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Anna Zoe Quirke on the importance of authentic autism representation in books

Anna Zoe Quirke on the importance of authentic autism representation in books

When I was growing up, there wasn’t really any accurate autism representation out there in books, films or on TV. All we had were characters like Sheldon Cooper, Sherlock, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, or even Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man.

There are some very clear similarities between these characters. All are white men, savant-like in some way, logical often to the point of irrationality, and mostly uncomfortable in social situations. And sure, maybe there are autistic people out there like the characters above (and their experiences are entirely valid) but they exist very much in the minority.

The way lots of autistic people are presented in the media even to this day results from research that was done decades ago, including research done by Hans Asperger, a scientist working under the Nazi regime. So, again, while it’s important not to invalidate people that do fit the descriptions above, it’s also important to recognise the problematic roots of the narrow criteria that’s still so prevalent.

We know now that autism is far less black and white than it was initially presented. There’s a reason we call it the autistic spectrum, not because it’s a spectrum with ‘very autistic’ and ‘not autistic at all’ at opposite ends, but because it is a vast sphere of traits and experiences and there are as many ways to ‘be autistic’ as there are autistic people.

But this isn’t something I realised for a very long time. I grew up with the characters I mentioned above being my only introduction to autism – characters who I shared very few similarities to – and so when it was first suggested that I might be autistic while I was in hospital when I was fifteen, both my family and I vehemently disagreed that that was the case. It wasn’t until I was eighteen and came across autistic women and non-binary people online talking about their experiences that I started to consider the possibility that maybe I was autistic after all.

Had I had access to authentic autism representation earlier on, I would likely have been saved a lot of pain. I struggled with my mental health immensely as a teenager. I knew that I was different in some way to my peers, but I didn’t have the language to explain that dissonance. And so, instead, I constantly felt like I was failing a test everyone else had already been given the answers to, and I started trying to gain a sense of control over my life in really unhealthy ways.

This was partly what inspired me to write the character of Imogen Quinn in my book, Something to be Proud Of. Imogen is bold, passionate, deeply empathetic, has a very strong intrinsic sense of justice, she’s funny, loving, and she knows she deserves to be celebrated for who she is. She fights stereotypes of autism, not just through her very existence, but via the medium of her stand-up comedy routines in the book, where instead of making herself the butt of the joke, she turns the lens onto her mostly neurotypical audiences and makes them see the ways their rules and behaviour could be considered bizarre and rigid.

Imogen is also bisexual and doesn’t really identify with gender much as a concept – they would describe their existence as queer in lots of senses. This echoes much of the autistic community’s experiences. Neurodivergent people are much more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ than our neurotypical peers, and there are lots of other intersections between marginalised identities and neurodivergence that we rarely see depicted in books or on screen.

We’ve seen time and time again that autism representation and the way autism is discussed in the media really does affect the way autistic people are treated in society, how autistic people see themselves, and also who is able to access a diagnosis of autism. It’s the same for lots of marginalised identities – often we’re the people who need to escape into other worlds the most, but unfortunately we don’t always get the opportunity to escape into worlds with characters that make us feel seen.

Imogen and Something to be Proud Of – I really hope – will add to the growing body of autism representation in books where autistic people are presented as entire, nuanced people not defined by their autism necessarily, but certainly not ashamed of it. Imogen accepts themselves for all that they are – they happen to be bisexual and autistic, so they accept and celebrate themselves for those parts too.

I didn’t get to do that when I was their age. But hopefully, as representation for neurodivergent people continues to improve in the media, more and more young people will.

Something To Be Proud Of is out in paperback now

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