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Robert Rozema - Waiting for Autistic Superman: The Problematic Past and Possible Future of Autistic Superheroes

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posted on 29.06.2020 by Robert Rozema
Over the past 30 years, representations of autistic characters in superhero comics have been very rare and mostly wrong, even as autistic presence has increased dramatically in film, television, popular fiction, and other media. This paper constructs a provisional taxonomy of autistic representation in superhero comics, suggesting they appear in named, coded, claimed, and allegorical iterations. This essay focuses on illustrative examples of autistic superheroes from each category of representation. More specifically, I examine the first named autistic superhero to appear, Dehman Doosha, as well as the most famous named autistic superhero, Reed Richard/Mr. Fantastic. I also discuss two additional superheroes who appear alongside Reed and Dehman—the coded autistic character Michael Crawley, and the allegorical autistic character the Thing. I consider these characters from the theoretical perspective of disability studies, arguing that these comics have pathologized autism, promoted the institutionalization of neurodiverse individuals, or allegorized neurodevelopmental differences in ways that fail to advance Thunberg’s notion of autism as a “superpower.” Most critically, I argue that superhero comics are influential cultural narratives that shape social perceptions about autism. Accordingly, I conclude by imagining a possible future for autistic superheroes, calling for neurodivergent and neurotypical artists alike to develop narratives that counter previous, pathologizing depictions of autism by showing the lived experiences of authentic autistic characters.

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Robert Rozema is an English professor at Grand Valley State University, where he teaches courses in digital studies, comics, contemporary fiction, and English education. He is the author of Seeing the Spectrum: Teaching English Language Arts to Adolescents with Autism and the Editor-in-Chief of Ought: The Journal of Autistic Culture.

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