Psychology for Writers: Autism Spectrum Disorder

If you’ve got a character who has autism then you’ve just set yourself a challenge, but a challenge that has some of the greatest flexibility when it comes to character development of all the psychiatric diagnosis. How? People with autism face some significant challenges, particularly in the social and emotional areas of life (which is a large part of any novel). On the other hand, autism is called Autism Spectrum Disorder for a reason – its characteristics vary greatly from person to person. This means the character blooming in your head has the potential to be unique and memorable, you just need to make sure they’re authentic and realistic.

So what are the characteristics of people with autism? Let’s have a look.

Communication Difficulties

The changes that occur in the brain of someone with autism means they have difficulty with the nonverbal social cues that make up social communication. This includes exhibiting them themselves – they may not make eye contact or cry when they’re sad, or sensing the cues of others – they may be overly talkative and not notice when the other person has lost interest. They may not register differences in tone and therefore misunderstand a person’s meaning, like in the case of sarcasm or jokes. This means they can process statements quite literally – sayings such as ‘looks can kill’, ‘I caught his eye’ or ‘if I have one more mouthful I’ll burst’ can be quite disturbing if processed literally.

Others can demonstrate what is labelled ‘echolalia’ – repeated verbalisation of words or phrases. This can happen immediately after hearing a phrase ‘Shall we have lunch?’ – ‘Shall we have lunch’ or reciting passages from books or movies. On the far end of the autism spectrum people can be non-verbal. They need to be taught to speak, but do so only in very structured, needs-driven contexts e.g. asking for food.

Social Interaction Difficulties

These difficulties in communication can lead to difficulties in the social world. Because they lack awareness of social cues, people with autism may barge into others conversations or talk exclusively about their own interests, whilst others are highly introverted and difficult to engage, meaning they present as distant and aloof. Scientists believe people with autism have difficulty with a concept called ‘theory of mind’ – the ability to attribute mental states such as feelings or beliefs, to oneself and others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own. This means their world can be a lonely one, because they still wish for friends and connections, but have difficulty making them and keeping them.

Sensory Issues

Children and adults with autism may have a dysfunctional sensory system. Sometimes one or more senses are either over- or under-reactive to stimulation. Too much sensory information can be distressing (I knew one boy who would insta-vomit if he got a whiff of cucumber or watermelon), whereas too little can leave individuals without enough information to understand the world around them. It can make the world a very overwhelming or underwhelming place to be and can be the underlying reason for behaviours as rocking, spinning, and hand-flapping.

The Need for Sameness

A driving need for sameness is a core feature of autism, characterized by compulsive sticking to routine, and stereotyped, repetitive behaviours. This preference for sameness is typically accompanied by considerable distress when anything deviates from the usual morning routine, if a Thomas the Tank Engine character falls out of line or if someone replies in a way they weren’t expecting. Many individuals on the autism spectrum also exhibit some form of repetitive motor behaviour. Just as they may speak a word or phrase over and over again, they may flap their hands, flick their fingers, bang their heads, or endlessly perform other seemingly random physical acts. This need for sameness makes it hard for individuals with autism to adjust to change – or as we like to call it, life.

Fixated Interests

People with autism spectrum disorder tend to develop highly specialised interests which can tend towards obsessive. Sometimes these will be talents in art or music or mathematics, but other times these interests are more eccentric. I’ve worked with children that could name every Thomas the Tank Engine character (almost 70 I believe) on sight, whilst another could list dinosaurs and their biology like he had a doctorate in palaeontology. I’ve heard of one individual who liked to collect the engine number of all red BMW sports cars. In some cases these will present as savant abilities (profound and prodigious capacities or abilities far in excess of what would be considered normal), but only a small percent of cases (see myths below).

All of these qualities make up the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder. These are all the challenges a person with autism has to face, as do the people that love them, live with them, teach them and marry them (as is the case in Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project – great book BTW). But you can also see that all these characteristics could make for a unique, complex character that acknowledges and celebrates the diversity of millions of people that live with autism every day.

What do you think? Does this reflect the people with autism you’ve seen in the media, or the people that you know? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.

Have a wonderful week,

Tamar

Myth: Autism is caused by bad parenting. 
Truth: In the 1950s, a theory called the “refrigerator mother hypothesis” arose suggesting that autism was caused by mothers who lacked emotional warmth. This has long been disproved, but a lot of mothers still copped the blame.

Myth: The measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism.
Truth: To date, no scientific studies have established a causative link between vaccination and autism. Studies conducted by researchers in the United States, United Kingdom, Europe, and Japan have failed to establish any causative link between vaccinations and autism.

Myth: All people with autism are savants.

Truth: The media image of people with autism is that of Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man and his skills in card counting, but the reality is that the estimated prevalence of savant abilities in autism is 10%. Admittedly, it’s higher than the non-autistic population, which is less than 1%, but this is where the ‘spectrum’ part of autism is comes in – individuals are highly variable in their abilities and presentation.

3 comments

  1. This is really helpful, Tamar. One of my characters is on the spectrum, and while he’s a minor character, I want to make certain I avoid both stereotypes or inaccuracies. I haven’t been to your blog before, but I’m going to look around.

    Liked by 1 person

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