Thursday, April 14, 2016

How My Own Characters Helped Me Normalize My Autism And Accept Myself

Coping with my diagnosis was initially very difficult for me. I didn't know anyone else who was like me at first, and I had to learn how to cope with it and accept myself for who I was in order to ensure I took care of myself. Everyone comes to terms with things in their own way, so I had to find my way to acceptance on my own.

A little bit after I started my freshman year of college in 2007, a little less than two years before I got my diagnosis, I started doing some character designs for a fictional college baseball team. I named their school Slumberwood, a pun on Wake Forest, and plopped their campus down in Rutland County, Vermont. I then began fleshing out the team and adding new members for each successive school year, planning to turn the project into a full-scale webcomic at some point. The webcomic never came into fruition, but working on the characters (and even jokingly giving the major ones Facebook accounts and having them interact with each other like normal college students) helped carry me through bleaker moments in my college career since it was fun and I loved college baseball.

The most important of these college ballplayers turned out to be Sheridan Travers, Class of 2010, born April 16th, 1988. Sheridan was chronically addicted to Pixy Stix and nearly always had one in his mouth, even when batting, and played shortstop left-handed, which, if you're unfamiliar with baseball, is very unusual. (His double play partner, main character Justin Pedrotti, nicknamed 'Drotti, played second base left-handed, which was also unusual, but because they both played the middle infield left-handed they worked very well together.) As I developed the cast of Slumberwood more and more, I noticed Sheridan was becoming more and more like me, and when I was diagnosed in 2009 it occurred to me that he had actually inherited a lot of my autistic traits. I figured I might as well go all the way with it and gave him the diagnosis, too.
Sheridan Travers, as drawn by the author on 4/13/16.
Giving my diagnosis to a character that I had created turned out to be amazingly therapeutic for me. As I further worked on the story and incorporated Sheridan's teammates learning to be supportive friends and accept him for who he was, it enabled me to build up more confidence in myself and accept myself for who I now knew I was, too. I was able to draw on my own life experiences to write his - Sheridan's search for belonging was both personified in his Asperger's diagnosis and the fact that he had grown up in an orphanage and was raised by the woman running it since he had seemed "too strange" to adopt. Although I'm no orphan and have lived with my birth family my entire life, I wanted to emphasize that Sheridan was trying to find somewhere that he really felt he belonged since his diagnosis had made him feel like he wasn't good enough for the rest of the world since society loves to tell those of us on the spectrum that we don't belong.

By the time he graduated Slumberwood in 2010, Sheridan had a ton of friends through the baseball team, had more or less become a part of second baseman 'Drotti's family, and had graduated as class valedictorian (due to obsessive hard work, not just intelligence) and had a full ride to MIT for grad school to pursue robotics and try to use robots to make people's lives better. (He also had a mild weeaboo stage in middle school, which led him to study and become conversationally fluent in Japanese because he developed genuine interest and respect for the language and culture, so I suspect that in his spare time he was going to try to build a Gundam, too. I wouldn't put it past him.)

I actively forged a place in the Slumberwood world for Sheridan because he deserved a perfectly normal place in the world, like all of us do. His teammates were accommodating when they had to be, but they didn't place him on a pedestal or treat him differently once they all knew about his autism. They just saw him as Sheridan Travers, the starting shortstop, and their only concern was whether or not he was hitting. To them, he was a person, not a disorder.

Looking back on all of this, I realized the other day that it went a long way in helping me accept myself. Accepting and really caring about a character I had crafted who had something very major in common with me had led me to begin accepting those same traits in myself, and over the years I learned to view myself as a whole person again, contrary to society and Autism Speaks telling me I had pieces missing. I don't have any missing pieces. I'm just who I am. If it took me creating a fictional character who also had those traits to embrace myself, then so be it, but people like Sheridan and myself aren't going anywhere.

This is why I encourage all creative autistic people to share their stories and continue writing, drawing, and doing whatever it is you like to do. We need more autistic voices in the media, and more autistic characters created by autistic people can definitely go a long way in helping those of us who come along later realize that they, too, are supposed to be here and that they're part of the world we live in and deserve to be.

Never, ever stop creating. You never know whose life you'll touch and improve.


  1. Your experience in regards to creating characters and feeling that they reflect you, then giving them a parallel life to your own, whilst you live out yours is very similar to how I cope. My own main OC has been with me ever since I was probably eleven years old and they have grown up along side me. With every birthday I had, I imagined how they'd spend theirs, with very movie I watched I'd incorporate that into their lives. Sometimes I would even insert characters from that movie into the narrative! But this sort of thing gave me a companion as I struggled with my own existence and way of thinking. I owe so much to this character and I'm so glad that I've heard of someone who also finds solace in a faction of their imagination that they too feel to be anything but.
    Keep writing!

    1. Right? When you've had characters for a long time, they grow up with you and they're like real-life long-term friends! They mean so much to you! I've got some oldies but goodies around, too, and I definitely consider them friends of mine!

      There's definitely something to be said for the bond between writers and their characters. It's so underrated and yet so important! It's why we definitely need to keep writing and stay in touch with them!