A lot has changed since Autism Acceptance Month rolled around last April. Usually, despite the acute focus on autistic people as a whole, autistic women and girls are often left feeling like an afterthought. With nearly 80% of autistic females being misdiagnosed in the first place, all the buzz around ‘raising awareness’ of autism and the importance of representing the experience on-screen seems to skew heavily towards boys and men.
Of course, autistic males deserve to have their voices heard, and the representation of autistic boys and men on-screen is fundamental in both enhancing our understanding of the autistic people in our own lives, and in ensuring young people, especially, feel represented.
But don’t autistic women and girls deserve the same? As great as the representation of autistic boys and men is — with Abed Nazir in comedy series Community being a masterclass in how to convey neurodiversity accurately without turning it into trauma porn — it’s been severely lacking for females.
This time last year, the most high-profile example of an autistic female character was Music in the 2021 movie of the same name. I could sit here all day listing all the things wrong with that film — with its trauma porn, the reinforcement that Music was a burden on her sister’s life and the deeply stereotypical, and frankly offensive caricature of autism which was presented on-screen being just the most immediate ways it was problematicl — but you get the point. If that’s the only representation of autistic girlhood that comes to mind, then it’s clear that we’re facing a deep, deep problem.
But in the latter half of 2022, and as we go into 2023, the tide seems to have finally shifted: with autistic women and girls now being able to see themselves in a whole menagerie of characters that are either openly autistic, or are considered to be something called ‘autism-coded.’
Coined by neurodivergent fandom communities, characters are considered to be ‘autism-coded’ when their behaviour, whether done intentionally or not by the writer or actor, clearly emulates traits of autism that those on the spectrum themselves can identify and recognise.
When it comes to ‘autistic-coded’ characters, Matilda Wormwood in the musical adaptation of the Roald Dahl book and Wednesday Addams in the Netflix series of the same name meant more to autistic females than I think anyone else can ever know. As an autistic person myself, I was deeply moved by Matilda because, while I don’t obviously have the whole supernatural thing going for me, it really felt like I was watching my ten-year-old self on-screen.
The reliance on books and elaborate inner worlds to combat loneliness; the early realization that your brain will always be different to everyone else; and the desire to float away from all the overlapping thoughts and noises on a hot air balloon are experiences that didn’t just encapsulate my childhood, but the childhoods of millions diagnosed and undiagnosed autistic girls out there.
The same can be said for Wednesday Addams: a poker-faced loner with few friends, weird interests, and who never quite fits in wherever she goes. Similar to Matilda, there are supernatural elements to the TV series that obviously don’t apply here, but it was in the way Wednesday held herself: with her steely gaze, disdain for smiling, and inconsistent eye contact that so many autistic people, including me, could recognise from a mile off as being exactly what existing unmasked looks and feels like.
Again, while we can’t know for sure whether the writers of Wednesday, or Matilda for that matter, intended for these characters to be autistic, in a lot of ways, that precise confirmation doesn’t matter. Seeing our experiences play out on-screen is oftentimes rewarding enough, and what makes Matilda and Wednesday all the more comforting is the way that the things which make them different aren’t shunned, but are instead celebrated.
Wednesday’s demeanour and unapologetic attitude — including her unusual, TikTok-sensation dancing — seem to make her endearing to a number of characters in the show. Similarly, with her stories, mindset, and rigid sense of justice, Matilda becomes someone who isn’t just liked by her peers: but these characteristics are crucial in her making the lives of those around her better.
And believe me, after a lifetime of feeling ashamed and shunned because of the way you are, seeing characters who emulate those same qualities be admired and embraced truly means the world.
The best part is, alongside these ‘autism-coded’ characters, the past few months on TV have solidified positive representation for autistic women by introducing characters who aren’t just clearly identified as autistic, but are posited as people that viewers can find both relatable and someone they can look up to. Quinni in drama series Heartbreak High, for instance, is a character who normalizes aspects of the autism experience like going non-verbal, experiencing communication issues, and struggling with sensory overload because of the way her brain is wired.
The same can be said for A Kind of Spark, a new BBC series that interweaves the past and present as we see an 11-year-old autistic girl, Addie, fight for those victimised in the Salem Witch Trials to have a memorial in her own town. Like Quinni, all aspects of being autistic are explored — from how our unique worldviews and ability to hyperfocus and cause positive change, to how society’s lack of understanding and patience can make life difficult for us.
In both cases, while the portrayal of these issues is authentic and true to life, it’s never done in a way where it feels like autistic pain is being used as a spectacle or as a means of trauma porn. And the best part is that both Quinni and Addie are played by actors who are themselves on the autism spectrum, meaning that they can tell their characters’ stories with an unmatched authenticity as they draw upon lived experiences.
This is progress. This is the future. And I hope by next year, both autistic-coded characters and nuanced roles played by autistic actors become no less of a celebration, but equally much more the norm across new movies and TV shows.
At last, young autistic women are being seen and heard on-screen, and long may it continue.