Here on the blog, I feature interviews with an expert on how to write about a character with a chronic illness or disability that they struggle with. See a list of all the interviews here! While I still recommend getting a sensitivity reader for your work, use these posts to consider how you can accurately portray disabled characters. Today’s feature is autism with Kayla Rodriguez. Shout out to Kayla for taking the time to answer my questions!
1. Could you describe your symptoms and the experience of discovering them?
“When I was 3 years old my mom noticed that I wasn’t talking when I was supposed to. I was just watching TV all day, even at my birthday party. That led my mom to see someone about it, and they diagnosed me with PDD, which became Autism. I was recently re-diagnosed with it. My characteristics of my autism are stimming, needing breaks, social anxiety, sensitivity to loud noises, needing directions and being told things literally, being a picky eater, and having a good memory.”
2. What are some of your biggest frustrations living with this condition?
“My biggest frustrations being autistic aren’t really about autism itself. Sure, I would like to not be sensitive to loud noises, not be a picky eater, not have meltdowns, and know more about social skills. But my biggest frustration is living in a society that doesn’t accept me and people like me. I am also frustrated with people wanting to “cure,” “treat,” and/or “prevent” people like me. Society doesn’t take autistic people seriously and they don’t value our lives. Like the anti-vaxx movement. Those people in that movement rather have their kids be ill or dead than take a vaccine that can save them because they think it might cause autism, which has been proven false.”
3. Does anything make life with autism easier?
“What makes me feel better is having a group of friends, both autistic and non-autistic, that accept me and support me and relate to me. I also have a supportive mother who has fought for my rights since the beginning and I also have supportive sisters.”
4. Do you struggle with any particular emotions due to autism?
“The emotions I struggle with are stress, knowing I made people upset and making mistakes. Sometimes I have meltdowns when I’m overwhelmed and/or I had a verbal fight with my mom and/or made mistakes and hurt someone’s feelings.”
5. How do other people behave around you? Do they treat you differently?
“How people behave around me is a mixed bag. Because my friends understand me, they treat me like any of their other friends, which is awesome. It makes me feel like I’m not weird. However, when meeting new people, especially girls I’m into, I show my poor social skills and I feel like they think I’m weird and so they behave and treat me differently because of that.”
6. What was your diagnosis experience like? How has your experience with doctors been?
“Well, I was originally diagnosed at age 3 with PDD, which evolved into autism. I just got a re-diagnosis of autism recently. When I was in Florida, nobody knew much about autism because it was during the mid-2000s and there wasn’t a lot of info back then. They didn’t know what to do with me or how to help me adjust in this society. As I developed mental illnesses, it became even harder.”
7. Have you seen this condition represented in media? What are some common pitfalls or stereotypes writers should avoid?
“I’ve rarely seen autism portrayed in the media. In the rare times that I did, almost all got it completely wrong. It was one-dimensional, straight, asexual, white male geniuses that excel in science or math. These are the stereotypes writers should avoid because not every autistic is like that. There are positive examples like the TV show Everything’s Gonna Be Okay on Freeform and Hulu and the Pixar shorts Float and Loop on Disney+. Loop actually has an autistic female (who is also a person of color) and Everything’s Gonna Be Okay has autistic females too. Writers should strive to write autistic characters like in Float, Loop, and Everything’s Gonna Be Okay. Write fully three dimensional autistic characters of any race, gender, and sexuality.”
8. What are things you can’t do? What are things you can do?
“I don’t think there is anything I can’t do due to my autism. I think I can do anything. I’m verbal and my only limit is how scared I am to try new things.”
9. What advice would you give to someone who wants to accurately write about a character with autism?
“I would say make the audience aware they are autistic and show their autistic traits but don’t make it the center of the story and make it something the audience should feel bad about. One good example is The Mitchells vs The Machines on Netflix. A lot of people see the little brother Aaron as autistic. While, unfortunately, the film never states he is autistic directly, he does share traits that autistic people have. The best part is that the family accepts him for who he is and he does play a big role in the plot. His traits are just a part of him that he and his family aren’t ashamed of, and his traits aren’t the center of the story.”
10. What advice would you give to a writer creating a character whose autism intersects with other minority identities—such as gender or race?
“My advice would be to not make their autism a problem. Make the character three-dimensional and avoid the stereotypes autistic characters often fall into. I would also suggest making sure you include their race, gender, and sexuality as part of who they are and not make it a problem either. But also make sure you take their intersectionality into account. Like how they deal with racism, ableism, homo/transphobia, sexism and just everything you have to deal with in life. I am an intersectional person with mutiple identities like autism, ADHD, type 1 diabetes, Latinx, a woman, lesbian, and mental illnesses. Even though they are a huge part of me, they are not all that I am. So remember that when you write characters with multiple identities, remember that it’s a big part of them, but not all of them.”
Kayla Rodriguez: Autism, ADHD, OCD and PTSD all rolled into a Puerto Rican lesbian 🇵🇷🏳️🌈 Snapchat: kayla51123 Twitter and Tiktok: @theKwomanrules https://www.amazon.com/Sincerely-Your-Autistic-Child-Acceptance/dp/0807025682/