Canon v Headcanon : gender and fan self-identification in the search for autistic representation on television

Shafee, Tia (2021) Canon v Headcanon : gender and fan self-identification in the search for autistic representation on television. (MA(R) thesis), Kingston University, .


Autistic characters on British and American television have a mixed impact on autistic and non-autistic viewers alike. Autistic viewers often identify alternative characters as being autistic, generating their own representation through their ‘headcanon’, representation that is often more akin to their own experiences. This research built on existing work to explore narratives of disability and the role of autistic characters in those narratives. It built on existing analysis of autistic characters across media by investigating the experience of autistic people in relation to these representations and self-identification with characters. It sought to understand the specific experiences of autistic women and non-binary people. Survey and interview methods were to explore the relationship that autistic people have with existing representation, including emotional responses and the impacts of these characters on autistic people and those around them. Participants then identified alternative characters who they consider to be autistic, and the traits and behaviours that lay beneath these headcanons. The research found that participants had mixed emotions, sometimes about the same character. They often felt that characters were stereotypical and did not provide a diversity of autistic experiences, but characters have impacts on the viewer’s perceptions and understanding of autism. In headcanon, participants identified more female characters than in canon, and a wider range of behavioural traits, such as different social behaviours in autistic women. Participants also identified a number of non-human or not entirely human characters, reflecting and improving upon existing narratives of the autistic person as other- not only other, but sometimes a more powerful other. The research provides small-sample insights into autistic people’s perceptions of autistic characters and how they could be improved. It outlines how participants’ personal interpretations of characters reflect their own experiences and understanding of autism, providing particular insight into the experiences of autistic women and non-binary people.

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