Why Are so Many Autistic People Obsessed With Anime?

Updated on April 16, 2018
RachaelLefler profile image

Rachael has been an anime blogger since 2010, with an intense passion and depth of knowledge for the subject.

Autism in the Anime Fan Community

You might think all of us anime fans are autistic, but actually only a minority of us are. But it seems that psychologists and special ed teachers have noticed that many autistic adults and children like anime and manga. Some people might wonder why? What is it about anime and manga that makes it appealing for people with autism?

A few caveats before proceeding. First, I do not have autism or an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) myself, so when I try to describe the experiences of autistic persons, I am using research. I am not a primary source. Second, of course I have to point out that I do not claim that all the experiences of autistic people are the same, nor do I claim that all persons with autism or ASD are the same. Any generalization I make is based on psychological research, but is not absolute and will not necessarily apply to all persons with ASD. But educated and well-researched generalizations, while not matching everyone's personal experiences, are useful for discussing psychological disorders. They're designed to help professionals use patterns associated with persons with a particular psychological disorder to help those people. But we know patterns are not always true, they're just generally true.

So why do kids love Cinnamon Toast Crunch - er why do autistic kids (and adults) love anime and manga? I came up with 8 reasons why I think this to be the case, based on attending a panel on the subject by local autism expert James Williams and my own research and my experiences as an anime fan/expert.

1. Escaping Reality

This is something that James Williams said, but it applies to people with many struggles in life, not just autism. While other types of fiction kind of play it safe and conventional, not taking many risks by being different in order to make money, anime and manga is quirky. It's unique. Many of us like it because it's illogical, because it's crazy, because it's not anything like reality. Realistic fiction only serves to remind us that reality is sometimes awful. For autistic people who face many challenges in life due to their disorder and due to society not understanding them or their disorder well, a break from reality is sometimes highly desirable.

Almost all the biggest and most popular anime involve allowing a person to feel as though they're able to enter and participate in a fantasy world. In this world, virtue and hard work are always rewarded, and any obstacle can be overcome with a positive fighting spirit. You can be a pirate, ninja, Pokemon master, even a grim reaper. The world of anime and manga offers unlimited possibilities that reality doesn't. And being active in the community by writing fan fiction, doing fan art, and cosplaying all help fans connect with these imaginary fun places in a way that almost makes them seem real.

2. Friendship Lessons

The western cartoon, My Little Pony; Friendship is Magic is also very popular with the autistic community, and probably for this reason. Anime and manga, like MLP, tend to offer "aesops" or moral lessons that often revolve around friendships and relationships. "Nakama" is a major theme in anime and manga, meaning a loyal group of comrades or teammates that look out for each other and form a kind of non-biological family to each other.

In anime, meeting new people and forming friendships just happens by a kind of storytelling magic. In real life, the initial process of making friends is intimidating even for the socially skilled, but even more so for people who lack social development. The friendships that anime characters have are usually rock solid and enviable. Characters usually make great sacrifices to help each other. It could be said to be a portrayal of the ideal sort of friendship people wish they could have in real life, kind of like how romance novels portray an ideal sort of romantic relationship people wish they could have.

Source

3. Easy to Read Emotionally

Relationships and friendships can be confusing to people with autism. Approaching people can be scary, and understanding all the subtle ways people communicate non-verbally can be a challenge too. They can get better at this with therapy and practice, but it is a challenge. Another social problem people with autism face is mistakenly giving offense to others when they didn't mean to. Sometimes, they just lack the self-awareness and social intuition to know how their actions are interpreted or understood by others.

Anime helps by being less subtle than real-life human interactions. Emotions are exaggerated. In a picture, you can study a person's face for a long time and they won't get mad at you for staring. Sometimes, persons with autism need to study a facial expression for a long time to understand it. Manga also gives more context clues as to what the characters are feeling. Since the focus is on the visual aspect, more emotion is conveyed through the visuals. Anime emotions are usually big, loud, and dramatic, making them easier to read than real-world emotions. Social interactions in anime and manga also often involve a clear-cut sense of right and wrong. Words flow more smoothly in anime and manga than natural conversations do in the real world. All of this makes anime and manga easier for persons with autism to understand than real-world encounters with other people.

Indeed, manga typically caricatures characters' emotional states; angry characters are drawn in grotesque distortions; sad characters are shown with tears streaming down their cheeks.

— Robert Rozema, "Manga and the Autistic Mind" Article by the National Council of Teachers of English

4. Japanese Culture

Now, anime is not Japanese culture, but many anime and manga fans around the world also have an affinity for other aspects of Japanese culture as well. Some like Japanese marital arts like kendo, judo, and karate. Others like their more peaceful arts like bonsai trees, flower arrangement, the tea ceremony, Zen Buddhism, calligraphy, and painting. Still others like Japanese literature, live action films, TV shows, and other fiction. Me? I have a soft spot for Japan's huggable critters. Some might also like their interesting mythology and folklore. Japan truly is a great civilization all around, and anime and manga is but one aspect of this glory.

But what about Japanese culture do I think might be especially appealing to autistic people? Quiet, for one. Everything I've read on Japanese culture indicates that they're an introvert-friendly society. They religiously observe quiet in public spaces. People tend to avoid approaching strangers, with the general assumption that people prefer to be left alone. Certainly, if I went to Japan I wouldn't expect to see my least favorite part of the holiday season; someone ringing a goddamn bell in my face every time I go to the store. Sure, they have festivals and noisy pachinko parlors, but probably less of the aggressive street soliciting I have to deal with in Chicago.

James said that you would think Japanese culture, being incredibly formal and rigid, would not appeal to autistic people, who have a hard time figuring out social norms. But I think that formal standards of etiquette actually help people with low social skills, because they offer them a kind of script or road map. It's sort of like a world where everyone intuitively can guess which way north is, but some people need a compass. One of the most confusing things about western culture is that there are very few formal rules set in stone. Interrupting and shoving are rude, as is sticking your hands into other people's food, chewing with your mouth open, etc. Rules like that are easy to memorize and make intuitive sense. But so much is left up to the individual and the particular circumstance, that people with autism spectrum disorders or other social impairments might have a hard time figuring out what to do in many situations.

Autistic people like exact rules, generally. They want a sense of order that comes from having a rule for everything. This can put people off, coming across as anal and inflexible. But having a logical order for things reduces the anxiety caused by social interaction. My own experience as a person with social anxiety is that my anxiety is reduced the more formal the situation. Sure, extremely formal situations like expensive wedding banquets and job interviews are daunting, but for me, social situations are easiest if there are strict rules everyone must follow. Then, as long as you learn and follow the rules, you feel safe. And I imagine the same goes for autistic people.

5. Anime Community

Anime fans make up one of the most supportive and tolerant communities anywhere, not just for people with autism, but for all sorts of minority and socially disadvantaged groups. For many, anime conventions and fan clubs are a kind of social safe space. Like I said, I have social anxiety symptoms and find that to be true for me, that I have less anxiety generally at an anime con than anywhere else that would have comparable numbers of people in a comparably small, hot, sweaty hotel conference room. Mostly, that's because my social anxiety is about a fear of bullying, condemnation, social ostracism, and judgment. In anime conventions, I don't have to be afraid of those things. Everyone else who is there has also probably been bullied, and no one is going to fault me for letting my rainbow-haired, trivia-memorizing geeky self out of the box. I assume that this sense of an accepting, non-judgmental community is also a big draw for autistic anime fans as well.

6. Fictional Struggles They Relate To

One story James mentioned was that people with autism have trouble getting up in the morning, so he could really relate to Ash in the first episode of Pokemon, who gets up late and rushes to Professor Oak's lab in a panic, worried that the three starter Pokemon are already taken. They are, and that's how Ash ended up with Pikachu. That's just one example, but oftentimes a character need not be autistic canonically to have some of the same life struggles people with autism face. Many anime characters face school problems, bullying, harassment, social uncertainty, communication problems, social mistakes, and other problems common for people with autism spectrum disorders. So for people with autism, anime can be a way of seeing how best to handle their "worst case scenario" situations. Sometimes knowing how one might handle a worst case scenario helps people face a potentially awkward social situation with more confidence.

7. Anime Often Shows School Bullying

If you're an adult-adult like me, it can be a little irritating that there are so many anime centered around middle school or high school aged kids. But for people who are in middle and high school, they can help kids face a lot of the everyday social challenges associated with school. I said before that anime fans primarily watch anime to escape reality. And if you're talking about something like Flip Flappers, that's completely true. But people also do watch more realistic anime sometimes, and this is probably why; they get to see how other people handle distressing real-life situations.

Many anime protagonists face bullying and social ostracism, which unfortunately many autistic people can relate to.

8. Anime is Information

If you can name them all, you might just be an otaku.
If you can name them all, you might just be an otaku.

One common symptom of autism is basically fitting the original Japanese definition of the word "otaku", being ridiculously obsessive about something in particular, whether it's dinosaurs, trains, comic books, or anime. Anime fans make their own fan wikis, edit Wikipedia and TV Tropes articles about their favorite anime, write about and memorize details about their favorite anime. This can be part of an autistic person's obsession or part of a neurotypical person's obsession, anyone can geek.

But autistic people tend to obsess a lot, and passionately, about a variety of things. Things like Pokemon are attractive in that they have a variety of types and categories and facts (sort of like studying animals, bugs, or dinosaurs). I think autistic people tend to be attracted to information and good at memorizing facts. And anime is just one of many things of which there are a lot of facts to memorize. Just following the plot and characters of a long-running anime series with lots of characters is a challenge, let along getting into the sea of fan fiction and fan theory. Learning about this stuff is a lot of fun for people who like that kind of thing.

Conclusion

So, we can see here that the combination of anime being easy to read emotionally, anime being a friendly and tolerant community, and anime being both a fun escape from reality, an idealized version of reality, and a way of seeing issues with socializing and bullying resolved in a positive way. Autistic people are very sensitive, and tend to emotionally relate to fictional characters going through difficult emotional struggles often. And the anime community is a place where they can feel safer expressing their deep love and passionate knowledge of the subject they love without being ridiculed as geeky or obsessive. For all of us, anime is not just a show or shows, but about belonging to a community. And autistic people most likely feel more welcome among us than they do elsewhere.

Questions & Answers

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      • Fred Heiser profile image

        Fred 4 weeks ago from SoCal

        I have HFA, High Functioning Autism, which is what they used to call Asperger's. I first met anime back in 1988 when I watched a 16mm showing of Vampire Slayer D at a science fiction convention. I fell in love with it and never stopped. I find myself wishing the real world were as simple as the anime world. Even watching a complex piece of seinen like Ghost in the Shell, the plot is easy to follow, the characters easy to understand and empathize with and the philosophical questions raised are fascinating.

        I'm an old man now and I still watch anime. Sometimes I spend more time looking for good material than actually watching. There is a lot of crap out there and the majority of anime is merely mediocre. Most anime leaves one upbeat and happy that the underdog won the day. Still, I'll find a show like Kimi ni Todoke that mirrors what I wish my childhood had been like (even tho the protagonist is female) so well that it can leave me in tears.

        Sometimes the plot is both so well done and utterly tragic it leaves me in tears. (Your Lie in April, H2O: Footprints, Clannad Afterstory, Angel Beats). This doesn't happen unless you fall in love with one or more characters.

        It is good to fall in love, even if it is with a fictional character. It is good to cry occasionally, even though the loss is that same fictional character. Better to experience these things in fiction than never to experience them at all.

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        The shrub lord 2 months ago

        I have aspergers and I say your making it waaaaaay too complex. Basically for me it's just colourful cute shit with big eyes. "Moe" crap helps me calm down and sleep. This would usually come as a shock to most ppl bc I an usually putting the full brunt of my autism into hunting, fishing, guns, knives, swords, politics, political philosophy, exc. basically, I just want to know anything that will let me better enjoy shooting, so no one ever expects I love moe shit, but it's just cute colourful shit that helps me relax. If you have a problem with this answer I'm just ranting at this point so please take note of the math equaition FoG GoF. And "autisticboy2077"... don't drop the ice cream, it's a rental car.

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        Autisticboy2077 2 months ago

        haha yes im very autistic as well, I LOVE anime! especially bocu no picu! UWU

      • RachaelLefler profile image
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        Rachael Lefler 3 months ago from Illinois

        Japan has this kind of extreme capitalism thing going these days. I bet it offends the elderly. :/

      • RachaelLefler profile image
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        Rachael Lefler 3 months ago from Illinois

        Interesting. That is the perception Westerners have but it's probably become a lot different recently. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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        Marie 3 months ago

        Great article but sorry I have to bust one myth. Japan is noisy and in your face. In a shop over holiday season/sales season which basically never ends (Halloween, Christmas, new year, valentines, white day, spring cherry blossom) if you go in a mall you will get shop assistants shouting offers in your face as you walk in. If it's a clothes shop they will constantly bother you with "can I help" and "I recommend this one" and so much noise as all of them shout out welcome or thank you every 2 minutes. The streets, the corner shop everything blasts out music all the time. Even my quiet sleepy town randomly has piano music coming from a speaker outside the corner shop 247. Public strangers may not talk on the bus, teenagers won't bother you, people keep to themselves but shop staff will always come up to you and wherever you go there will be background noise. A van drives around my street of houses 3 times a day playing a jingle and making an announcement selling something and I'm in a tiny village! In Tokyo vans Drive around playing the latest pop music, billboards play sounds it's overloading noise. Even from the parks you hear people playing games, performing dances or just the overlooking city noise. Japan is amazing but quiet, not so much.

      • RachaelLefler profile image
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        Rachael Lefler 3 months ago from Illinois

        Oh yeah, I wanted to update everyone. Since writing this article, I've learned a lot more about autism as a community. I've also learned that I may HAVE autism, because I learned that many traits of autism are different for girls and women, or look different to professionals, and that professionals have a historical bias against seeing autism in girls. So I feel like I may have been misdiagnosed or overlooked as a child whereas if I had been a boy, my behavior "problems" would have been seen as autism symptoms.

        Anyway, yes, I think maybe in hindsight it should not be a disorder. The more we learn about the mind, I think it's better to move away from pathologizing language that makes alternate states of being seem pathological when they're actually just different. Being 5'0" isn't pathological, it's just a height difference I have from the mean. I see autistic traits and other "mental problems" I may have the same way.

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        Trudy/tagÂûght 3 months ago

        Rather insulted by Meowzebulb's comment here. (Aside from everything else insulting about it, I happen to be female - adult, so not really a "girl" - and autistic.)

        This article is quite interesting, and a fair bit of it does match up with my own experience, particularly the bits about anime expressions being easy to read and fan communities (not just of anime, but also science fiction and fantasy in general) being a lot more accepting of autistic behaviours and passions.

        One thing I do somewhat object to ("somewhat" mostly because this is how people are told it's to be referred to as) is the characterization of autism as a disorder. (I know, this is a fight that's going to take a lot.) May I recommend the blog of autistic Nick Walker, Neurocosmopolitanism (http://neurocosmopolitanism.com/)?

        At any rate. Excellent article. Going to rec it on Twitter. :)

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        Mark 3 months ago

        I really enjoyed this article.

      • RachaelLefler profile image
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        Rachael Lefler 5 months ago from Illinois

        That's too bad. I wish people would stop rushing to judgment and assuming things about people they don't know.

      • RachaelLefler profile image
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        Rachael Lefler 6 months ago from Illinois

        What makes me cringe is people who have a bad attitude and hide behind anonymity to make unnecessary negative comments.

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        Flavius 6 months ago

        "Anyone can geek," really made me cringe.

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        Meowzebulb 9 months ago

        9. Waifus. Anime if for autists often the only way to get in contact with a girl (besides video games..) even if she is only 2 dimensional fictional being. Sometimes after watching enough episodes and "spending" time with a anime girl autistic person can develop a feelings for such fictional character and treat her as his real girlfriend or so called "waifu".

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        Talya 11 months ago

        I LOVE anime and Star Trek and I have Asperger's Syndrome!

      • profile image

        Logan 12 months ago

        Lol so true im autistic and i LOVE anime

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