Autism is a difference in neurological functioning characterized by social communication difficulties, sensory sensitivities, and intense special interests. Specific symptoms and their severity vary wildly from person to person; as such, autism is considered a spectrum. For a while, Asperger's Syndrome was used as a specific diagnosis for autistic people who didn't have cognitive or language-related disabilities, but psychologists have since decided that the distinction of Asperger's and "high functioning autism" is too vague and Asperger's is now officially just part of the broader Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis. One out of 68 children in the US is now diagnosed with some form of Autism Spectrum Disorder. The increase in numbers is mainly due to increased awareness and understanding; many autistic adults have gone through their lives either with other diagnoses or just seen as "odd."
Representation of officially-diagnosed characters in superhero comics is minimal, and the situation isn't much better in indie comics. There are, however, many characters who, while not officially diagnosed, do display characteristics of autism and that autistic fans have largely embraced. Here's a list of 11 canonically autistic characters from comics and superhero media, followed by five popular fan theories.
16 BLACK MANTA
Aquaman's nemesis Black Manta is at the bottom of this list because frankly he's just embarrassing in terms of autistic representation. Issue #8 of the 2003 Aquaman comics series retconned him as an autistic orphan brought up in Arkham, who is somehow "cured" of his autism and then becomes a supervillain. Autism is not something that can be cured, and many don't even think it should be cured!
Autism often comes with gifts and harmless differences as well as disabilities, and the more disabling symptoms can be treated individually. Still, whatever your thoughts on the cure issue, using it as a cheap edgy excuse for evil is tasteless. Now which Black Manta origin story is more tasteless: the 2003 autism one or the 1993 child molestation one? That's for you to decide!
Legion is a character who's received a lot of attention recently thanks to his excellent show on FX. What he isn't is a clear representation of autism. In his first appearance in New Mutants #25, Moira MacTaggert described him as "first catatonic, now autistic." He's also been described multiple times as schizophrenic. Both of these descriptions make it seem like there has been some serious ignorance on mental health issues over at Marvel.
What Legion actually has is Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple personalities). It's possible for DID to overlap with autism (Elliot from Mr. Robot is an example of a character who seems to have both), but there's just no real evidence that Legion's autism is anything other than a faulty diagnosis by ignorant writers.
14 A WHOLE BUNCH OF D-LIST X-MEN
These could fill up more space on the list but there's just not much to write about most of these characters. Some are better than others but they're all pretty minor. There's Laura Dean who's written as having been autistic as a kid but then growing out of it (that's not how autism works); there's L'il Bro whose severe autism symptoms are insinuated to be caused by sexual abuse (that's also not how autism works); there's Chaos who's actually a swarm of nanomachines (...OK, then); and then there's the unfortunately-named Dummy who's a cloud of sentient gas and dies after four appearances (....comics are weird). Slightly more significant than those four is Claudette St. Croix, who was mostly seen fused with her neurotypical twin Nicole into a single body. She hasn't been seen in any form since the start of the new millennium.
13 JOHNNY DO
Johnny Do was a severely autistic pyrokinetic child in the comic Psi-Force, one of the eight series in Marvel's short lived "New Universe" line (Earth-148611) that lasted from 1986 to 1989. Johnny was horribly mistreated as a captive of the Russian Siberian Project, treated like an animal and threatened with a lobotomy. Another inmate, psychic vampire Thomas Boyd, broke out of the Project and rescued him, more or less adopting him as his own.
While still nonverbal and heavily disabled, Johnny began to thrive and open up under Boyd's loving protection, working alongside him as part of the Medusa Web covert ops organization. Perhaps we'd have seen him grow and develop even more has the "New Universe" not been a colossal failure, destroyed quickly after it was introduced.
The officialness of Nepeta's autism in the popular webcomic Homestuck is a bit more debatable than most of these examples, given that the character who calls her autistic is Karkat, a literal troll who could just as easily been rudely insulting her as much as describing her accurately. Still, she didn't object at all to being called autistic, so combined with her characterization there's more than enough evidence to lean on the idea that, yes, Nepeta is canonically autistic.
She stims by biting her hat (stims are the type of repetitive gestures that autistic people find comforting), is socially isolated, has an intense special interest in the form of shipping, and relates more to cats than she does to her peers (this is common among autistic people).
11 ROSA REYES
Rosa Reyes, introduced in issue #5 of Simon Oliver's comic FBP: The Federal Bureau of Physics (previously titled Collider), is a tough-as-nails special agent investigating quantum abnormalities in a world where violations of the laws of physics have become commonplace. She's good at her job, driven by a desire to understand the mysteries that tore her family apart, but has zero talent for things like small talk and has been thrown around between departments because of her weak social skills.
She initially didn't get along with her partner Adam Hardy, who makes "Rain Man" jokes and other ableist comments regarding her Asperger's, but the two of them have to work together and grow to respect each other over the course of the 24-issue series.
10 BLUE RANGER (2017 FILM VERSION)
The new Power Rangers movie has been divisive, but one thing both fans and critics can generally agree on is the portrayal of Billy Cranston, the new Blue Ranger, as being openly autistic. It was by far one of its stronger points. He's notable as the first autistic superhero to be acknowledged directly as such on the big screen. He's also a rare example of a black autistic person represented in the media.
Autistic people of color frequently go undiagnosed and don't receive the same level of services as white autistic people, so media representation is extra important. Of the officially confirmed examples on this list, Billy is probably the most high profile. Well, except for the next one, who you might not have known is autistic, but you've certainly heard of him...
9 MR. FANTASTIC
Yes, what had once been a subject of speculation is now officially canonical. As of 2012's Fantastic Four Season One graphic novel by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Reed Richards has diagnosed himself with autism, though he is also developing a cure for it. We can talk about how this representation is problematic, how it seems unlikely an autistic person as successful in life as Reed would consider curing himself (keep in mind a cure for something that affects his entire brain would basically rewrite him into a completely different person), or about the controversies over self-diagnosis (too much to get into here). But despite all that, the simple fact of the founder of the Fantastic Four being autistic is cool enough to rank him high on the list.
Going from the most famous to the most obscure character on this list, Emma is a nonverbal autistic magical girl whose internal monologue provides the narration in Fabian Lelay and Katy Rex's Jade Street Protection Services. Over the course of the series, she seeks independence, struggles with anxiety, makes new friends (she communicates with them through texting), and kicks ass as a markswoman.
Rex made sure to do her research to portray Emma believably, relying on feedback from her editor Magdalene Visaggio, the creator of Kim & Kim, who is also autistic. Running only four issues, JSPS feels a bit rushed but also like a potentially promising start for a new team of superheroines we hope to see more of in the future (the trade paperback collection releases January 9th, 2018).
7 MARK SHIFFRON
Mark Shiffron, the mailman protagonist of Matt Hawkins' Postal, is the least "super" character on this list. What's so special about him as far as characters in Asperger Syndrome go is the writing treats him as, well, normal. Yes, he has eccentricities, like anyone on the spectrum. But as the only citizen of the town of Eden who isn't a convict, those eccentricities are pretty insignificant compared to the weirdness of the mysteries around him.
The fact is, Mark is the character the average reader will find themselves sympathizing with the most. Early chapters might be a bit heavy on basic explanations of Asperger's, but it's clear the writers get it, and Mark quickly develops beyond "Asperger's 101" into a complex, compelling character faced with some difficult choices.
6 GARY BELL
Weighing various factors of realism, respectfulness, quality, and popularity, Gary Bell from the gone-but-not-forgotten SyFy Channel series Alphas comes in as our top officially-confirmed autistic superhero. The brilliance of Alphas' concept is that every hero's strengths were intrinsically linked to their challenges, and that perspective made Gary one of the best portrayals of an autistic person in any TV show.
His ability to see all electromagnetic signals was a natural extension of the sensory overstimulation at the root of autistic people's simultaneous gifts and disabilities. He could function in the wider world but was most comfortable in his own. The actor, Ryan Cartwright, completely nailed the character's body language and way of speaking. Gary was so beloved among viewers that his role was increased for the show's second season.
5 FAN THEORY: KINGPIN (MCU)
This is how you write a disabled villain without being Black Manta-level offensive. While it's debatable how much of Wilson Fisk's behavior is due to childhood trauma versus anything like autism, symptoms such as his difficulty with eye contact, preference for precise routine, and stilted speech patterns have led critics to interpret him as an autistic character.
Actor Vincent D'Onofrio knows what he's doing in portraying the character in this manner; he has family on the spectrum and has publicly wondered if he'd be diagnosed as such were he growing up today. Unlike how often mental health issues are used as a scapegoat for villainy, Fisk's autistic-seeming tendencies have nothing to do with his evil plans and instead help to humanize him. In all his awkwardness, he might be the MCU's most charming bad guy.
4 FAN THEORY: DRAX AND MANTIS (MCU)
Drax, who takes metaphors literally and always says what's on his mind regardless of whether it's socially appropriate, became a favorite among autistic viewers following the release of the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Whether or not this interpretation was James Gunn's original intention when making the first film, he certainly became aware of how the character was resonating, and in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 the resonance feels extra intentional.
In addition to his literalness and brutal honesty, Drax also demonstrates sensory sensitivities in the film ("My nipples!"). The new character Mantis also seems to be written with shades of the spectrum; while she can feel other people's emotions intensely, she has difficulty understanding them and struggles with the basics of social interaction.
3 FAN THEORY: L
The "mildly autistic super-detective" is common enough to be a cliche (Community mocked the prevalence of the archetype), but it can be done well. L from Tsugumi Ohba's manga series Death Note and its subsequent film and anime adaptations is one of the better examples of the trope. The asocial, poorly-postured, candy-addicted, "crazy"-seeming detective is firmly on the side of righteousness. Meanwhile, the popular, traditionally handsome, good-at-sports-and-gets-good-grades Light Yagami is secretly the world's biggest serial killer.
All of this sends a strong message that one's ability to conform to social norms is not at all a reflection on the quality of one's character. It will be interesting to see how LaKeith Stanfield's portrayal of the character in the Americanized Netflix movie, releasing on August 25th 2017, compares to the original comic and the previous adaptations.
2 FAN THEORY: SHERLOCK HOLMES
Speaking of "mildly autistic super-detectives," Sherlock Holmes invented this trope. Most versions of the character dating back to the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories could easily be considered autistic; there's volumes of academic writing on the subject. There's also been much debate over whether Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal in the BBC series Sherlock (subsequently adapted into a manga) qualifies as such.
Watson in the show speculates on whether his partner has Asperger's but Sherlock is insistent that he's a "high-functioning sociopath." The sociopath label doesn't seem fully accurate, though. While Sherlock is often knowingly a jerk to others, he still cares deeply about his friends even if he's awkward showing it, something which is definitely not sociopathic and makes him read closer to being on the autism spectrum.
1 FAN THEORY: SPOCK
This list couldn't end with any other character. Pretty much as soon as there was an autistic community, Spock became one of its greatest heroes. Misread by others as unemotional but actually capable of emotions so deep that it hurts, making sense of a confusing world through pure logic and intelligence, autistic people have long related to Spock. noted professor and autism spokesperson, Temple Grandin, is a huge fan.
In the book Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, which traces how science fiction fandom became one of the most accepting places for autistic people, author Steve Silberman points to Star Trek, where Spock and all his different ways of functioning are valued by others and not treated as a problem, as a hopeful future for the acceptance of neurodiversity.
Can you think of any other heroes who have been confirmed as being on the spectrum? Help us fill out our list in the comments section!