Dexter: An Autism Spectrum Superhero

Updated on July 18, 2016

The final season of the Showtime TV series Dexter broke network records with almost three million viewers. The show’s theme is original: The serial killer recast as a superhero who harnesses his predatory nature to wipe out bad guys in Miami’s seamy underbelly. Dexter has superhuman stealth, and an uncanny ability to get out of tight squeezes. Each season features a super-villain with a trademark malevolence that almost undoes our hero. All the while, Dexter jokes his way through these tight squeezes as though he were indestructible, and each season ends with our hero learning a new moral lesson that defines the ethical nature of his actions.

Like Spiderman, Dexter operates above the law, but for a lawful purpose. He is ultimately more ethical than the community he serves. The dual nature of his actions, the play between lawfulness and lawlessness, is mirrored in that classic superhero tradition of the alter ego. Like Superman and Batman, Dexter has two personalities. By day, he is a nerdy, unassuming blood-spatter analyst for the Miami Metropolitan Homicide Department. By night, however, he turns into an emotionless killer stalking his prey with catlike agility. Just as Clark Kent and Peter Parker use their daytime doubles to track crime and avoid getting caught themselves, Dexter’s job is the perfect alibi. He’s so close to the protectors of legal and social normality that he is almost above suspicion.

This comic book hero duality involves Dexter in a classic tension. He has to pretend to be part of his community in order to serve society by acting outside of its norms. His excuse, like any other superhero’s excuse, is that he is in fact not your normal human. Like Bruce Wayne, he has been marked by a childhood trauma that is both his source of strength and his greatest weakness. At the age of three he witnessed his mother’s execution by chainsaw at the hands of drug dealers. For Dexter, this Kryptonite is psychological, a destructive point of origin that shapes everything about him from his fascination with blood spatter to his drive to murder without emotion.

Dexter and Autism

Fans have noted the connection between the traditional superhero and the Dexter series for some time, but I haven’t found a single mention of something that was so glaringly obvious to me from the moment I began watching: Dexter is on the spectrum. Autism spectrum is so fully built into Dexter’s character that every season features some aspect of his experience as a non-Neuro-Typical character that he must discover in conjunction with his moral development as a superhero. AS is the bridge that connects his alter ego to his secret identity; it is the quality in him that makes him a unique hero, like Peter Parker’s “spidey sense.”

For me, watching Dexter was like a revelation, because I’ve never seen a positive portrayal of AS on television before. Of course, “positive” is a relative term here, but it’s important to understand that the show doesn’t equate Dexter’s serial homicide with his AS; they are two different things that exist side by side. Since I am an adult with AS, I’m very familiar with the symptoms. Dexter’s childhood fascination with killing animals and the “Dark Passenger” that drives him to murder has nothing to do with life on the spectrum. But his fascination with order, with cleanliness, his tendency toward logical thought and his inability to access the emotional world of his friends and family are all classically on the spectrum.

In fact, if Dexter wasn’t on the spectrum, the show wouldn’t be interesting, because he would just be another serial killer, i.e. someone who kills randomly without any ethical grounding for his actions. It’s the overlay of autism spectrum on top of his underlying, irrational exhilaration at the murderous Dark Passenger that gives him the duality of a superhero. In other words, Dexter is a superhero because he is on the spectrum, not because he murders people.

Why Dexter Is More Than a Serial Killer

Whereas Dexter’s seasonal archenemies are creatures of ritual (typical of serial killers), our hero mostly relies on routine. Routine is important for people on the spectrum; we think in an orderly, processional manner that is linear even when if it is complex and detailed. One of the biggest challenges of being AS in a Neuro-Typical world is that routines can be easily upset. In Dexter, these disruptions confuse and disorient our hero as much as I get bewildered when something unexpected comes up. Dexter’s need for routine makes him a controlling person, someone who needs the people around him to operate in an orderly and systematic way. The biggest threat to this need for order is emotion, the Neuro-Typical tendency to throw curves into an otherwise logical sequence. The purpose of Dexter’s nerdy persona is to mediate this confusing world of emotions so that he can do what he really loves (i.e. putting the world back into order).

This orderly and systematic approach to things is the source of Dexter’s ethical behavior. His rules of conduct are a parodic version of the Kantian principles of ethical conduct, a rational sequence of principles that interconnect and build on one another to provide a complete code of conduct for daily action. However, as ethical philosophers have pointed out for a while now, Kantian principles are too rigid; they don’t take into account the contradictory complexities of life. To take a famous example, Kant says we should never lie, but if (hypothetically speaking) a Nazi came to our door and asked us if there were Jews in our house, most people would understand that it is more ethical to break Kant’s dictum in this case. In our day-to-day life, it’s normal to know when to break ethical codes for higher purposes. For people on the spectrum, order and routine are so important that it’s often difficult to understand when these codes should be altered, and the results are frequently unpleasantly disorienting.

The challenges that Dexter faces each season come from his realization that he must break or alter one of his codes. His ability to do this and his capacity to learn from it is the difference between ritual and routine. Of course, Dexter does have ritual as well as routine. When his Dark Passenger takes over, Dexter becomes a creature of ritual with his displays of pictures and his sacrificial alter. This ritual doesn’t ever change, and it can’t, because it’s not based on rational principles. In contrast to this commitment to ritual, people on the spectrum are rational to a fault. Think of Spock or Data in the Star Trek series. In my own life, if there is a reason for doing something, then I can usually understand it, but when I have to make a decision or act without understanding why, I’m out to sea. From an AS perspective, feelings are mostly dangerous, overwhelming experiences that I’ve learned to muffle and keep at a distance over the years. At the age of 35, I find feelings unpleasant interruptions in my otherwise meaningful daily routine. I don’t have the complex, contradictory emotional world of a Neuro-Typical person. The advantage of this is that I find it easy to act consistently, according to principles and core values. The downside is that I can’t easily tolerate contradiction and meaningless repetition, skills that are essential to Neuro-Typical life.

Dexter has the same traits. Except for the brief moments when he is about to kill someone, Dexter relies on methodical planning and obsessive information gathering. The drama of Dexter doesn’t come from these ritualized murders; it comes from his obsessive commitment to principles that would give meaning to this underlying ritual. Serial killers are opportunists and profilers: they look for a certain type of victim and grab them when they can. As an autism spectrum hero, Dexter has to follow his principles in a systematic way that has meaning for him.

Out of the Digital Closet

It was an amazing experience for me to see these traits represented back to me on TV. For the first time in my life, I could watch something with friends and family that I related to, and overhear people talking about a character with AS in a positive way. So much of my life is about passing, pretending to be as normal as possible in order to make things go smoothly in my professional career, at home and with friends. (I have a blog entry on AS and passing if you’d like to know more.) Like Dexter, people on the spectrum all live some kind of double life. Growing up, I never connected with any of my friends’ beloved heroes. Now, in my thirties, I found a strange kind of ideal: someone as violent as the other comic book superheroes, but one that gathered and exaggerated my traits into something powerful and appealing. Dexter’s ability to pass combined his superhero status with my everyday experience, giving me a feeling of recognition that most Neur-Typical people feel throughout their lives.

I was used to going through my daily round of cultural experiences (books, television, movies, theater, etc.) without ever seeing myself reflected back. Films like Temple Grandin and books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time were few and far between, only reaching a small audience. Seeing Dexter’s traits expanded to such a large audience was an entirely new experience.

When I was in college, my queer friends had the habit of spotting other queers in social media. This was in the early 2000s, after the release of Celluloid Closet, a documentary exposé that showed how queerness had been a longstanding part of the world of cinema. Most people didn’t, and maybe still don’t know this because queerness has been suppressed in our culture. Up until the last decade, being gay or lesbian largely meant being culturally invisible. To some degree, life on the spectrum is an invisible life as well. When I was a child, there were no programs specifically designed for autism. Today there is more awareness of childhood autism, and there are many more resources, but being an adult with AS continues to mean living a double life. Outside of a small circle of people, there is no support network for people with my experience.

Seeing Dexter was a powerful moment of recognition for me, even though it is ultimately just another TV show. My hope is that, as with queerness, AS can come out of the closet and become part of the way we think about American culture and art. Like queerness, I think we non-Neuro-Typicals have a lot to offer, a different way of seeing things and doing things that can become part of our creative reflection about what it means to live in this culture in this country in this time.

The Beauty of Strangeness

Thinking about Dexter from an AS perspective echoes back on the role of superheroes in our culture. Don’t most comic book heroes have some autism? Batman, Spiderman, Wolverine all follow ethical codes that are different from the social norms; they all have trouble connecting with normative society, even though they are committed to being a part of that society; they all struggle with the complicated process of passing, and they all have special strengths that come from these potential weaknesses. Culturally, we are much more accepting of the monster and the outsider today. The remaking of King Kong and Godzilla are strong examples of this shift from a mid-twentieth century attitude that relied on dominant cultural norms to establish inside groups and outside groups. It used to be that the monster was the thing out there that you had to kill or defeat in order to keep civilization alive (usually in the form of a damsel in distress), but it seems that we are more accepting of difference today, more interested in what happens when you don’t think or act like everyone else, and this gives me hope that there are more Dexters on the way, more characters who stretch the bounds of the social norms to find something as uncomfortably beautiful, as ethically committed and unfamiliarly familiar as his blood spatter art.

Is Dexter on the Spectrum? Decide for yourself

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      Jay C. O'Brien 18 months ago

      I do not know much about the character so please have patience. Am I to understand the "Hero" of this comic strip goes around killing people?

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      temptor94 2 years ago

      An interesting take on the subject. Never really considered Dexter to be on the autism spectrum, however be it the AS or psychopathy, it is a blessing to be not impacted by emotions while living around it.

    • wilkaiser profile image

      Wilson Kaiser 3 years ago from Jacksonville, FL

      Mike, your response sounds emotional to me, rather than reflective, because your argument is inconsistent. Here's why I think so:

      First, being a sociopath (although I think technically he is a psychopath) does not mean Dexter can't be on the spectrum.

      Secondly, the DSM does in fact list qualities that correspond to Dexter: he has trouble with chitchat and the phatic elements of speech; he frequently fails to obey social rituals like beginning a conversation with a greeting or noticing that a friend or colleague has recently had a haircut; he has difficulty imaging the emotional world of others; etc.

      Your tout-court acceptance of the DSM is also worth talking about. I have written about what I see as the shortcomings of the DSM diagnostic criteria here:

      However, I am most interested in the vehemence of your response. In my experience with friends and acquaintances, I have found that autism is something of a dirty word. The suggestion that someone is acting in ways that are typical spectrum behaviors often elicits a strongly defensive response.

      Leaving aside whether or not one can be "responsible" about a TV character, I think we have to find ways of talking about AS that move beyond clinical pathology so we can talk about that fact that 1% of the population, more than 3 million people are on the spectrum, and most of those people pass as functional members of society, although they are not Neuro-Typical.

      If I could summarize my point in a single idea, it would be this: AS is not a taboo subject, and there is no shame in acknowledging it. So let's explore it's complex possibilities and dimensions rather than attempting to shut the conversation down.

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      Mike 3 years ago

      There is absolutely nothing about a Dexter that qualifies him as being autistic or on the autism spectrum. Nothing. He was a sociopath. Nothing in the DSM points to him having autism. I'm glad you identified with him but please be a little more responsible.

    • Solaras profile image

      Solaras 3 years ago

      Very interesting, I am glad you found someone to identify with - I think! Voted thumbs up and interesting.