Brow Beat

For Autistic Consumers, Pop Culture Can Be More Than an Escape. It Can Be a Lifeline.

Data from Star Trek, Will Graham from Hannibal, and Deedee from Dexter’s Laboratory.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Brooke Palmer/NBC, Cartoon Network, Paramount Pictures.

In my autism support group, we were given a writing prompt: to close our eyes and take ourselves on an adventure. One otherwise very shy girl told a story that got us all pumped. She relayed a fantasy where she traversed perilous terrain along with her sidekicks, Rick and Morty Sanchez. They crossed deserts, braved ice storms, and swam across the bottom of the sea, culminating in a Magic School Bus—or Rocko’s Modern Life, if you prefer—style detour through the human mouth. They were on the road for months, a trio of swashbuckling heroes and wanted men.

Being autistic isn’t always easy. Sometimes our lives don’t have the vibrancy we crave. We’re smart, curious people who like learning new things and get into all kinds of arcane hobbies and subcultures, but we tend to lack the social skills to talk to as many interesting people in the real world as we’d like. A lot of us use books, movies, and TV shows to fill in the gaps. Media is our great equalizer, because, to paraphrase Andy Warhol—who some believe had Asperger’s syndrome himself—we all drink the same Coke.

But while fictional stories offer escapism for autistic and allistic (nonautistic) audiences alike, for autistic consumers, they can also do much more. They lay out social scripts to follow when dealing with different circumstances, which, for people who have trouble transferring lessons from one situation to another, can be useful. They also reflect a world back at us that we’re close to but we can’t quite see. Sometimes, we can’t tell fiction from fact, which can be problematic, but we adore our favorite characters. We love misfits, especially characters who are implicitly, or more recently, explicitly autistic like us. Some of us see ourselves in characters before we can quite understand why.

I asked 10 autistic people which shows taught them about the world, especially when they were growing up. I asked about their favorite characters. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a favorite. So was Luke Skywalker. Sherlock Holmes. Holden Caulfield. The Powerpuff Girls. Dracula. Heroes and villains—but mostly heroes, principled men and women who frequently stood alone.

Data and Spock from Star Trek were popular choices. (In fact, sci-fi and fantasy in general were pretty popular among the people I spoke to, since a lot of us feel like we’re on the wrong planet; “Wrong Planet” is even the name of an online forum for autistic individuals.) More than one person said they personally identified with Data, a sentient android who serves as an officer aboard Federation starships. “I grew up trying to purge myself of emotions,” John, 36, said. “Data had no emotions. Eventually he did get an emotion chip, but he lacked control of his emotions, and Captain Picard would tell him to turn it off whenever they needed him to be rational.”

We see the trope of an autistic person as a loner in movies like 2016’s The Accountant, in which the lead, Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), uses his top-notch math skills to excel in organized crime. He doesn’t have friends, and he doesn’t get the girl in the end, either. In the autistic community, other characters can be much more appealing than ones like Wolff, even if those characters are not explicitly autistic. Sybelle, 34, related strongly to Data not just for his compartmentalization skills but for his quest to find people like him. Michael, 34, said he admired Hannibal’s Will Graham, a character who has been embraced by the autistic community, for having heightened empathy for others, a trait sometimes associated with Asperger’s.

The autistic pop culture consumers I spoke to were very conscious, even as kids, of how the characters they identified with were treated. “I always sorta felt … socially dumb, I guess you’d say,” says Andrew, 28. “Forrest Gump sorta made me feel like that’s fine. He wasn’t really pitied. … He just did what he felt like and people responded. It also affected me later in life: When I started getting all the ‘you’re an inspiration’ stuff, movies like that helped me look past it and not define myself by that, and just keep doing whatever I was doing.”

Many of the people I spoke to explained that they modeled their own personalities off fictional characters, trying to imitate them. Simplified stories like cartoons, comedies, and young adult novels were especially popular because of how they portrayed social dynamics. “In a cartoon, the characters’ facial and body emoting are intentionally exaggerated and very easy to read; even the most subtle expressions are more obvious than on a real face or body,” says Kirsten, 26. “Books were helpful, especially young adult novels that both dealt primarily with obvious-but-new-to-kids interpersonal issues and overtly explained these dynamics instead of implying them the way adult novels do.”

But modeling your behavior after fictional characters has its downsides, too. “I often was mimicking caricatures, not believable realistic personalities.” Kirsten says. “I spent a lot of time trying to become characters like Dee Dee from Dexter’s Laboratory: annoying, loud, and ‘fun,’—but not fun in the real world.”

“I kind of thought of myself as a character, especially in my early 20s,” says John S., 32, who grew up watching comedies like Reeves and Mortimer, Red Dwarf, and The Simpsons. “I’m less like this now, but for most of my life I was basically doing shtick. A lot of what I said was thought of in advance and almost always for comedic effect. When constructing things to say, I’d usually imagine complete conversations between people. In real life, people seldom got the lines I’d imagined for them right, though—throwing a spanner into the works. It allowed me to make friends, though.”

I can relate to following a dubious social script to make friends. I looked up to the It Girls in shows like Popular and movies like Clueless. I loved their flashy clothes, their witty banter. I tried to be like them. It really didn’t work. But I do feel like it helped me in some ways: I had a clear, if warped, set of guidelines to follow, which gave me the confidence to get out there and put myself into the world. I failed boldly, which gave me the courage to try again. For some autistic people, we need someone to teach us how to act because we don’t know instinctually. But eventually we figure out enough cues from the real world to balance with media. Eventually, we learn what’s real.