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Horror has always celebrated those who are different, but there’s still a long way to go when it comes to how autism is represented.

Photo by @iheartcreative via Twenty20

June is Pride Month, a month when we celebrate the beauty of diversity and champion the right of queer folk to embrace who they are — free from judgment, persecution, oppression, or marginalization. Thankfully, the horror genre — and cinema as a whole — has come a long way in how it presents and represents queer characters. Not only is this type of diverse representation more prevalent, but it’s often handled with more respect and authenticity.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for autism or the way autistic characters are represented.

As Autism Awareness Month started this April, a certain sound began trending on the autistic side of TikTok: the voiceover of the 2009 Autism Speaks commercial. The ad portrays autism as a silent, deadly dangerous disease that destroys everything in its path and is only detectable when it is too late to do anything.

While striking controversy at the time, the ad was mostly forgotten, until autistic creators took it upon themselves to poke a bit of fun at the serial-killer-PSA style of the commercial.

They did what so many other members of marginalized communities do when they become demonized by the media: they took it and ran with it, uploading videos of cartoonishly evil autism going after poor, unassuming allistic families.

It got me thinking about that portrayal of autism, and further, about how autism is portrayed in relation to fear and evil. This naturally brought me to horror.

So often, marginalized people clinging to horror embrace the horrific ‘Other’ as similar to them. When they have a chance to create horror themselves, they comment on that relationship.

What can then be seen in horror regarding autism? What characters can be claimed? And can the genre provide a vessel to tell the story of the autistic community as well?

While popping out here and there, autism is by no means a genre darling, like DID or schizophrenia.

Perhaps that’s for the best, given the misrepresentation that those disorders endure in horror.

When autism is represented, it’s often not portrayed well. Autistic characters are either children or adults incapable of fending for themselves. They are predominately white males of very traditional gender presentation and seem to never have comorbid conditions.

In general, the autistic characters in horror do not appear to be much different from most autism representations throughout cinema.

I myself have identified just five horror films and one miniseries in which autism is actually named condition for a character and only one more film in which a character is described as autistic outside of the property.

Out of those seven, only one had a canonically autistic female character.

I would like to look at those films and determine what attracts filmmakers to using portrayals of autism in horror, and how those mostly flawed depictions can be improved upon in the future.

Firstly I would like to look at works in which characters are canonically autistic, starting with ones that have them play a central part: Rose Red and Come Play.

The 2002 Rose Red miniseries focuses on a mysterious mansion in which a psychology professor attempts to prove paranormal phenomena by recruiting a group of psychics.

Among others, there is the telekinetic and autistic Annie. While worth applauding for portraying an autistic character somewhat accurately for most of its runtime and having a canon autistic female character, especially as early as 2002, Rose Red still treats Annie rather poorly.

At best, people around Annie want to protect her — and cause her potential and growth to stifle. At worst, they use her or consider her not worthy of living as they see her not even aware of being alive. Even her sister, who serves as a protector and main caretaker of Anne in a moment of stress admits that she sees Anne as “no good to herself… or to anyone”.

As Annie is the most powerful of the psychics visiting the titular Rose Red manor, one would expect her person to be at the center of the paranormal activities. And, seemingly, she is. She “awakens” the manor and attempts to interact with its ghostly inhabitants.

As the series progresses, however, she is more and more passive and controlled by others, to eventually have people battle evil forces around her while she is essentially a passive ghost magnet.

The only growth that Annie displays really is her growing bond with Steven, which at first is clearly empathic and telepathic as Anne is either non-verbal or has some form of selective mutism.

By the end of Rose Red, Annie speaks more fluently, and the last scene leaves her embracing Steven while visibly laughing.

It could be a show of their bond growing to her being more comfortable with physical touch and Annie speaking more being a conduit for how she grew closer with the rest of the group.

That is, however, in my opinion, a rather misleading portrayal of autistic traits.

Lack of visible or typical emoting, preference for non-spoken communication, and dislike for touch portrayed as going away the longer one interacts with neurotypical surroundings gives off the impression of “coming out of one’s shell” — as if those symptoms are of anxiety or plain shyness rather then autism.

While it might appear as an autistic individual gets more comfortable and presents more like a neurotypical person, it is more likely that they begin to mask their autistic traits by acting out what is expected of them — which actually is the very opposite of acting natural and “out of one’s shell”.

The ending of Rose Red then, rather than a show of how Annie “gets better”, is showing how a girl who had limited social contact after being exposed to it and expected to conform adjusts to the expectations of the neurotypical surroundings when read from an autistic-centered perspective.

Similar reading can be applied to the next title on my list, which is also one of the newest of the works, 2020’s Come Play.

It’s a tale of a non-verbal, autistic pre-teen Oliver and his mother Sarah as a mysterious monster Larry is hell-bent on pulling Oliver into his world beyond a phone screen, which just so happens to be Oliver’s main tool of communication as well as a way to interact with his special interest in Spongebob Squarepants.

Again, we have a work that is actually quite good at portraying autism for most of its runtime, showing especially well accommodations around Oliver: he has a special needs teaching assistant, uses a voice app to communicate verbally, and goes to speech therapy.

The social and economical stress of the family due to Oliver’s autism is also prevalent throughout the film; he gets bullied, gets his phone taken away and his parents cannot afford a new one.

That, combined with the terror of having a monster that hijacks the child’s modes of communication and comfort, could make for an effective horror that engages with the difficulties of growing up autistic in a neurotypical world.

Instead, Come Play does the opposite.

The main character arc is not laid out for Oliver but for his mother.

She is framed as the one that is under the greatest stress and being affected most by both Larry’s presence and Oliver’s autism.

She cannot stand him not having friends and forces him into social situations he does not want to be in. She is the one pushing for speech therapy and breaks down over him not looking her in the eyes — as if it is something he chooses out of malice.

Her arc through the movie appears to be growing into acceptance of Oliver as he is.

As she sacrifices herself, so Larry would take her instead of Oliver, she finally tells her son that she loves “all of him”. Unfortunately, that comes right after Oliver starts uttering his first words outside of speech therapy and is followed up by him “finally” looking her in the eyes.

In the film’s coda, Oliver is not only getting more friends but also is excessing at speech therapy. The last shots leave him laughing while he plays with his mother, as she reaches for him from Larry’s realm. Not only does this nullify Sarah’s sacrifice — she does not truly leave her child to protect him — but also her arc.

Moreover, the growth that Oliver experienced through the film, is, as it was in Rose Red telegraphed to the viewer by him “coming out of his shell” and displaying fewer autistic traits.

Finally, what rubs me the wrong way the most about both those pictures is that the autistic character is not the main character of their story.

Anne is taken to Rose Red by her sister, and it is her who the viewer mostly sees and learns about. And when a monster goes after Oliver, what the film focuses on is predominately his parents. Sadly, these are the two titles in which the autistic characters have the most to do.

A film I felt ambiguous about when it came to whether the autistic character had an important role to play was The Darkness from 2016.

The film follows a suburban white picket fence family when the tween autistic Michael accidentally summons ancient demons into the house.

While painfully paint-by-numbers when it comes to the Native burial ground trope, the film seems to portray Michael’s neurodivergence pretty well, even if a bit stereotypically. Most of the time, it is also not treated as a gimmick or some sort of family-tearing issue, like in Come Play.

The focus of the picture is on the marriage of the parents, Peter and Bronny, and on how the stress of haunting as well as raising a family strains them.

They have issues with communication, Bronny’s drinking issues resurface, and, on top of that, they have trouble raising a homeschooled autistic boy and teen daughter with a suddenly discovered eating disorder. Autism then is shown as rather one of many issues that can put a strain on parents who do not know how to deal with it, rather than their worst nightmare.

What however seems a bit worrying is a suggestion that after the haunting is over and spirits get banished, Michael appears less autistic.

It is a brief moment, but a coda shot sees the family outside, with Michael playing soccer with Peter — something he was not at all interested in before — mostly enjoying tv and mathematics. It would not stand out if not for an earlier scene when Peter’s boss suggests asking a psychic for help. He talks about how she helped his son when he was sick and soon after he was able to go outside and play sports.

The coda seems to allude to that and suggest that the paranormal help also influenced Michael and “made him better”.

Again then, the journey that an autistic character seems to have gone through is one of from appearing neurodivergent to seeming to be neurotypical.

The next two titles on my list share canonically autistic characters whose presence is somewhat important, and coincidently, aliens: The Predator from 2018 and 2014’s Alien Abduction.

The Predator has been under harsh criticism for its portrayal of autism as some sort of “next step in human evolution” as the film lacks a basic understanding of what both neurodivergence and evolution are.

As the franchise would have it, this film once again follows the hunting of humans by alien Yautja. This time, however, the alien is after the protagonist Quinn’s autistic son Rory, because supposedly autism would provide a great military advantage, especially in this case, as Rory is, of course, a savant.

Rory learns how to operate Yautja tech practically in seconds and decodes their language in a matter of minutes. But it does not matter much for the plot itself, as Rory quickly becomes a human McGuffin; he does not do much, but everybody wants to get their hands on him.

Similarly, Riley from Alien Abduction appears to be of importance to the movie; he is in control of the camera in his found-footage picture.

The problem is, that he is there only to hold the camera, and his autism is there only to provide an excuse for why he holds the camera — as if the producers forgot they were planning to shoot a found footage movie and had to add his character to the script after having everything else already written.

That brings me to what the Tumblr user Taylortut has called “the ‘sexy lamp test’ but for disabled folks”.

The sexy lamp test is a thought experiment test to measure female representation in media.