. Here are some ways you can help determine if a website or resource is helpful or damaging:
|It’s a bad sign if…||It’s a good sign if…|
|It’s a “charity.”||It’s an “advocacy organization.”|
|There are few or no Autistic people involved in creating or curating the content.||It is run by Autistics or the content is created or curated by Autistic people.|
|It is catered to parents or family members of Autistic people.||It is catered to Autistic people and the general public for advocacy and educational purposes.|
|It uses puzzle piece imagery.||It uses rainbow or gold infinity loop imagery.|
|It uses person-first language.(ie: “has Autism,” “person with autism,” etc)||It uses identity-first language.|
(ie: “Autistics,” “Autistic person,” etc)
|It infantilizes Autistic people or only discusses children.||It is inclusive of Autistic people of all ages.|
|It uses outdated or harmful terminology.|
(ie: “Aspergers,” “restrictive interests,” “Suffering from autism,” etc)
|It uses the language of the Neurodiversity movement.|
(ie: “Neurodivergent,” “special interests,” “Autistic person,” etc)
|It mentions finding a “cure.”||It celebrates neurodiversity.|
|It makes autism seem like a tragedy.||It recognizes that autism comes with its own unique benefits and drawbacks, like any other kind of brain.|
To make things even easier for you, here are some “charities” and organizations you should avoid no matter what:
- Autism Speaks
- Autism Society
- The Autism Community in Action
- National Autistic Society
- National Autism Association
- Generation Rescue
- American Autism Association
- Autism Hope Alliance
- Autism Society of America
- Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD)
- NEXT for Autism
- SPARK for Autism
- The Autism Research Institute
- Center for Autism and the Developing Brain (CADB)
However, there are many, many, MANY more bad organizations than the ones I’ve listed here. Be informed, and use your best judgment to gauge whether to trust a resource or not.
Some Parting Thoughts for Writing Autistic Characters
If you are not Autistic, then you should take a moment to consider the story you want to tell with your Autistic characters. Do you want to tell a story about being Autistic? Do you want to tell a story about how difficult the character’s life is because of their autism, or how they find success despite being Autistic? You should reconsider.
These kinds of stories aren’t inherently bad, but there are plenty of Autistic writers who will be able to tell a story like that much more authentically than you would. After all, if you’re white, you wouldn’t tell a story about life as a Black man in America. You wouldn’t write a story about what it’s like to live in China if you’ve never been to China. Let Autistic people be the ones to tell stories about Autistic lives. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include Autistic characters in your story—just make their presence in the story about more than just their autism.
Also, get Autistic beta readers! They will be able to tell you if you’ve portrayed the character accurately better than anyone else.
Good luck, and write on!
Special thanks to my incredible friends for their support throughout the process of writing this article. I love you guys!