The Importance of Autistic Coding

The Importance of Autistic Coding

By Max Weiss

Hi, my name is Max Weiss, and I am an intern at Art Spark Texas. 

Have you ever wondered why Disney’s villains are so entertaining? They’re sarcastic, flamboyant, and interesting characters to watch. This is because many Disney villains are what is called “queer coded,” which means that the character displays aspects of a demographic, but is never confirmed as part of this demographic. A lot of writers don’t even realize they’re engaging with coding of any kind, which means that the general audience can deny any claims of a character being from that demographic. Specifically, these characters have mannerisms or traits that resemble many of the same stereotypes of the LGBTQ+ community. For example, Jafar (Aladdin)is effeminate with his beard twisting. Scar (The Lion King) has a limp wrist when talking. Ursula (The Little Mermaid) was even inspired by a drag queen!  

The world of coding doesn’t stop at LGBTQ+ representation, though. In general, coding is used to create a parallel between the fictional world and our real society. In the previous example, the villains are coded as queer in order to let the audience know who to root against (in the 80s and 90s), and not relate to them the same way the audience would with the protagonist.  Another common way to “other” is to use autism coding. Popular examples of autistic coded characters include Sheldon Cooper (Young Sheldon and Big Bang Theory), Donnatello (Teenage Ninja Turtles), Peter Parker (Spiderman), Wednesday Addams (Wednesday), and many more. These characters are coded by being shy, hyper fixated on certain topics, disregarding social cues, not maintaining eye contact (or too much, in Wednesday’s case), deadpanning, not understanding emotions, and other qualities associated with the autism spectrum. These characters do not have to be human.  

The Autistic Robot is a very old trope. The idea behind it is that, in sci-fi, robots are used to reflect against the human experience. What makes us human besides our biology? Most writers pick traits that are difficult for autistic people to maintain or possess, such as showcasing emotions and understanding sarcasm. For example, Data from Star Trek has been told he does not have emotions, and yet desperately wants to be human. The show very much shows Data having emotions and expressing himself in art and compassion. Data does show his emotions in a way not accepted by the rest of the society he lives in, and our society as well. The audience can then draw a parallel between Data and the autistic people in our reality (which is important to mention are human, while Data is not), and succeeds in othering the entire autistic community in the process.  

So why is autistic coding so prevalent? Writers use a lot of different indicators in order to show us the role people in their story play. Let’s make a high school drama TV show as an example. Our stock characters will be a jock, a nerd, a loner, and a cheerleader. The jock will probably be arrogant and dumb, the nerd will be self-important and constantly spout facts regardless of what other people have to say, the loner may sit in a corner and show no interest in “fitting in,” and the cheerleader will be bubbly and energetic. We’ve seen all these characters before, but some of those traits I mentioned (specifically with the nerd and the loner) are also characteristics of autistic people. Writers use these characteristics sometimes without even knowing. This coding succeeds in the “othering” of some characters that can then be relatable. Unfortunately, this then leads to allistic people getting protective and offended when this coding is pointed out. Autism and Others are intimately connected in the media–look again at the Autistic Robot trope.  

Here’s an example that’s caused a lot of debate: Eddie Munson from Stranger Things. As soon as his character was introduced, he was extremely popular among the fandom. Eddie is very clearly both queer and autistic coded. The queer coding is both subtle and direct. Eddie wears a handkerchief in his back pocket, which relates to the hanky code that was used by gay men in the 70s and 80s (when the show takes place.) When it comes to autistic traits, Eddie is an outcast who doesn’t care much about what others think of him, and his mannerisms include standing on a table and yelling in the middle of a crowded lunchroom–something many allistic people would never do. He has very specific special interests– D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) and rock music–both of which played a part in his sacrifice at the end of the season.  However, when autistic fans of the show pointed these out, or made headcanons (a detail or event that is not present in the actual material, but assumed by one or more person in the fandom to be true in their interpretation) about Eddie being autistic, allistic fans got defensive.  

The main argument against autistic headcanons (which often come from coding) is that characters can just be “weird” without inherently being mentally ill. But why are allistic people so offended by the possibility of their favorite characters being autistic? There is a lot of stigma around autism. This is nothing new. Allistic fans of a show are defensive not because they don’t identify with autistic coded characters, but because they do, and that can be scary for some reason. Autism is so vilified that allistic viewers are not offended by the existence of the characters, but the idea that those characters are like them. The truth is that there are many autistic qualities present in media that everyone can relate to, such as general social awkwardness, or feeling out of place with society.  

What this means is that there aren’t a lot of confirmed autistic characters in the media. While this number is increasing (take a look at Sesame Street’s Julia, who was introduced in 2015), it is still very small. Many media company executives have a specific vision to maintain, and will block anything in a show that will either tarnish the brand or alienate viewers, which includes censoring both queer and autistic characters. Therefore, many shows will use coding to indicate that a character is on the spectrum and never say the words in the actual show. An example of this is She Ra, which has its fair share of problems, but does portray the character Entrapta as autistic. That word is never being said by anyone in the show, but this is confirmed on Twitter by the creator.  

This poses a whole other web of problems: is it actually authentic in its portrayal of autism if the character is never given a diagnosis on screen? There is a very tricky balance to this. If the words are never said, the coding can fly over people’s heads and arguments ensue within the fandom. However, if the diagnosis of autism is written too explicitly, it breaks the immersion and feels like a teaching moment rather than an element of the story. Nothing is worse than a heavy-handed approach that makes viewers feel stupid.  

Autistic coding is still very important in today’s media. If you can’t directly show a character with a diagnosis, coding is a great way to get that point across and connect with a wider audience. Coding is a great way to also show vilified demographics in a relatable light, as writers use it to compare the fictional world and reality. Therefore, hopefully, allistic people can stop ignoring the existence of autistic people, as they have for many years, as long as we acknowledge the coding behind our beloved characters.  

Max Weiss (she/they/he) is a sophomore at Bennington College, where they study theater and creative writing. They have experience performing with Austin Shakespeare as a part of their Young Shakespeare program. They hope to create accessible, interactive, unconventional stories. For their internship, they will be helping with a staged reading of “Waiting for the Bus,” a new play by James Burnside. They have two cats, several stuffed dogs, and way too many imaginary friends.  

headshot of Max Weiss looking off to the side while sitting in a car.
Max is smiling and looking to the side and is wearing a black shirt

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