Why Are Autistic People Drawn to Anime?
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.
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
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.
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.