With a limited on-screen presence, autistic characters have emerged in another medium: fan fiction

Jonathan Alexander, University of California, Irvine and Rebecca Black, University of California, Irvine

In one Harry Potter fan fiction story, Hermione Granger anxiously awaits the results from a recent test.

It isn’t her performance on an exam in a potions course that she’s concerned about. Instead, the higher-ups at Hogwarts had ordered she undergo some psychological tests. They had noticed how quickly she talked, along with her nervous tics.

Hermione eventually sees the results: “I stared at my parents, blinking my eyes. I knew the results would be here today, but I didn’t think the outcome would be like this. Asperger, the paper said.”

In this piece of fan fiction, Hermione Granger has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

As scholars of fan fiction and young adult literature, we started noticing how some fan fiction authors were incorporating autism into their stories – sometimes through new characters and other times by rewriting existing ones.

Since then we’ve been collecting and analyzing fan fictions in which young writers have created characters with autism.

These amateur writers seem to be eager to create the kinds of characters they aren’t regularly seeing in the media. The Harry Potter universe, in particular, has emerged as a popular setting.

The importance of autistic characters

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with autism, a word that covers a spectrum of conditions that psychologists refer to as autism spectrum disorder.

How autism manifests can vary greatly from person to person. Some experience significant disability, while others experience milder forms of cognitive difference and social discomfort.

But one thing is clear: Diagnoses have increased in the past 20 years, with the National Autism Association identifying autism as the “fastest growing development disorder.”

At the same time – outside of a couple of notable examples, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Rain Man” and Julia from “Sesame Street” – there continues to be a dearth of autistic characters in books, television shows and films.

Yet these media portrayals are extremely important: Accurate portrayals of autism can help people understand the complexities of this condition. Nonexistent depictions – not to mention misleading ones – foster misinformation and bias.

In 2015, Sonya Freeman Loftis, an assistant professor of English at Morehouse College, published “Imagining Autism: Fiction and Stereotypes on the Spectrum,” one of the few academic studies to take up the representation of autism in fiction.

Loftis critiques stereotypical depictions of autism in a range of fictional narratives, such as the character of Lennie in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” a figure whose disability is linked to sexual violence.

But she also points out that positive representations of autism spectrum disorder can actually highlight some of the strengths that those with autism possess: attention to detail, high levels of concentration, forthrightness, dedication and strong memory skills.

Activists and scholars like Loftis have argued that people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder should be more justly and accurately understood as “neurodiverse”: If neurological faculties exist on a continuum, theirs could simply be thought of as “different” from the statistical norm.

Young writers take the lead

If major studios and publishing companies express little interest in telling stories about people with autism, who can fill the void?

Fan fictions and other forms of do-it-yourself media-making are an outlet for people to explore issues that are often missing from mass market and popular entertainment.

Some of the most famous examples from fan fiction take place in the Star Trek universe, particularly those that imagine a gay relationship between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. In doing so, fans were able to integrate queer plots and themes into Gene Roddenberry’s science fiction universe at a time when few gay relationships were appearing on TV.

Given the paucity of mass media representation of autism, we wondered if young people might be using fan fiction to explore this complex topic.

Beginning in 2016 – and working with University of California, Irvine graduate student Vicky Chen – we started analyzing the writings that have appeared on a hugely popular fan fiction clearinghouse.

After selecting for categories such as “neurodiverse” and “differabilities,” we noticed that a number of stories set in the Harry Potter universe seemed to have autistic or neurodiverse characters. We collected and coded these stories, and are set to publish our findings in a forthcoming essay in the Journal of Literacy Research.

Most of the stories were written by young people who have siblings, relatives or friends with autism spectrum disorder. We concluded that, while some of these characters occasionally slip into stereotypes, most of them affirm the ability of people with autism spectrum disorder to confront bigotry and speak about their own conditions.

By extension, the stories promote an understanding of autism as something that isn’t scary or horrific.

In one story, for instance, the writer creates a new character, Albus Potter, the son of Harry Potter, who is autistic and newly enrolled in Hogwarts. In the story, Albus initially has difficulty forming relationships. But he ultimately finds friends in houses as diverse as Gryffindor and Slytherin.

His overprotective mother tries to shield him from ridicule by students and even some biased faculty. But she’s challenged by others, including her husband, who suggests that “Albus can do a great many things that people have said he couldn’t.”

The ‘magic’ of autism

Why the Harry Potter universe?

We reasoned that many of these young writers are still in school and likely huge fans of Harry Potter, so the choice of Hogwarts as a common setting isn’t surprising.

But many of the young authors also linked autism to a kind of “magic” or ability that could be understood at Hogwarts as special – even advantageous – in ways that “muggles,” or normal people, wouldn’t see. In all of the stories we analyzed, everyone with autism also has magical abilities.

In other cases, autism isn’t depicted as an impairment or a challenge to overcome. Instead, it simply appears as a “difference” – a portrayal that’s aligned with the goals of those who argue that autism should be thought of as a form of neurodiversity, not as an illness or disability.

Perhaps most significantly, this research points to the ways in which young people can craft complex representations of autism that the media shies away from.

We can’t say when positive representations of autism will move from fandom to the mainstream.

But until then, these young writers are quietly doing the work to help dispel stereotypes and generate understanding – perhaps even appreciation.The Conversation

Jonathan Alexander, Chancellor’s Professor of English and Gender & Sexuality Studies, University of California, Irvine and Rebecca Black, Associate Professor of Education, University of California, Irvine

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Explainer: what is fanfiction?

Rukmini Pande, University of Western Australia

Consider yourself a stranger to fanfiction? It’s unlikely.

If you’ve read E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey (2011) then you already have at least one title under your belt. If you caught Robert Downey Jr’s turn as Sherlock Holmes (2009), that’s another.

So what is it? At its most basic, fanfiction is a genre of amateur fiction writing that takes as its basis a “canon” of “original” material.

This original material is most often popular books, television shows and movies – but can expand to almost anything, from the lives of celebrities to the travels of inanimate objects like the Mars rover.

Fanworks, including fanfiction and fanart, are created by fans who are invested in the source material. They seek to expand the narrative universe and share their personal creations with other fans for free.

Fanfiction in other guises

Alice in Wonderland fanart.
Mary Blair/flickr, CC BY

The main impulse behind fanfiction has always been a playful desire to engage with original works. Yet authors are still subject to modern copyright laws. In Australia, the US and the EU, copyright exists for the lifetime of the author plus seventy years.

Many early Disney film adaptations were derivative works based on out-of-copyright novels – think Alice in Wonderland (1951) and The Jungle Book (1967). In a way this could be considered a form of fanfiction.

Today, existing restrictions mean those interested in “remixing” copyrighted material create online communities to discuss and distribute their work freely. One of the aims of the fan-led Organisation of Transformative Works is to fight for the validity of fair use laws.

Still, the amateur status copyright law forces on fanworks is one of the reasons fanfiction as a whole is regarded with some derision.

This is one reason why the Twilight fanfiction origins of 50 Shades of Grey were obscured. Due to residual textual and thematic similarities, the question of copyright infringement remains open.

Sherlock Holmes fans gathered to raise money for the restoration of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s study in London during 2014.
Andy Rain/AAP

Still, canonical works have remained a source of creative inspiration.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (1887-1927) series has spawned a veritable industry of derivative works, both sanctioned and unsanctioned. Many successful novelists, including Colleen McCullough with The Independence of Miss Mary Bennett (2009), publish literary reimaginings of Jane Austen’s novels.

The “fanfiction” classification usually results from the context of creation and circulation rather than anything inherent to the subject matter or quality of writing.

It’s fiction, Jim, but not as we know it…

Popular culture academics in the US and the UK trace the beginnings of an identifiable fan culture and community from the 1970s. These tendencies were first identified by Henry Jenkins in Textual Poachers (1992).

There is early evidence of fans coming together around science fiction television shows like The Man From U.N.C.LE. (1964-1968) and the original Star Trek (1966-1969).

Game of Thrones fanart.
MiMiKa Z/flickr, CC BY

Comparable communities formed around anime and manga in Japan during the 1980s. The influential all-female manga artist group Clamp first came to prominence through Doujinshi (amateur, self-published works) based on Captain Tsubasa (1983-1986) and Saint Seiya (1986-1989).

Today, thanks to the internet, connecting to other fans has never been easier. This level of accessibility has lead to a remarkable proliferation of what was once considered an obscure subculture.

In the digital realm, just one popular archival site – www.wattpad.com – currently hosts a staggering 40 million users a month.

It would be difficult to find a pop culture phenomenon today – from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Game of Thrones (2011-present) to K-dramas (Korean dramas) like Coffee Prince (2012-present) and Bollywood movies – that does not have fanfiction written about it.

Why do people write and read it?

Fanfiction enables readers, writers, and sometimes even literary professors to play in an imaginative sandbox, interpreting and reinterpreting events, relationships and characters to flesh out different scenarios.

Game of Thrones fanart.
MiMiKa Z/flickr, CC BY

The power of fanfiction stems from the fact that it actively invites writers to break down boundaries considered “natural” in a broader cultural context – primarily around sex, sexuality, and gender.

Fanfiction communities often critically engage with stories not written specifically for them. With doubts swirling over whether Marvel will ever make a Black Widow movie, is it any wonder female fans feel the need to create their own stories?

These reinterpretations interact with canonical events – actual events from the original text – in different ways, “filling in” unexplored aspects of a scene, or “fixing” things that were dissatisfying or problematic.

Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse’s study, Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (2006), found that fanfiction is primarily written by women, of all ages and sexual identities, and tends to explore – or “ship” – intimate and romantic relationships between characters.

Fans themselves have attempted to quantify the demographic diversity of readers and writers, with over 10,000 participants taking part in one particular survey.

Game of Thrones fanart.
MiMiKa Z/flickr, CC BY

Situated within such a demographic, fanfiction becomes a unique space within which a much more fluid approach to ideas of what is “possible” or “realistic” is encouraged.

As a result, fanfiction faces the same criticism as many genres where women predominate, from romance novels to young adult literature. Sarah Rees Brennan, a fanfiction writer who went “pro”, writes about her experiences in this context.

Those fans not engaged in fanfiction sometimes mock fanfiction writers for being “delusional”, questioning the “realism” of the relationships featured in fanworks. Additionally, since a lot of fanfiction is explicitly erotic, it becomes the target of parody.

The sheer volume and variable quality of fanfiction makes it an even easier target. Instead, I’d argue that the uneven quality of fanfiction reflects the low barrier of entry to the community rather than an inherent lack of value in the genre.

What are examples of the pitfalls?

This is not to say that the potential for subversion is always expressed unproblematically.

While transgressive in some ways, fanfiction writers and readers remain enmeshed within social power hierarchies. These communities do engage in self-critique, but issues of sexism and racism still persist.

Coffee Prince fanart.
Liz Mogollon/flickr, CC BY

Most English language fanfiction, whether it involves straight or queer relationships, remains concerned with white characters.

This is partly a reflection of the racial biases that still plague the production of the (mostly US) popular films and television shows that form the basis of these communities.

However, it is a worrying trend that even when non-white characters have significant roles in a canonical work, fanfiction very often fails to register this – or worse, undercuts it.

In Marvel Cinematic Universe fanfiction, characters of colour receive significantly less attention than their white counterparts. Clearly, interracial pairings (red) receive far less attention.


It is not surprising that Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Bucky Barnes’ (Winter Soldier) close canon relationship has prompted a great deal of fanfiction, but the difference concerning the number of stories about Sam Wilson’s (Falcon) pivotal relationship with Rogers is startling. The fact that there is more fanfiction for Rogers and Darcy Lewis, characters who have never met in canon, is further proof of this imbalance.

Although Clint Barton (Hawkeye) and Phillip Coulson barely interact in the films, they have prompted a very significant output of fanworks. Tony Stark’s (Iron Man) close friend James Rhodes (War Machine) is paired with him rarely whereas there are many stories featuring Stark alongside Rogers, Pepper Potts and Bruce Banner (The Hulk).

Similarly, while fanfiction based around non-US media like Bollywood films, anime or K-pop doesn’t have the same problems regarding race and ethnicity, it still must negotiate its own cultural prejudices.

Disrupting the canon

As Alexis Lothian, Kristina Busse and Robin Anne Reid conclude, fanfiction provides a fluid space for (mainly) queer women writers and readers to engage with the various pop cultural narratives that influence their lives.

These negotiations, while messy and problematic, retain the potential to (re)fashion the “canon” to be inclusive of a broader range of human experiences.

Hunger Games fanart.
Jade Lilly/flickr, CC BY

The Conversation

Rukmini Pande, PhD researcher in the fields of Popular Culture and Postcolonialism, University of Western Australia

La version originale de cet article a été publiée sur The Conversation.