Rachael is from Earth, a planet known for its pizza, yoga pants, trashy television, and nearly constant wars.
Autism and Anime: What's the Appeal?
You might think all of us anime fans are autistic, but actually, only a minority of us are. But, psychologists and special ed teachers have noticed that many autistic adults and children like anime and manga. There's no official research on it, but people on the autism spectrum may be more likely to be anime and manga fans than neurotypical people.
Some people might wonder why?
What is it about anime and manga that makes it appealing to people with autism?
A few caveats before proceeding.
First, I do not have an official diagnosis of autism myself. When I describe the experiences of autistic persons, I try to use research, and anecdotes of the experiences of people diagnosed with autism. I am not a primary source.
Second, of course, I do not claim that all the experiences of autistic people are the same. Nor do I claim that all persons with autism are the same. Any generalization I make is based on psychological research and primary sources, plus what I consider reasonable conjecture. But is not absolute, and will not apply to all persons with autism. But educated and well-researched generalizations, while not matching everyone's personal experiences, are useful for discussing psychological conditions. Professionals use patterns associated with persons with a particular psychological condition to help those people. We know patterns are not always true, they're just generally true, enough of the time.
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 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. Other types of fiction usually play it safe and conventional, not taking many risks in order to make money, but anime and manga are often quirky. It can be more 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 can be awful. For autistic people, who face many challenges, including a society that does not understand them or their condition well, a break from reality is sometimes highly desirable. This may also draw them to more imaginative and "out there" forms of media, such as comics, cartoons, and speculative fiction genres (sci-fi, fantasy, steampunk, etc.).
The most popular anime allow the viewer 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, helps fans connect with these imaginary fun places. Getting involved in the community can make the fictional space seem more real. It also lets fans personalize their own experience, by drawing their own OCs (original characters), and dropping characters who are similar to themselves into the fictional worlds via fanfic writing.
So, being an anime fan, or getting involved in any other major fandom, allows you to participate in a fictional world that maybe you would rather live in than the real one.
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 moral lessons about friendships and relationships. "Nakama" is a major theme in anime and manga. It refers to a loyal group of comrades or teammates who look out for each other and form a non-biological family. So not just friends, but friends sharing a very close bond, who would die for each other.
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In anime, meeting new people and forming friendships just happens by way of storytelling magic. In real life, the process of making friends is intimidating, even for the socially skilled. The friendships that anime characters have are usually rock solid and enviable. Characters will be seen making great sacrifices to help each other. It's a portrayal of the ideal sort of friendship people wish they could have in real life. Like how romance novels portray an ideal romantic relationship people wish they could have.
3. Easy to Read Emotionally
Relationships and friendships can be confusing to people with autism. Approaching people can be scary. It is hard to understand the subtle ways people communicate non-verbally, too. These skills can improve 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 awareness and intuition to know how their actions are interpreted or understood by others.
Anime helps with this. It is 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. People with autism may sometimes need to study a facial expression for a long time to understand it. Manga also gives more clues as to what the characters are feeling. Since the focus is on the visuals, more emotion is conveyed that way. Anime emotions are usually big, loud, and dramatic, making them easier to read.
Social interactions in anime and manga are also often clear-cut in terms of right and wrong. Words flow more smoothly in anime and manga than in natural conversations in the real world. This makes anime and manga easier for persons with autism, or neurotypical people with social difficulties, to understand than real-world encounters with other people. Manga and anime may also serve as a social teaching tool, helping people with social difficulties learn to navigate real-world interactions, by seeing how characters react to certain words and actions. It's a demonstration of conversation for people who might not see or participate in much of their own.
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. The Formality of Japanese Culture
Anime is not all there is to Japanese culture. But anime and manga fans around the world often have an affinity for other aspects of Japanese culture as well. Some like Japanese martial arts, like kendo, judo, and karate. Others like Japan's more peaceful arts, like bonsai trees, flower arrangement (ikebana), 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, and anime and manga are but one aspect of this glory.
But what is it about Japanese culture that 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 quietly in public spaces. People 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 formal standards of etiquette actually help people with low social skills, because they offer them a script or road map. It's like a world where everyone 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 a lot of the time.
Autistic people tend to like exact rules. There is a comforting sense of order that comes from having a rule for everything. This can put people off, coming across as 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. (It's actually something I miss about participating in religion.) 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. Anime conventions and fan clubs can be a social safe space for many people. Like I said, I have social anxiety disorder, and PTSD, and find that I have less anxiety at an anime convention than anywhere else that would have similar numbers of people in a comparably small, hot, sweaty hotel conference room. That's because my social anxiety and PTSD come from bullying, condemnation, social ostracism, and judgment. At 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 accepting, non-judgmental community is also a big draw for autistic anime fans.
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 as some people with autism. Many anime characters face school problems, bullying, harassment, social uncertainty, communication problems, social mistakes, and other problems common for people with autism spectrum disorders. For some people with autism, anime can be a way to see how best to handle their "worst-case scenario" situations. 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 in middle and high school, anime can help viewers understand many 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 watch more realistic anime sometimes, and this is probably why: they get to see how other people handle distressing real-life situations. The stuff they wouldn't know how to deal with if it happened to them.
Many anime protagonists face bullying and social ostracism, which unfortunately many autistic people can relate to.
8. Anime is Information
One common symptom of autism is fitting the original Japanese definition of the word "otaku." That is, 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 even tiny 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 are good at memorizing facts. Anime is just one of many things in 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 alone 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.
So, anime is easy to read emotionally, and there is a friendly and tolerant community built around it. It can be a fun escape from reality, or an idealized version of reality, offering the audience wish fulfillment. Anime can also be a way to see issues with socializing and bullying resolved in a positive way.
Autistic people are very sensitive, and tend to relate to fictional characters going through difficult emotional struggles. The anime community is a place where they can feel safer expressing their love, passion, and knowledge for the fictional worlds they love, without being ridiculed. For all of us, anime is not just a show. It's about belonging to a community. And autistic people most likely feel more welcome among us than they do elsewhere.
Questions & Answers
Question: Who is the antagonist in Steve the Universe movie?
Answer: Wrong article? But her name is Spinel.
© 2016 Naomi Starlight
Keyzor on July 01, 2020:
Why do so many Autistic people like eggs? Science says that humans can live without eggs, but yet, many autistic people like it! Being autistic or not doesn’t impact whether you’ll enjoy anime or not. Many autistic people like anime because many people like anime.
(Sorry if this sounds bashful. I’m not disclaiming or claiming anything, just giving a suggestion that maybe it has something to do with a genre’s overwhelming popularity!!)
Myasuka on April 28, 2020:
I have Aspergers the reason why I watch anime is because when I was a kid I was bullied and harassed by peers and abused also the kids refused to let me play with them and Naruto and Deku both were bullied by peers and harassed and then they overcame there loneliness by making lots of friends that gave me hope that I wouldn’t always be all alone and some anime’s l liked because there was a good father child relationship because I didn’t have a good father figure growing up.
Ginger on April 28, 2020:
I have Aspergers and me personally was picked on and bullied and abused growing up nobody wanted to play with me and I felt like I could relate to anime characters like Naruto from Naruto and Deku from My hero Academia because the were torchured by peers and bullied I liked how the overcome that utter loneliness and made lots of friends to fill the large void which is loneliness and in some anime I watch because I admire the relationship between child and father because I never had a good father figure.
RunninPekkin on November 19, 2019:
Liet.BaconWaffles, did you mean Digibro? I couldn’t find a video from Kenny Lauderdale regarding that, but I did found a video by digibro covering autism and anime.
Lieut.BaconWaffles on November 13, 2019:
Youtuber Kenny Lauderdale who did a little research & found out that how hard a fan you become & what shows you're into depends on where an individual falls on the autism spectrum & where the anime itself falls on the same spectrum. Unsurprisingly people with the highest levels tend to also make up the most toxic of the fanbases because of how deeply they dive into lore & ingrain themselves into the series.
iScientist on May 07, 2019:
And there you have it. Vaccines don’t cause autism. Anime does.
Soulkitty223 on September 21, 2018:
I have high functioning ASD and this is surprisingly accurate considering you don't have autism yourself. For me I just like how dramatic it is, and the story lines are more detailed and interesting than reagular cartoons. The reactions are so funny too. I'll stop here before this gets too long lol XD
SpikeyEr91 on August 13, 2018:
I would like to know if I can recreate this blog on a website called Anime Amino in tempt to get Featured the one I would recreate would be a shorter than this one and a little less complex I will give full credit to you.
Christina N on April 25, 2018:
Thank you so much, yes I will give you credit! Thank you so much your article basically is the answer to my question.
Fred Heiser on April 24, 2018:
I agree with the previous poster that the Autism spectrum isn't necessarily a disorder. ADHD isn't necessarily a disorder either. Ten thousand years ago these traits obviously had enough survival value they weren't selected out of the gene pool and remain a substantial part of it today. Many of our greatest scientists and engineers would have been considered high on the autism scale.
"Neurotribes" by Steve Silberman discusses this at length. Much of the pain of being an "Aspie" is that the "world" wants to jam that round peg into a square hole - and if it can't it discards you. In a mass-produced society, you fit in a standard role or you are forced into a role you don't fit.
Of course, when I grew up, it was explained away as a laziness, scatterbrained, undisciplined, being a sissy, being antisocial and a nerd. At least today someone recognizes that this isn't the case. If you are very very lucky you may get some help.
Naomi Starlight (author) from Illinois on April 24, 2018:
Yes, I would like credited in your paper, but you can use this article as a source.
Christina N on April 24, 2018:
Hello Rachel I am a student actually writing a research paper on this topic and I wanted to ask your permission to use your bibliography?
Thank you for your time.
Fred from SoCal on March 23, 2018:
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.
The shrub lord on January 29, 2018:
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.
Autisticboy2077 on January 24, 2018:
haha yes im very autistic as well, I LOVE anime! especially bocu no picu! UWU
Naomi Starlight (author) from Illinois on January 23, 2018:
Japan has this kind of extreme capitalism thing going these days. I bet it offends the elderly. :/
Naomi Starlight (author) from Illinois on January 23, 2018:
Interesting. That is the perception Westerners have but it's probably become a lot different recently. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
Marie on January 21, 2018:
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.
Naomi Starlight (author) from Illinois on January 17, 2018:
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.
Trudy/tagÂûght on January 17, 2018:
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. :)
Mark on January 05, 2018:
I really enjoyed this article.
Naomi Starlight (author) from Illinois on October 31, 2017:
That's too bad. I wish people would stop rushing to judgment and assuming things about people they don't know.
Naomi Starlight (author) from Illinois on October 15, 2017:
What makes me cringe is people who have a bad attitude and hide behind anonymity to make unnecessary negative comments.
Flavius on October 14, 2017:
"Anyone can geek," really made me cringe.
Meowzebulb on July 24, 2017:
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".
Talya on May 18, 2017:
I LOVE anime and Star Trek and I have Asperger's Syndrome!
Logan on April 12, 2017:
Lol so true im autistic and i LOVE anime