The root of this post is a reddit thread I came across a wee bit ago in which our poster talks about how they started an Instagram about fictional characters they headcanon as autistic, and the strong pushback they got against it. They were wondering why people were reacting so strongly against, apparently, the very idea of seeing fictional characters as autistic if they weren’t explicitly stated to be so by the writers.
And OOH do I have OPINIONS on this matter. I can’t say exactly why THIS pushback happened in THIS instance because I am not psychic, but I do know why SOME pushback happens in SOME instances. So let’s get started.
First of all, let’s talk about headcanoning. A “headcanon” is a personal belief someone has about a fictional character or story that has not been actually stated IN the story, but makes sense to the person who has the headcanon. It’s pretty common for autistic people to headcanon various fictional characters as autistic because, let’s face it, autism representation is kinda sorta completely terrible. There is not a lot of autism representation in fiction in the first place, and what little there is leaves a lot to be desired. Autistic people are generally either objects of pity, quirky geniuses, or simply displayed for comedy. We hardly ever just get to be, you know, people.
This is hardly an uncommon thing in minority groups, of course. Nor is it uncommon in those minority groups for people to headcanon a fictional character to be like them in some way – to fill in the gaps of representation, in order to see themselves when they otherwise wouldn’t. Personally, I’ve seen this a whole lot in queer people headcanoning characters as queer in some way – gay or bi or trans or something along those lines. Because representation is important.
Alright, back to autism representation. This is where it gets a little more ugly. The fact of the matter is that in real life, autistic people are rarely ever actually seen as people. We’re seen as objects. And as objects, we are very much NOT seen as having autonomy or the ability to speak for ourselves. For example, I’m sure we’ve all seen how it’s basically stated that if an autistic person can speak for themselves in some way, we are not autistic enough to “count” (honestly, what a terrible thing to say. It astonishes me how horrible people can be sometimes).
But it also means that to at least some people, when we headcanon a character as autistic, we are essentially saying that the character isn’t really a person. Which, yeah, if we were saying that it would truly be terrible. But we aren’t saying that. We’re saying that we see ourselves in that character. We identify with that character. We want to imagine that character is like us in a way that is meaningful to us. Which, to be clear, is not a conclusion we make carelessly, despite what some people think.
And by “some people” I mean Benedict Cumberbatch (and others, but he’s always the one that comes to mine first for me). I don’t really want to dig a whole lot into what he said because quite frankly, I find it upsetting. So here is a link to a quick summation of this mess, and to summarize the summary – basically Benedict Cumberbatch thinks it’s “lazy” to headcanon people as autistic, and that imagining brilliant, successful characters as autistic “offers false hope” to autistic people, since apparently we cannot be brilliant or successful. And despite autistic people pushing back against that incredibly harmful (and cruel) narrative, it looks like there are people out there who agree with him.
Which brings us back to that reddit user’s Instagram, and the pushback they’re getting against seeing characters as autistic. It’s not at all surprising to me that they are getting this kind of pushback, but I do find it incredibly sad. Someone just wants to showcase characters that they think are like themself in some way, and people get incredibly angry about it. Because of course they do. Because instead of seeing us as people who are seeing aspects of ourselves in fictional characters, they see laziness or accusations of fictional characters being objects or whatever else. I hope that person continues their Instagram, because personally I am really into the idea. There are some fictional characters out there who I personally headcanon as autistic, because they seem like me in autism-specific ways. And you know what? IT’S OK THAT I DO THAT.