Stop with the Toothpicks: Why We Need More Autistic Characters

Stop with the Toothpicks: Why We Need More Autistic Characters

Claire LaZebnik latest young adult novel, Things I Should Have Known, follows two sisters as they navigate high school. One is autistic and one is not. When LaZebnik’s son was diagnosed with autism, she realized just how little she knew about it and how few protagonists explored the wide range of experiences that people on the spectrum face. Here, she explains exactly why we need more autistic characters.

After my son was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, several friends asked me what his “savant” talent was. I didn’t know how to respond. I mean, sure, he was a bright little guy… but he certainly couldn’t, say, eyeball a heap of toothpicks lying on the floor and instantly tell you how many there were.

That’s not a random example, of course. If you’ve ever seen the movie Rain Man, you know that Dustin Hoffman’s autistic Raymond is able to count toothpicks in a pile just by looking at them. Which is why so many people assumed that my son must also have some kind of preternatural savant skill—Rain Man was, for a long time, the only reference point most people (including me) had for autism.

And that’s a shame. I mean, I love that movie, but autism presents very differently in everyone it touches. Raymond may be a well-developed character, but in no way does he represent all people on the spectrum. Without public alternatives, though, he sort of did.

Over twenty years have passed since my son’s diagnosis, and about thirty since Rain Man served as virtually the only mainstream entertainment nod to autism. We’re seeing more depictions of people on the spectrum, which is definitely a good thing, as is the fact they’re not portrayed as stereotypically as they used to be. But we’re still not seeing enough main characters with autism.

Everyone deserves to be the hero of his/her/their own tale—not relegated to the role of the sidekick, or the best friend, or the younger sibling. Too often, autistic characters are thrown in to give the tortured and flawed protagonist a way to reveal his fundamental decency. But people with autism can also be tortured and flawed and fundamentally decent. Shouldn’t they occasionally get to be the characters showing those qualities rather than merely the characters who elicit them?

I’m on a mission to make autistic characters the stars of the show—both literally and figuratively. My new novel, Things I Should Have Known, features a pair of sisters. One is pretty and popular and makes a lot of mistakes as she falls in and out of love and plans her future. The other is on the autism spectrum and struggles socially—and makes a lot of mistakes as she falls in and out of love and plans her future. Their personalities are different; the fact that their journeys lead them to unexpected discoveries is not.

The affections, loves, mishaps, and epiphanies of people on the spectrum are just as interesting, valid, and relatable as anyone else’s, and it’s time our literature and movies reflected that. I want every young person growing up on the spectrum to feel represented, not ignored or reduced to a stereotype.

My son—now 25—doesn’t sit around counting toothpicks. He’s too busy being an artist and a website designer and, you know… living his life. Toothpicks just aren’t a big part of that.

Except, of course, when he has something stuck between his teeth.

Claire LaZebnik has written five novels for adults including Same As It Never Was (which was made into the ABC Family movie, Hello Sister, Goodbye Life), Knitting Under the Influence, and Families and Other Non-Returnable Gifts. Her young adult novels include Epic Fail, The Trouble with Flirting, The Last Best Kiss, and Wrong About the Guy (Harper Teen). She has also co-authored two books on autism; Overcoming Autism and Growing Up on the Spectrum. She has contributed to GQ, Self Magazine, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications, and to the anthology play Motherhood Out Loud. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives with her TV writer husband and four children, one of whom has autism.

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