10 Autistic TV characters
When we think of autism in TV and film, only a handful of characters spring to mind. There are classics like Rain Man, and a handful of new-age geniuses like Dr. Shaun Murphy and Sheldon Cooper (who is ‘definitely not autistic’, or ‘crazy’ as he so kindly puts it). The trouble is, these characters use a cookie-cutter mould to stamp out the same tired portrayals time and time again: the white male, the savant, the maths genius, the train-lover. In fact, these stereotypes are so tired and played out, that often a character doesn’t need to be explicitly stated as autistic for us to know that they are, because the habits they exhibit are so deeply ingrained in the wider societal perception of autism. Love trains and hate using public toilets? Sorry Sheldon, we know you’re one of us.
Autistic people who share these behaviours and experiences absolutely do exist, and they absolutely deserve representation. However, there are plenty of us who do not fit this mould, who have never seen our autism reflected in the media we consume, and who even begin to question our autism (or have it questioned by others) because we ‘don’t look autistic’ in the same way people on TV do. So what do we do when we can’t find intentional representation? We make our own, of course.
What are Autistic-Coded Characters?
Coded characters- be it black-coded, LGBTQIA-coded, or autistic-coded- are characters that are never explicitly stated to belong to a certain group, but we can infer from their portrayal that they do. Sometimes this is fully intended by the creators, and sometimes it is not. In the case of the characters listed below, we see a range of people (and, um, bears) whose characteristics can be interpreted as autistic, or at least, have been interpreted as autistic by yours truly; people who I see myself in, or my siblings, or who exhibit some unnamed feeling or experience so perfectly that it sticks with me long after the film is done. This lengthy, opinionated essay is just that; my opinion. Please feel free to disagree.
So what are these autistic traits we’re on the lookout for? No two autistic people are the same, and it would be impossible to generate an exact specific formula for what makes a character autistic-coded. Broadly speaking, these characters all display a difficulty with socialising, differences in communication, unusual thought process, a strict adherence to structure and routine, a profound awareness of how they present to others, peer ostracisation, sensory differences and/or an atypical experience of empathy. So without further ado, here are ten autistic-coded TV and film characters.
Female Autistic Characters
- Beth Harmon (‘The Queen’s Gambit’)
- Anne Shirley-Cuthbert (‘Anne with an E’)
- Wednesday Addams (‘Wednesday’)
- Luna Lovegood (‘Harry Potter’)
Beth Harmon (‘The Queen’s Gambit’)
Beth Harmon is a young orphan girl in 1960s America, who grows up to become a world chess champion. Beth is portrayed as unusual right from the off; she is an awkward, sullen little girl, whose only real human connections are her friend Jolene, and the school’s aged caretaker Mr. Shaibel. After learning to play chess in the basement, she discovers that she has a flair for the game, and quickly surpasses all of the players in the area.
Chess soon comes to define Beth Harmon. She hyperfixates on it to an impressive degree, from zeroing in on her current game, to replaying previous games in her head as she lies awake at night. Having an interest which you prioritise to such an intense degree is a common autistic trait known as a ‘special interest’, and certainly describes Beth’s relationship with chess (and also fashion when she grows older). Autistic people often come to dominate a certain field in which they have a special interest; Beth’s world champion accolade is a striking (if extreme) example of this.
Chess can also be seen as a stereotypically autistic interest, revolving around logic and patterns. We see frequent displays of Beth’s thought process as she plays through her old chess games, moving imaginary pieces across her bedroom ceiling. This manner of thinking is unusual in how visual and flamboyant it is, and can perhaps be seen as a feature of autism.
Another autistic trait Beth displays, perhaps even more significant than her genius, is her difficulty with socialising. She struggles to connect with people her own age; her most meaningful relationships often develop with people much older than her (Shaibel, Alma), which is common for autistic children and teens. In school, she is bullied for her dated clothes and awkward manners, as well as her academic brilliance. There is one specific scene where Beth attends a social event with a group of popular girls (The Apple Pi’s). They giggle as they quiz her about chess, and Beth so clearly does not understand the social nuances of the situation. In the end, she steals a bottle of wine, and leaves early.
As she gets older, Beth comes to use sex as a crutch to bolster her friendships, the most significant being with Harry Beltik and Benny Watts. Many autistic teens and adults can fall into this habit; believe it or not, sexual relationships can often be far simpler to navigate than friendships. We can see throughout that Beth craves human connection in her own standoffish way; this comes out in moments like her elation when all her friends call to offer encouragement during the world championship, and her anguish upon realising how deeply Mr. Shaibel cared about her. In an interview with a reporter, Beth attributes her love of chess to how straightforward it is compared to the world around her: “It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it. And it’s predictable, so if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.”
A further, darker display of Beth’s autism is her drug and alcohol addiction. Unfortunately, many autistic people also suffer with mental health issues, which can sometimes manifest themselves in drug dependency. Beth’s addiction can perhaps be tied in with her debilitating perfectionism, another common autistic attribute; as she tells Jolene when contemplating going to the world championship in Russia, “I have to go. If I don’t, there’s nothing for me to do. I’ll just drink.” Both of these things could also be connected to Beth’s early childhood, and her abandonment when her mother kills herself. There is a significant crossover in the characteristics of autism and childhood trauma, and we can only speculate as to where Beth’s issues come from.
Beth Harmon is one of my favourite depictions of autism to date. Her portrayal digs so deeply into her wonderful, complicated mind, her unadulterated love of chess, her crippling self-doubt and criticism, and her daunting quest to form genuine human relationships. Her addiction and her portrayal as sexually desirable, whilst frequently leading to problems, lift her out of the common trap of infantilizing autistic people. Beth ends the series as a strong, capable, attractive woman, with a host of meaningful friendships, and a chess world championship under her snow-white belt.
Anne Shirley-Cuthbert (‘Anne with an E’)
Anne Shirley-Cuthbert is the much-beloved heroine of the classic children’s novel ‘Anne of Green Gables’. She is an orphan living in turn-of-the-century Canada, who is mistakenly adopted by siblings Matthew and Marilla, and who turns their quiet farm upside down with her lively antics.
In the Netflix adaptation ‘Anne with an E’, the titular character has some significant autistic traits. An obvious example is her difficulty understanding and accepting social conventions; from her row with Mrs Lynd to her school misdemeanours, Anne not only struggles to recognise the rules that govern her society, but often riles against them when she does. Much like Beth Harmon, Anne has survived a traumatic childhood, which could also have influenced her social conduct.
She is also a character with, in her words, ‘Big Ideas’, which often have Big Feelings to go with them. Anne’s emotions ebb and flow wildly throughout the series, going from extreme elation to the depths of despair in a matter of minutes, and she has no qualms about vocalising them to the people around her. Autistic people can often struggle to regulate and/or recognise their emotions; many of us live with a comorbid condition called ‘Alexithymia’, or ‘emotion-blindness’. Anne’s feelings often seem to be shunted into the extremes of ‘very good’ and ‘very bad’, and it is not until later in the series she begins to better understand and manage them. During her argument with Mrs. Lynd, before storming off outside, she exclaims: “I don’t care if I hurt your feelings by saying so. I hope I hurt them! Because you have hurt my feelings worse than they have ever been hurt before.” This, along with many other incidents, could perhaps be described as a meltdown.
Incidentally, this argument develops when Mrs. Lynd insults Anne’s looks, about which she is incredibly self-conscious. It is a long-held stereotype that autistic people don’t care about (or even notice) what they look like, but in fact personal style can be very important to us for a variety of reasons (sensory issues, social acceptance, low self-esteem). Anne’s ‘vanity’, as Marilla often describes it, comes up as a plot point time and time again; most notably when she accidentally dyes her hair green, and her eternal longing for puffed sleeves.
Fashion is very important to Anne, and, along with stories and Romanticism, can be described as a special interest. Her love of pretty clothes, tall tales and Big Words come up time and time again; she talks about them with great enthusiasm to anyone who will listen, and quickly engages most of her school friends in a love of stories. As well as having an extensive vocabulary, Anne has an unusual inflection to her voice; she speaks very quickly and enthusiastically, often jumping from topic to topic and confusing the people around her. This manner of speaking is not unusual for autistic people, especially when we get caught up in discussing our special interests.
Finally, Anne is an incredibly caring and empathetic person. The stereotype of autistic people lacking empathy is true of some people, but others can swing the other way, often being described as ‘hyper-empathetic’. Anne shows an extreme depth of kindness and understanding throughout the series, particularly to animals and other ‘outcasts’ like her, and is often cast as the champion of the downtrodden. In the words of the heroine herself: “Different isn’t bad; it’s just not the same.”
I find the character of Anne Shirley-Cuthbert to be truly, blindingly uplifting. Between our practical struggles and mental health issues, it can be very difficult to write an autistic character who is not dislikeable, or at the very least a victim. Anne is an orphan from a series of abusive homes, who encounters daily obstacles both at school and with her new family. She has every right to be a victim; and yet, she never is. In fact, more often than not Anne swoops in to save the day, frequently using her autistic traits and out-of-the-box thinking to find a solution where no one else can. She is an inspiration for everyone; but especially for those who are ‘different’.
Wednesday Addams (‘Wednesday’)
Wednesday is a Netflix spin-off series from the Addams Family, featuring the sullen teenage daughter as the titular character. Expelled from her mainstream school, Wednesday is sent to Nevermore school for ‘outcasts’, where she lands bright, cheerful Enid for a roommate.
Despite residing in a school for outcasts (which in the series means supernatural), Wednesday still manages to be ‘different’. She is solitary and insular, purposely secluding herself from her peers and only joining a social club when she is made to. She is academic and superior, not caring who she insults with her witticisms, and often uses her classmates and teachers as pawns to her own end. Some autistic people can be prone to ‘using’ others, and see them as tools or stepping stones to an end goal, perhaps due to pragmatism and/or atypical empathy skills . Wednesday is fully aware of her calculated manner, and doesn’t see anything wrong with it; as she tells [?], “I will ignore you, stomp on your heart, and always put my needs and interests first.” Part of Wednesday’s character arc is learning to overcome her manipulative nature in order to form meaningful relationships.
It’s not just friendship that pulls Wednesday out of her comfort zone. From the off, it is clear that public displays of affection make her very uncomfortable (albeit from her parents), and when Xavier and Tyler make their advances, she is totally at a loss for how to conduct a romantic relationship (“I’m not friend material, let alone more-than-friend material”). Personally, I think they missed an opportunity to make her queer and/or asexual; this would have been more in line with her autistic coding, as autistic people are less likely to fit into a heteronormative mould.
Perhaps linked to Wednesday’s standoffishness is her dislike of emotion, both others’ and her own. She tells her brother Pugsley that “emotion equals weakness”, and later in the series Enid says to her, “most people spend their entire lives pretending to give zero Fs, and you literally never had an F to give.” Like Anne, there is a chance that Wednesday may struggle with Alexithymia- a difficulty in understanding and managing your own emotions- which is a common condition among autistic people.
Another thing Wednesday and Anne have in common is their unusual manner of speaking; but unlike Anne, Wednesday’s voice is flat and dry. Speaking in a monotone voice is one of the more stereotypical autistic traits; in the Netflix series, it often conveys Wednesday’s lack of feeling, or is used for comedic effect.
Wednesday has a vast litany of skills and hobbies which she schedules rigidly into her day. She is militant about practising cello and writing her novel, and tells Enid that if she [quote about blog]. Her diligent upkeep of her skills adheres to the autistic need for structure and routine, and her single-minded pursuit of them could be described as hyperfocus.
Finally, we are well aware that Wednesday is ‘not a hugger’; and perhaps this comes down to more than just her dislike of emotion. Autistic people have a vast array of sensory differences, and many of us are uncomfortable with physical touch, especially from strangers. The possibility that Wednesday has sensory processing issues is backed up by her wearing of a special uniform; while it is likely this was done in order to make her stand out (she wears black and grey while everyone else wears black and purple), it is still reminiscent of the autistic need to wear special or moderated clothing. Wednesday’s gothic aesthetic is clearly very important to her; and in fact, personal style is often sacred to autistic people for a great number of reasons (sensory needs, self-consciousness and social credit being but a few).
There’s no doubt about it; Wednesday Addams is an icon. With her chic, vintage style and unwavering self-confidence (backed up by her fighting skills), she is the strong female protagonist that is so often sought after in teen fiction. Not only is she taken seriously in spite of her autistic traits, but they are often vital to advancing the plot, such as her oddly-specific knowledge and intense focus on the central mystery. Whilst Wednesday does come to moderate some of her autistic tendencies- such as learning to appreciate and accept help from her classmates- this also goes the other way, for example Enid coming to respect her personal space, and stating that “not hugging is kind of [their] thing”. This mirrors the compromise that autistic people and their loved ones so often have to make, finding a middle ground between ways of living.
Luna Lovegood (‘Harry Potter’)
Luna Lovegood appears in the fifth Harry Potter film (‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’), and quickly established herself as a sweet, eccentric oddball. Despite being something of a loner, she becomes integrated into the main cast of witches and wizards, and becomes a key asset in the fight against the infamous Voldemort.
From the off, Luna is established as a social outcast, even in a world where being ‘quirky’ is the norm. Hermione accidentally introduces her to Harry as ‘Loony Lovegood’- a nickname which seems to be well-used by the other students- and is regularly framed sitting and walking alone. She seems not to mind her treatment by the other students, but rather views it as a simple fact of life, and is positive and polite towards them in a way that is almost naive. Autistic people can often be overly-forgiving to those around them, and have difficulty seeing malicious intent if it is not laid out on the surface. When the opportunity to connect with others presents itself, Luna is always happy to take it, whilst still having the self-esteem to just enjoy her own company. As she says when Dumbledore’s Army is disbanded, “I enjoyed the meetings, too. It was like having friends.”
Luna’s manner of speaking is, from her very first lines, direct and unnerving. She ignores social conventions, or else narrates them out loud in a manner that suggests they are learned to her, rather than instinctive (“Harry doesn’t want to talk to us right now; he’s just too polite to say so”). This can alienate others and make them uncomfortable, as is often the case for autistic people. Like Anne and Wednesday, Luna also has an unusual affect to her voice; her tone is soft and far-away, adding to her ethereal quality and making her seem as though she is ‘not all there’. Incidentally, there is regular allusion to Luna being ‘mad’, which is often used as an umbrella term for people who are mentally ill, have a learning disability, or a neurological difference like autism. Upon seeing the thestrals, Luna tells Harry, “Don’t worry; you’re just as sane as I am.” This unnerves the young protagonist, since everyone knows that Luna is, in fact, ‘mad’.
Sane or not, Luna is certainly clever. Her house is Ravenclaw, which is renowned for wisdom, and Luna’s particular brand of supernatural insight seems to contrast with Hermione’s rigid book-learning. Despite the stereotype that autistic people cannot read others, some of us can pick up on very subtle emotions by paying close attention to the details of an individual. When Luna tells Harry, “I’ve interrupted a deep thought, haven’t I? I can see it growing smaller in your eyes,” it not only bolsters her depiction as autistic, but adds to her mystical, unsettling aura.
One thing that makes Luna stand out even before her personality hits you is her appearance. She has long blonde hair reminiscent of an angel or fairy, light, open features, and a dress sense that can only be described as chaotic. One of her most notable fashion moments is when she shows up in the Great Hall wearing an enormous lion headdress, ready to support Gryffindor in the upcoming quidditch match. Her vibrant fashion sense could perhaps denote someone who is sensory-seeking, and derives extreme joy from bright, loud colours and fabrics.
Luna Lovegood is a universally beloved character, and I believe that her autistic traits are key to her likeability. Her honesty and open-mindedness, her loyalty and individualism, her wise words and quirky style, can all be linked back to neurodivergence. Luna does end up with a litany of true, devoted friends within Hogwarts, and has something of a cult following within the Harry Potter fanbase. When we so often see the archetype of an autistic person who is cold and difficult, it is truly refreshing to encounter a character who is adored not in spite of their autism, but because of it.
Male Autistic Characters
- Charlie (‘The Perks of being a Wallflower’)
- Newt Scamander (‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’)
- Alan Turing (‘The Imitation Game’)
Charlie (‘The Perks of being a Wallflower’)
Charlie Kelmeckis is an American teenage boy, who writes about his school experience in his letters to a stranger. He is re-joining the school system after taking some time off to deal with his mental health issues, which- unbeknownst to us at first- stem from sexual abuse and his best friend’s suicide. Charlie makes friends with a collection of misfits in their final year, the titular wallflowers, and through them begins to heal and ‘participate’ in real life.
Charlie’s unpopular status is quite literally woven into the title of the film. On his first day, nobody talks to him at all save to mock him, and he says to his teacher Mr. Andersen, “if my English teacher is the only friend I make today, that would be sorta depressing.” Even when he is integrated into a social group, his behaviour is heralded as strange and awkward, and he is later ostracised by them for committing a social faux pas (being dared to kiss the prettiest girl in the room, and choosing his secret crush Sam rather than his ‘girlfriend’ Mary-Elizabeth). Charlie is aware of his ‘weirdness’, and regularly wishes he could better relate to his peers, especially when it comes to confessing his love for Sam.
Charlie’s manner of communication sways between him being painfully truthful and direct, and saying nothing at all. This can be typical of an autistic person trying- and failing- to navigate complex social nuances which they don’t understand. He verbalises inner thoughts which should not really be shared- especially when his friends introduce him to drugs and alcohol- and the plot device used to tell the story, Charlie’s letters, showcases how he is more comfortable and eloquent expressing his feelings in writing. For example, after insulting Mary-Elizabeth about her buzz cut, he says, “I’m really sorry, that sounded like a compliment in my head.”
The connections Charlie ends up forging with his friends are deep and intense, which is often the way for autistic people. They are several years older than him- autistic people are prone to making friends who are much older or much younger, since we put more stock in shared interests than mutual age- and he clings to them with a ferocity that can make them uncomfortable at times. When the group rejects him, his mental health spirals, demonstrating just how much of his self-worth is tied up in his friendships. This is reminiscent of a condition many autistic people have called Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD), whereby any rejection, no matter how small, can feel like the end of the world. Charlie is a wallflower, a people-watcher, as many of us autists are, and consequently his lack of proactiveness can negatively affect his relationships. As Sam tells him: “you can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love.”
In addition to RSD, Charlie has a host of complex mental health issues. As with Beth and Anne, his case presents a crossover between autistic traits and childhood trauma, and in fact the story makes it clear how vehemently the trauma has affected him. However, his mental health issues still help contribute to the picture of autism, as a good number of autistic people also experience comorbid mental health conditions. Later in the film, Charlie dissociates from his real life, which is a subconscious coping mechanism for dealing with trauma. Not only is this something many autistic people do, but it is also reminiscent of Alexithymia. Charlie acknowledges a lack of understanding of his own thoughts and feelings throughout, such as when he says “I am both happy and sad, and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.” Despite-or perhaps because of- this, he is very interested in picking apart his own psychology, especially the extent to which he feels present in any given moment (“you’re not a sad story; you are alive”). In some ways, this intense self-analysis mirrors what it is like to get an autism diagnosis as an adult, and have to review your entire life through a brand-new lens.
I find Charlie’s desperate longing for human connection to be heartbreakingly relatable. Whilst some autistic people are content living solo, a lot of us- a lot of us- are in fact desperate for friendship, love, or even a little understanding, but have absolutely no idea how to go about it. Watching him blunder his way through making friends is something I’m sure many autistic people can empathise with, that in-hindsight feeling of why on earth did I say that??? Despite this, his friends- having friends- means everything to him, and he is so enormously, selflessly empathetic towards them, even if they don’t always see it. Put simply, Charlie is a good person; and we all like to see ourselves reflected in good people.
Newt Scamander (‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’)
Newt Scamander is a Wizard within the Harry Potter universe (albeit living well before Harry Potter’s time), whose vocation is the study and preservation of rare magical creatures. He travels to America to return Frank the thunderbird to its natural habitat, and engages in a series of magical antics in 1920s New York.
Newt is a notably introverted character. Preferring the company of his suitcaseful of creatures, he seems less interested in human connections than some of the previously mentioned characters. He tells Jacob that he “annoy[s] people”, but doesn’t seem particularly bothered by his lack of popularity. This is in keeping with the stereotype that autistic people keep to themselves, and perhaps indicative how autism typically presents in boys, men and people who are raised male. That being said, Newt does make friends with Jacob and Queenie, and pursues a romantic relationship with Tina (in dazzlingly awkward fashion). In the second film ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’, Newt takes a stab at romance by comparing Tina’s eyes to that of a salamander, to which Jacob warns him, “don’t say that.”
There is perhaps a crossover between Newt’s odd mannerisms and his ‘Britishness’, especially to a non-British audience. His use of conventional niceties even when it’s inappropriate (for example, telling Tina she’s got mustard on her face when she’s arresting him) could be perceived as an autistic person misusing learned behaviour, or of cliched British niceties. Of course, it could always be both.
A feature which perhaps adds to Newt’s awkwardness is his unusual posture; he holds his head at a slight tilt, and seems to avoid eye contact for the most part. Whilst many autistic people are capable of eye contact, we can find it intense and uncomfortable, and be unsure when to meet someone’s gaze, and when to look away. He can also appear somewhat dishevelled, doesn’t appear to have many personal care items in his fake ‘muggle’ suitcase, and when instructed by Tina, cannot produce the correct travel papers. All of this suggests a level of executive dysfunction- a difficulty in planning and carrying out tasks- which bolsters his depiction as autistic.
One of Newt’s most prevalent autistic traits- and a potential source of his executive dysfunction- is his passion for his creatures. The fantastic beasts for which the franchise is named are the centre of Newt’s world, and his sole purpose for being in America. He breaks the law for them, risks others’ and his own personal safety for them, and generally prioritises them above all else. Newt’s creatures can certainly be described as a special interest, and his empathy with animals and magical beasts above his fellow humans is very much in keeping with the autistic archetype.
The character of Newt Scamander is refreshingly resolute and selfless. His strong, unwavering convictions are indicative of the autistic sense of black-and-white morality, and it is good to see an autistic trait being showcased in such a positive manner. Newt is a champion of the downtrodden, both of voiceless, vulnerable creatures, and misunderstood human beings. He may be awkward and insular, but his layers hide a heart of gold.
Alan Turing (‘The Imitation Game’)
Alan Turing is our only autistic-coded character to be based on a real person. He was (among other things) a British mathematician, who made enormous strides towards victory during World War II by cracking the Enigma Code. The film ‘The Imitation Game’ focuses on his time in Bletchley Park, his work for the war effort and his relationships with his co-workers.
Turing is arguably the most blatant (or stereotypical) portrayal of autism on this list, so much so that I would argue that it was intended for him to be read this way. His character can be described as a ‘savant’, a rare sub-category of autistic people who have some sort of astounding ability or talent. He has a special interest in numbers, patterns and computing- showcased not only in his war work but through the flashbacks to his school years- and regularly hyperfocuses on tasks related to these things. The epitome of the autistic stereotype, Turing is logic-minded to the exclusion of all else, which can both help and hinder him depending on the situation. For example, his task to break the Enigma Code relies heavily on his logical thinking; but it can also cause friction with those around him, for example when he will not consider calling off the attack on the HMS Carlisle and saving the life of Hilton’s brother, who then accuses him of ‘playing God’.
For most of his career at Bletchley Park, Turning has a strained relationship with his co-workers. He is blunt and introverted, preferring the ‘company’ of his computer (which he calls Christopher after his deceased friend) to the humans around him. His literal thinking can also land him in trouble; for example, when John Cairncross, angry that his invitation has been ignored, says, “I had asked, if you wanted to come have lunch with us”, to which Turing replies, “No, you didn’t, you said you were going to get some lunch.” This type of misunderstanding is common between autistic and neurotypical people, who have different preferred ways of communicating, and can cause strain in all areas of life (including the workplace). Turning is not completely without desire for human connection, though. His deep attachment to his school friend Christopher showcases how strongly he can bond with others, and in a brief argument in his home, Joan tells him, “I’m sorry that you’re lonely.”
Turing is also shown to have been ostracised during his school years. In the flashback scenes, we see cases of vicious bullying from his classmates, and examples of the ‘odd’ behaviour which often prompts this. One example is his separating of food on a plate, and his distress when the food becomes mixed up; categorisation of food (and other things) is often very important to autistic people, for reasons relating to structure and/or sensory issues. Autistic children often become more flexible with food as they get older (though not always).
Despite being surrounded by other mathematicians (and despite his marriage to Joan), one of Turing’s most significant relationships is with his computer Christopher. One explanation for this could be Turing’s childhood friend of the same name, who died suddenly during school and with whom he was very close. However, his ‘relationship’ with the machine could also be attributed to the autistic tendency to anthropomorphize animals and inanimate objects, projecting thoughts, feelings and personality traits onto non-human things. Autistic people can often find it easier to empathise with animals and objects than with other people.
Another significant element of Turing’s character- and indeed of the story as a whole- is his homosexuality. He proposes to and marries his co-worker Joan, despite his extreme awkwardness around her, and despite knowing he is gay, in part to cover this up and keep himself on the ‘right’ side of the law. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967, and when Alan’s sexual preferences are found out, he is forced to undergo chemical castration. In the present day, there is a correlation between autistic people and people who identify as LGBTQ+; although this may not be relevant in this case, as it is largely attributed to autistic people being less troubled by the stigma of being gay, which Turing obviously (and justifiably) is.
Today, Alan Turing is celebrated as a war hero. He was instrumental to British Victory in WWII, and his work in the fields of maths and computer science saved thousands of lives; however, he was systematically and brutally victimised in his own time. Whilst the most egregious transgressions against him are related to his homosexuality, the microaggressions he experiences throughout ‘The Imitation Game’ can frequently be linked to his autistic traits. Alan is an inspiring and poignant example of how autistic people can do astounding things for those around them, no matter what is done to them.
Autistic Cartoon Characters
- Elsa (‘Frozen’)
- The Belcher Children (‘Bob’s Burgers’)
- Paddington (‘Paddington’)
Elsa is a Disney princess- or, more accurately, queen- who rules over the mythical kingdom of Arandelle, and has the supernatural ability to turn things to ice. She is a sympathetic re-imagining of the traditional Snow Queen character, who, throughout the course of the film, comes to explore her powers and her own character, and repairs the strained relationship between herself and her sister Anna.
From my first viewing back in 2013, it struck me how refreshingly unfriendly Elsa is for a Disney princess. Her hidden powers and childhood isolation impair her socially, which in turn makes her standoffish and, in my case, hugely relatable. Worrying about a party and snapping at family members because of that anxiety is something many autistic people will be able to relate to; and, if that’s not enough, her dire charades performance in the second film really seals the deal. Elsa is the queen of social awkwardness, which I was thrilled to see in the main character of a Disney film.
Unlike some of the other characters here, Elsa is perhaps less of an autistic-coded character, and more of an allegory for living as an autistic person. For example, her ice powers can be viewed as a metaphor for sensory issues; it means she has to be very careful what she touches, and often holds herself and moves in a sort of cringing, uncomfortable way. Autistic people can be hypersensitive and/or hyposensitive to sensory input; so for some of us, the phrase “the cold never bothered me anyway” can be quite literal.
Perhaps the biggest connection between Elsa and autism is the idea of having a ‘Big Secret’. These days, more and more autistic people are receiving a diagnosis (or perhaps just realising their autism) as adults; meaning they have spent their entire childhoods knowing they were different, perhaps believing that there was something ‘wrong’ with them, but not knowing exactly what. As a supernatural being, Elsa has a sense of ‘otherness’ that isolates her from other people, and comes to underpin her social anxiety and low self-esteem (in this case hugely exacerbated by her parents’ poor handling of the situation). Elsa has been interpreted by many viewers as having mental health issues, or perhaps representing the experience of those who do. Conditions like depression, anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are often comorbid with autism, and bolster her portrayal of an autistic person’s struggles.
On the other hand, ‘Frozen II’ moves away from Elsa’s problems, and focuses more on her strengths. A key plot point in this film is the journey of self-discovery she embarks upon, both literally and physically, travelling to Ahtohallan and discovering that her mother had magical powers like her, and belonged to a tribe of indigenous people. Discovering this truth about her heritage, Elsa learns to be at peace with herself and her ‘otherness’, coming to regard it as something to celebrate. This mirrors the emotional journey that many late-diagnosed people take- or at least try to- when coming to terms with being autistic and, therefore, disabled. Whilst it comes with many difficulties, being autistic can also be a major asset if it is accommodated well; and learning to view it in a positive light is a journey just as ambitious as riding an ice horse to a magical glacier.
Elsa is a literal ice queen, beloved and imitated by seven-year-olds all over the world; and yet she is also an anxious, crotchety hot-head, who struggles throughout both films with her sense of self-worth. Her struggles can be interpreted as a variety of disabilities and mental health conditions, and therefore she can be taken as a positive role model by multiple communities. I love how complex a character we are presented with, and I truly believe that the journey of self-discovery on which Elsa embarks is more engaging than any number of eternal winters and rock trolls and irritating talking snowmen (sorry Olaf). The song ‘Show Yourself’ brings a tear to my eye every time; it is the perfect summary of the autistic struggle to convince yourself that you are enough.
The Belcher Children (‘Bob’s Burgers’)
Tina, Gene and Louise Belcher (aged 13, 11 and 9) are three siblings whose father owns a burger restaurant in New Jersey. Their antics in and around the restaurant provide many of the plots and subplots of the series.
It is a widely-held belief that all of the Belcher children (among other characters) are neurodivergent. Tina being autistic is used as a joke in the very first episode, as autism often is when creators don’t quite want to commit to a legitimised portrayal. They all experience social and communication differences in their own way: Tina is awkward and anxious, Louise is loud, dominating and excitable, and Gene fluctuates between the two. Tina is hugely preoccupied with navigating her romantic relationships, namely her infatuation with Jimmy Jr. On her part, this connection is powerful and intense, despite Jimmy Jr being utterly oblivious to her feelings most of the time (Tina: “I’ve logged over 3,000 fantasy hours on my relationship with Jimmy Jr”). Whilst this is normal for a teenager, difficulty and confusion around romance (and even friendship) is something many teenage adolescents hugely struggle with. Gene is impressionable and naive, often seeming far younger than he is, and displaying significant emotional dependence on his mother Linda. On the other end of the spectrum, Louise is manipulative and often uses others to further her own agenda. Despite their contrasts, these traits can all be typical of autistic people, sometimes even of one autistic person at different times.
All of the children have idiosyncrasies regarding structure and routine. In one episode, Gene becomes incredibly anxious about sleeping over at his friend’s house, because he will be staying with different people in a different environment. Louse wears the same pink hat all day every day, even in situations where it could be considered inappropriate. This could be considered a structural thing, and/or a sensory processing thing; in fact many autistic people wear the same item of clothing over and over again, regardless of the weather, activity or social setting . Moreover, the design of the hat is very cartoon and ‘kawaii’, a style often sought after by autistic people for its simple expressiveness. Most of the Belcher children’s spare time is spent working in the restaurant, which provides them with a very predictable routine (well, it would were it not a TV series).
The Belcher kids have varying academic abilities, and give very different performances at school. Tina is studious and has meaningful relationships with the school staff, such as the guidance counsellor Mr. Frond. Gene states that he is “not good at sports, [and] not good at school”, whilst Louise is clearly very clever, but runs into trouble in school because of her stubbornness. Autistic children can thrive or struggle in school just as neurotypical children do (though often for very different reasons), which the Belcher children display perfectly. In addition to this, they all display a strong moral compass; even Louise, who can often be perceived as ‘naughty’ and manipulative, still has an unshakeable sense of what is right and wrong. Having a defined, black-and-white sense of morality is a trait which the majority of autistic people have in common.
I really enjoy how well the Belcher children illustrate the ‘spectrum’ element of autism. They each display a distinct character and personality, showcasing different relationships with friends, school, their parents and each other, whilst all maintaining a handful of core autistic traits. They are all also very easy to like and relate to in their own ways: Tina’s introspectiveness and depth of thought, Gene’s warmth and affectionate nature, Louise’s cunning and sense of humour. The Belcher children provide us with a range of characters as diverse as any neurotypical cast, both upholding and defying a host of long-held stereotypes about autism.
Paddington Brown is a brown bear who emigrates to London from Darkest Peru. He is taken in by the Brown family, and his adjustments to London life generate havoc for himself and those around him, from museum break-ins to prison sentences to train chases.
Like Elsa, I do not so much regard Paddington as actually autistic, but more emblematic of the autistic experience. There is a lot of crossover between the ‘weirdness’ of an autistic person, and the idiosyncrasies of a person living in a foreign land, with different rules and societal norms. In fact, there is a particular phenomenon of autistic people moving abroad specifically to disguise their behaviours, which might then be perceived as ‘foreign’ instead of autistic. Paddington’s status as an immigrant, and the way he experiences his surroundings through this, is key to the plot of both the first and second film.
For one thing, his speech is often made up of learned phrases specific to London (or English) society. Things like ‘really chucking it down’ and “a real brolly-buster” are practised by Paddington and Aunt Lucy like they are learning a foreign language, and he often whips them out to fill a lull in the conversation. This mirrors the autistic trait of using learned ‘scripts’ to carry out an interaction.
By contrast to many of the other characters on this list, Paddington is very social, and will go out of his way to speak to others even when he perhaps should not (e.g. for safety reasons). He is very naive, and always thinks the best of people, no matter their situation; such as his fellow prison inmates in Paddington 2, which ultimately helps him to escape. As Mr. Brown says, “he looks for the good in all of us.” Contrary to the stereotype, many autistic people love to socialise, even if we don’t always grasp neurotypical social conventions. The propensity to see the good in others- or at least not consider ulterior motives- is also typical of autistic people, and can have both positive and negative consequences in the real world (as is often the case for Paddington).
In addition to this, Paddington also has a tendency to interpret things in a very literal way. This could relate to English being his second language (after ‘Bear’), but it is also a common autistic trait. We see an example of this in the second film; Paddington is struggling to carry multiple sacks of oranges, so Knuckles tells him to take them one at a time, whereupon Paddington starts to transport each orange individually. Knuckles then becomes angry over Paddington’s literal-mindedness, which, unfortunately, is a reaction autistic people often face. In this scene we are also shown an example of Paddinton’s strong moral compass; when Knuckles insults Aunt Lucy, he squares up to the convict and gives him a ‘hard stare’, despite Knuckles being far bigger and tougher than him. As discussed with previous characters, firm convictions and clear-cut ethics is a trait which most autistic people share.
It’s safe to say that Paddington is more than a little obsessed with London, as is Aunt Lucy; the entire plot of the second film revolves around Paddington wanting to gift her a London-themed pop-up book. There is certainly an argument that London is Paddington’s special interest. Finally, Paddington is famous for always carrying a marmalade sandwich in his hat. This could be interpreted both as the autistic tendency to carry around everything you could possibly need in order to always be prepared (“a wise bear always keeps a marmalade sandwich in his hat, in case of emergency”); or possibly as a ‘safe food’, which autistic people gravitate towards on days where their sensory issues are particularly prevalent. We often bring safe foods with us when going to a restaurant, to a friend’s house, or just out in general, in case there are no acceptable options available to us.
Paddington has been a much-loved children’s character for over sixty years, and has long since been a symbol for Britain’s immigrant population. With such a strong crossover between the way autistic people present, and the way a person comes across in a foreign land (an apt metaphor), it’s fascinating to see how well Paddington’s experience matches up with that of an autistic person. I love how positive a portrayal this provides us with; Paddington is kind and courageous, creative and open-minded, and has been a comfort to both children and adults for over half a century. In the words of the bear himself: “I’ll never be like other people, but that’s alright.”
Autistic-coded characters in TV Shows and Films – Conclusion
Autism is a complicated condition, and no two autistic people are ever the same. Whilst there are a collection of core traits that we all share in one way or another, our experiences of these can range from being hyper to hyposensitive, having no empathy to having too much, being non-vocal or never knowing when to stop talking, and so on. What I love about these characters is how different they all are; from Louise Belcher to Alan Turing, they are every bit as diverse, well-rounded, and three-dimensional a group as you would encounter among the neurotypical population. Moreover, there is something to like, or relate to, or be inspired by in every single one of them. I watch these characters navigating their lives, displaying qualities and facing challenges that are deeply familiar to me, and it makes me feel seen and validated in a way that Rain Man never could. Autistic people are just people; and we deserve representation as much as anyone.