I have always been a pretty big nerd. Looking back over my life, I’ve got Star Wars: check, Anime: check, Comic Books: check check check. This year, I decided to add another scoop of geek cred to my pile by doing something I’ve always wanted to try. Enter Dungeons and Dragons. It worked out that some friends of mine had been wanting to start a new game, and what better way to learn than with friends? I spent hours making my character. Seriously, his backstory is pages long. Since the best way I know how to do something new is to absorb all the information I can find on it, whir it up in my brain blender, and then make it my own by reassembling it, I took advantage of the almost 45 years worth of character building literature out there. I know his alignment (true neutral), I know his race (Tengu), I know about his family, I know how fast he is, I know his motivations. I also know that his name translates into ‘Garbage’ (his parents were clearly very cruel). I know so many things about him that I’m starting to feel really comfortable playing him. But I had a thought recently and I’m still mulling over it. If I’m playing Taaka, does that mean he’s autistic too?
One of the great things about Role Playing Games is that you get to be someone who is entirely unlike you. And I’ve found that to be really freeing. In real life, I’m definitely a rule follower. Granted the rules I follow are my own, and not always those accepted by society, but still, I usually follow rules regardless of what I want to do personally. This character is not like that. His short life has been hard, and he has no qualms about doing whatever is necessary to survive. So in that way, I can reconcile him being different from me; we have totally different backgrounds. I can imagine his past well enough to guess what he would do in a given situation. But what I’m not sure I can do is imagine what a neurotypical person would do. Life experience has proven that I’m not very good at predicting what a non-autistic person will think or do or say. So does that mean that my autism is coloring how my character experiences the world?
I think it comes down to the issue that often comes up when neurotypical writers try to write autistic characters: that even if they get past the stereotypes, they are still trying to understand the world in a way that is entirely foreign to them. It’s hard to teach someone to think in a different way. It’s why ABA doesn’t actually work. People can be taught to imitate the thoughts of others, but it’s sort of like learning a second language as an adult, you may get fluent, but you’ll never be a native speaker. So can I treat neurotypical as a second language of sorts? I spend most of my life scripting, and people learning languages rely heavily on that as well. I fake nonverbal communication, and language-learners fake accents. In the beginning, they can probably only order coffee, find a train station, and count to twenty, and on bad days, that’s about all I can do too. So the major question is, are my neurotypical ‘skills’ enough to let my character be neurotypical? If I’m faking it, is he faking it? Is his big picture colored by my autistic lens?
I’m asking a lot of questions because this is the sort of philosophical thing that really gets stuck in my head. Mostly because I’ve spent such a large chunk of my life trying to observe and imitate other people. I’ve gotten good enough that sometimes, I can pass. Sometimes I can even understand the thought process behind what I’m doing (which let me tell you is so cool!). But neither of these things makes my brain any less autistic. It’s just like a native language, I think in autism, I dream in autism, and I communicate most organically in autism. Which has led me to the following conclusion: I can never truly play a neurotypical character because I’ve never lived a neurotypical life. I can research it, I can understand it, but in the end, my character will never be able to interact with his world in a truly neurotypical was because I can’t. It’s easy to play a character with a different alignment than you, with a different temperament than you, with a different religion than you. People play dragons and elves and gargoyles all the time. Hell, my character is a giant bird-man, and I manage that ok. I can pretend to have feathers and a beak, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pretend that the way my brain interprets the world can be anything less than autistic. So Taaka will have a small trace of my autism, and I think he’ll be better for it. Maybe my next character will actually be autistic. Or whatever they call autistic in Golarian. There are things about me that I can stop from translating to my fictional role, but I think it’s ok that autism isn’t one of them. I’m playing him as an Autistic Tengu Magus, and all three of those parts of him are important. Maybe not as important as him getting his hands on a bag of holding, but we all have priorities.