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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.

Essentially, if a female character could be replaced by a sexy lamp and it would not affect the plot, a work fails the test.

What Taylortut also proposes is “the beloved pet dog” test:

“If you can replace your disabled character with a beloved pet dog that needs an expensive surgery to survive, then you have to throw out your manuscript”.

The Predator, as well as Alien Abduction, fail the test miserably.

Rory could be easily swapped for any sort of convenient action film McGuffin: a data drive, piece of alien tech, or even an alien dog, and it would not make much difference.

Riley could be replaced by a dog with a camera strapped to the collar, and it would make no difference to the film whatsoever, especially since most of the time he barely interacts with other characters. 

Similarly treated are Kazan in Cube and Tommy in Triangle.

Triangle, a mind-bending slasher tells the story of Jess, who attempts to escape a time loop only to discover she is responsible for her autistic son Tommy’s death and can potentially save him due to the nature of the loop.

To be fair, it is hard to write about Tommy, because mostly he is simply a plot device. For most of the film, he is only mentioned rather than shown. And when he appears, it is only what happens to him that matters.

He is first abused by a version of Jess and later dies in an accident, which prompts her to restart the loop.

The only role his autism plays is that Jess seems to be exhausted and a bit of a loner due to raising him, which seems rather unnecessary. Any parent would tell you raising children takes a great toll, especially on single parents with no support network. It then seems that Tommy’s autism only exists to exaggerate the load on Jess — in that sense he could be replaced with any child with any disease, and to perhaps more darkly justify her actions of abuse.

As such, it is then needless and even quite dismissive to have Tommy be an autistic character altogether.

While not called autistic (and with sequels suggesting he might have been a victim of lobotomy rather than autistic), Kazan appears as such — and that is how he is referred to in most descriptions of the Cube.

Cube follows a group of people trapped in a mysterious construction of booby-trapped cubical rooms. As they travel through it, they discover that numbers on the cubes might be the key to figuring out how to get out, the problem being that the numbers are very big and the key to solving them is knowing the power of prime numbers.

Conveniently, one of the members of the group is Kazan, who barely speaks. His stimming puts them in danger. For most of the film, he is treated by more sympathetic characters like an infant, and by the villains more like a disposable object. There is, however, one thing he can do. He can do prime factorizations in an instant because he is a savant.

Kazan is eventually the only survivor of the group, but the viewer does not learn what happens to him. He simply walks into white light and credits roll.

For most of the film, however, he could be easily exchanged for a calculator.

What hurts especially about Kazan is that Cube already has a brilliant mathematician among its cast: math student Leaven, who leads the group through the structure of most of the film. It is her passion and knowledge, rather than a randomly useful skill, that helps the group.

How different a character would then Kazan be if his special interest would be prime numbers and he and Leaven could bond over their love of mathematics?

In so many of those films, it is painful that what makes the autistic characters important is the random great or straight-up magical skill they possess due to seemingly all autistic people being savants, rather than their actions and character.

What in turn is a lost opportunity is that those characters could so easily be rewritten to be more authentic depictions of autism.

We could benefit from the erasure of the “positive” endings in which the autistic traits lesson, and from changing savant syndrome to skills acquired due to pursuit of special interests.

As I was watching those movies, there was one more thing that hit me: the seemingly obligatory ableism.

We live in an ableist society, so it is understandable that some level of ableism might appear as adding realism. However, the number of r-slurs and stereotypes, and the amount of dismissiveness that some of those movies display make them hard to approach — even if their narrative is sympathetic to their autistic characters.

Autistic audiences should not have to face the all-too-real trauma of abuse and ableism any time we engage with horror. This way of presenting autism, as a condition always defined by hatred and discrimination, stands in opposition to horror’s history as a genre that embraces the strange, the scary, and the other.

That history is part of the reason why so many people of queer identities and people of color have embraced the horror so much. Unfortunately, the genre stumbles when it comes to disabilities, and autistic characters are no exception.

Autistic characters, if present at all, are still side characters who exist mostly out of plot convenience and not a necessity, and their stories are primarily told by allistic creators.

It’s a shame, given that horror has to thank many contributors from the autistic community, like the iconic Anthony Hopkins.

On top of that, we can see over and over again that when given the chance to tell their own stories, fans of the genre create incredible work infused with the spirit of their identities.

It would be a fresh and wonderful thing to see what those of the horror fandom that belong to the autistic community can contribute, when not forced into boxes.

There might be skepticism, but there are already plenty of characters in headcanon who are interpreted to be autistic in horror. Tommy Jarvis from Friday the 13th, Rhonda in Trick ‘r Treat, Pauline in Excision, and Samuel from The Babadook were all described and analysed as autistic characters, often embraced as such.

When not confined by the stereotypes, such characters can be diverse and interesting and rise above being convenient plot pushers.

Perhaps it’s time for autistic characters to be written just as that, fully fleshed characters. Results speak for themselves.

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