Fan Diagnosis

Today’s question is by Andi C Buchanan:

This is a bit my pet topic at the moment, so I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts: is it useful/helpful/important/problematic to diagnose fictional characters as autistic where the author has not signified them as such (and particularly in works written before such diagnoses/labels/identities existed), and how does this tie in with discussion of the validity of self versus professional diagnosis?

This is a question where the answer seemed obvious to me at first (YES OF COURSE you can diagnose fictional characters), but I’m struggling with how to express it.

Some thoughts:

  • It is important to be able to identify with people in the media who are like you in some way, especially if it’s a socially stigmatized way and the character is a positive representation
  • Some authors write characters that are marked as autistic, but write them in really problematic or insulting ways
  • Some authors write characters that are marked as autistic and are sort of okay, but are full of the medical model and strongly othered or stereotyped
  • Some authors write characters that are cool, and behave a lot like the way an autistic person would behave in real life
  • Some authors write characters that are cool, and behave a little bit according to autistic stereotypes, and a little bit not, and are likely not an accurate representation, but are cool enough and just close enough to being autistic that many autistic readers really strongly want to identify with them (I think this is what is going on with Sherlock fandom, for instance)
  • Sometimes these authors with cool characters mark the character as autistic, and sometimes they don’t
  • If we say that we can’t armchair diagnose people, we are effectively saying that autistic people are allowed to identify with the really problematic, medical-model characters, but not with the cool characters who act a lot like good autism representation but happen not to be explicitly marked that way
  • That seems obviously wrong to me


  • There are various reasons why an author might write an autistic-seeming character but not mark them as autistic
  • The author might strongly believe that the character is not supposed to be autistic
  • The author might be trying to write about a related neurotype which is not quite autism but very similar
  • The author might not know enough about autism to know that their character seems autistic
  • The author might be afraid of getting into big discussions of disability politics, and might think that the only way to avoid these is to avoid explicitly marking the character
  • The author might be afraid of not selling as many books (or getting as many ratings, or whatever) if they start explicitly talking about autism
  • There are lots of other reasons
  • Just because a character is not marked as autistic does not necessarily mean that diagnosing them is a violation of what the author intended
  • On TV there are also characters who are created by more than one person – for instance, written by a team of writers and then brought to life by an actor
  • The different people involved in creating a character might have different opinions about whether the character is autistic
  • (This is part of what’s going on with Sheldon Cooper, for instance)
  • So there isn’t even necessarily one single author with one single intent that readers must adhere to


  • People in fandom have “headcanon” and infer things or even just make things up about their favourite characters all the time
  • Even if it blatantly contradicts what the author intended
  • If you think headcanon is okay but head-diagnosis is not, then you have a double standard
  • Because a fan diagnosis is really just headcanon about what a character’s neurotype might be
  • The only reason to object to fan diagnosis but not headcanon is if you think disability is somehow sacred and special and can only ever be talked about by experts lest we Get Something Wrong
  • But for a lot of us, disability is just a part of life
  • And experts are sometimes wrong, especially if they are stuck in the medical model
  • Autism experts do and say a lot of hurtful things (#notallautismexperts but a lot of them do this) and are not always aware of the full lived experience of the people they study – which is why we have so much self-diagnosis and so many people slipping through the diagnosis cracks in the first place
  • Given their track record in real life, I don’t see any reason to let such experts dictate what we can and can’t have in our headcanon

This is not to say that headcanon can’t be problematic. Like if someone has a terrible stereotype in their head and diagnoses people according to the terrible stereotype even if they act nothing like how a real autistic person would act. But I think that when problems like that happen, they are best dealt with individually by the rest of fandom, not by some pronouncement that you Shouldn’t Diagnose Fictional People Ever.

I also think that the benefit of us getting to decide for ourselves what characters we identify with outweighs the cost of any problematic headcanons that might get thrown around too.

So that’s what I am thinking, in general.

(January is now half over, but if you’re late to the party, you can still pick a January blogging topic here!)