In the spirit of Autism Acceptance Month, your local aspie is coming to you to talk about (the lack of) autistic representation in video games.
First, let’s cover what autism is and why we’re calling it Autism Acceptance Month instead of the traditional “Autism Awareness Month”. Then we’ll get into the meat and bones of who our canonically autistic characters are and why we should have more representation.
What is Autism?
Autism is a neurological condition in which social interaction, communication, and even motor skills are affected. Autistic people may also have need rituals and routines, have special interests, sensory issues, trouble expressing feelings, difficulty forming and maintaining relationships and perhaps engaging in repetitive and compulsive behaviors (often referred to as “stimming”). Autism is hyper-individualized and presents itself differently from autistic person to autistic person. People are born with or without autism and it is generally diagnosed in childhood. Though some autistic people slip through the cracks and don’t get diagnosed until adulthood. Boys are more likely to receive a diagnosis of autism than girls, as the way it manifests from boys to girls is often different. Girls tend to copy and mimic behavior around them, often camouflaging their autism to a point that it can be missed by a professional not aware of how autism presents in girls and women. While boys do not generally do not do this mimicking of behavior.
Autism Awareness vs Autism Acceptance
The word awareness comes to mind when we talk about cancer, rare diseases, and negative things. We want people to be aware of those things, typically, so they can better protect themselves against it or money can be gathered for a cure. Therefore, Autism Awareness suggests that we are a problem waiting to be fixed. Awareness also works based off of stereotypes and often casts autistic people in a negative light. People in the world are aware of autism, but typically have a very hyperbolic and misguided view of autistic people.
Autism Acceptance, on the other hand, is all about taking in autistic people as they are. It is accepting our stimming and being okay with the fact that eye contact just might not be our thing. Awareness highlights us as Other. Acceptance looks at the commonalities we share while celebrating our differences. Please make sure that the organizations that you support this month and throughout the year are run by autistics themselves. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is a great place to start if you’re looking to learn about Autism and everything to do with it from actually autistic folks. As the saying in the autistic community goes: nothing about us without us.
Autism in Gaming
The lack of autistic representation in AAA games is honestly saddening, but not surprising. In fact, there wasn’t even an autistic character in a Triple-A game until 2001 in Twisted Metal Black, and that character didn’t even have a name. Autistic video game characters include these twelve: Cassandra from Rage of the Dragons, Jade (The Indigo Child) from Fahrenheit, Dr. Brigid Tenenbaum from the Bioshock franchise, Simone Cole from Clive Barker’s Jericho, David Archer from Mass Effect 2 DLC, River Wyles from To The Moon, Amy from Amy, Patricia Tannis from Borderlands 2, Symmetra from Overwatch, Josh Sauchak from Watch Dogs 2, Rell from Warframe, and Shana from I Don’t Have A Clue.
A lot of the autistic representation in gaming isn’t great, either.
Most of the characters mentioned reinforce the “savant” style of autism where an autistic person is only worth having around if they have a special ability or are exceedingly talented at one specific thing (their special interest). You can see that in the case of Brigid Tenenbaum who was only saved because of her love of science and was blinded to the atrocities she was committing in the process. Amy tasks the player with taking care of Amy, an autistic child, who can heal the player and is immune from the zombie infection the game is set in (think The Last of Us).
Symmetra is one of the few, well-done pieces of autistic representation in games. The average player might not even notice the autistic traits that Symmetra has, but it stood out to me the second I heard her interact with the other heroes. “Do not deviate from the plan, and victory will be ours.” is more than a quip about winning. Most autistic individuals, myself included, struggle with changing the plan or routine. As characters run around the map making jokes back and forth, Symmetra misses most of the ones thrown her way or takes them extremely literally which is another subtle nod to her autism. In the Overwatch comic “A Better World” there are more subtle nods to the fact that Symmetra is autistic before she comes right out with it and we see her thoughts.
Sanjay has always said I was… different. Everyone has. Asking where I fit on the spectrum. It used to bother me because I knew it was true. It doesn’t bother me anymore. Because I can do things no one else can do.
I love how we see that Symmetra has struggled with her autism but she’s come to accept and embrace it. It makes her strong in a different way. It empowers her.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the article and feel more knowledgeable about autism and autism acceptance as a whole. I hope to see a more positive representation of autism in the gaming industry as well as television and other media in the future. Comments? Suggestions? Things we missed or that you disagree with? Drop them in the comments below or hit us up on our Facebook Fan page or @ us on Twitter!