Staff Blog: Resonant Neurodivergent Representation in Hollywood & My Genre Writing Journey by Gabriel Theis


This is the second blog post in our series for our Neurodiversity Celebration Initiative. 

In honor of Neurodiversity Celebration Month, Roadmap Writers is hosting our first ever Neurodiversity Celebration Initiative, coming to you in the form of informative blogs and a FREE 2-day special webinar series, our Neurodiversity Celebration Panels on April 30th and May 1st, 2024. 

Day 1 will cover Writing with Neurodivergence, including the state of neurodivergent representation in Hollywood, writing neurodiverse characters, and tips for writing habits and "anti" routines. We'll bring in working writers like "This Way to Change: A Gentle Guide to Personal Transformation and Collective Liberation" author Jezz Chung and Roadmap Writers Success Stories like Noa Aimee and Pandora Tysdale to discuss.

Day 2 hits on Networking with Neurodivergence, and will include navigating interpersonal relationships, handling rejection, finding your network and pitching your POV with more Roadmap Writers Success Stories, including Aadip Desai (THE GOLDBERGS), as well as Citizen Skull literary manager Jacob Hayman, Cedar93 Co-founder and producer Sam Schifrien and others. 


Among Day 1's panelists includes Gabriel Theis, Roadmap Writers' Head of Twitter on our Social Media Committee and a Roadmap Writers Success Story currently repped with Industry Entertainment, who is our guest blogger for today:

Neurodivergent Representation in Hollywood and What Actually Resonated with Me 

A few years ago, I came across a popular showrunner on Twitter asking the neurodivergent community for recommendations on movies and shows that most accurately conveyed the autistic experience. I cycled through the myriad of autistic representations I’ve seen throughout the years, all of them to varying degrees of accuracy although none of them perfectly captured my experience. I wasn’t going to recommend Rain Man, which despite its narrative strengths and remarkable empathy is still ground zero for neurodivergent stereotyping and making autism synonymous with Savant Syndrome in the popular consciousness. I was tempted to recommend Netflix’s then-recent autism drama Atypical, which brought nuance to the Rain Man archetype but still felt foreign to my own experiences as someone on the spectrum. 

I then realized that I was pigeonholing my thought process into media that only explicitly dealt in autistic representation. So the answer I gave that showrunner was a film that didn’t feature a canonically autistic character but nevertheless most resonated with me as a cinematic capture of autism: Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Based on the beloved children’s book, one which had been a particular favorite of mine as a kid, Spike Jonze’s adaptation seemed to both intrigue and baffle the general public upon its release in 2008. It was an uncomfortable viewing experience for moviegoers, who probably expected something more wholesome and less esoteric. Where the Wilds Are was disquietingly adult and dealt with themes of alienation, frustration, anger, and resentment. 

While the protagonist Max is not explicitly on the spectrum, and perhaps was not intended as an analog for autism, his retreat into his own interior and making peace with himself via the landscape of his imagination had profoundly spoken to me. I saw the film when I was close to Max’s age and realized that I had never seen myself represented so acutely, and more importantly, so humanely. Spike Jonze shows patience with his problem child protagonist and pierces his socially combative exterior to discover a young child of hidden depths. Jonze didn’t deflect from Max’s flaws or coddle the subject matter. For the first time, I got the chance to find solidarity in a work of fiction that let me grapple with my own experiences. I’m forever grateful to Where the Wild Things Are for extending a hand to me in my young years. Now I can also be grateful to Spike Jonze for helping me outline the blueprint of my artistic identity. 

My Own Journey as a Neurodivergent Writer: So. Many. Questions.

When I started being open about my diagnosis, I inevitably had to ask myself: to what extent will I be an “autistic” writer? Will I just be a writer on the spectrum, or will my autism be a defining theme in my writing? Will I write autistic characters? If I write neurotypical characters, will I be betraying myself? Will I be masking through my work? I started out writing horror, which I still consider the perfect space to explore otherness, but it’s also a space with a history of exploiting underrepresented and marginalized communities. 

That struggle was at the heart of my debut feature, The Curse of Professor Zardonicus, a mockumentary about a film student recruited by a conspiratorial loner to help him prove the existence of a wild urban legend. Of course, our film student is more interested in documenting this bizarre and eccentric weirdo who is clearly imbalance, and could very well have a mental diagnosis to explain his behavior. What was pitched to both the protagonist and to the audience as a creature feature, or as a hunt for a movie monster, steadily becomes an indictment of exhibitionism and an intense line of questioning regarding how we gawk at outsiders and use them as pawns of narratives. That feature summed up the question behind my identity as a
writer: am I a “freak” signing up for the circus? 

Am I a "freak" signing up for the circus?

I mean I know life feels often like we're flying without a net but some of them seem extreme.                                                                          

So for a while I was in a constant state of self-interrogation as both a writer and a member of the neurodivergent community. 

Upon that reflection and getting to learn from others both in and outside the community, two things have become clear to me:

First, the neurodivergent community should have representation that integrates them into the storytelling fabric to the same extent as neurotypical characters. There have been landmark feats of representation and education surrounding neurodivergence, but if the only portrayals of autism and other conditions exist as a means to sum up or answer for the differences between the neurodivergent and neurotypical communities, then autistic characters can become props in their own stories and they could become prisms for the benefit of neurotypical audiences. 

Second, Where the Wild Things Are showed me how I would want to address, convey, and express the journey of autism: through metaphor and analogues. Just because I’m an autistic writer doesn’t mean I can speak for the community, no one single person can. What I can do is explore myself through universal languages. Even though Where the Wild Things Are resonated with me on the level of a neurodivergent analysis, its surely resonated with other neurotypical young viewers that were feeling anxious or isolated. 


Genre's are a funny little concept, aren't they? 

That’s why genre has always been my favorite sandbox to play in. It’s a space that welcomes metaphor, either direct analogues or left-of-center evocations. Horror has always been my first love; I got hooked on movies from the Universal Monsters at a young age. That’s because, even though I can also seek the adrenaline rush that they offer, I still see it as the definitive cinematic
platform for microscoping the anxieties and distress behind our fears. 

In my Kurt Cobain-inspired paranormal spec, With the Lights Out, my protagonist was a rockstar looking to exorcise a literal personal demon. It wasn’t just about removing a malevolent force that tries to break us physically, but ridding himself of the internal condition that has “othered” him since childhood. 

I can take a joke 

Then gradually I started to embrace comedy, or welcome comedic sensibilities into my genre fare. For some reason, it took me too long to realize how complimentary comedy is with horror at spotlighting marginal characters and experiences. The difference is that comedy actually normalizes quirks, even celebrates them. Being neurotic in daily life is my greatest anxiety, but protagonists that neurotic in comedies can become our best friends, or even rock stars. That’s why writing comedy has become my most cathartic creative channel, and probably remains the most comfortable way for me to be vulnerable with an audience. 

The duo leads of my rom-com, Cuddle Buddies, are a mess. The lead, Elliot, can barely go out in public out of fear of being “triggered” by the sound of his ex-girlfriend’s music, since she has skyrocketed to fame off of a break-up song about their relationship. I don’t have a famous ex-girlfriend, but I have trigger points, even subtle ones, that can shut me off or intensify social anxiety. It’s something that can haunt me in a ghostly way, until I write a scene where Elliot flagrantly tries to disconnect a jukebox because it’s playing his ex’s hit song during a date. That neutralizes my anxiety, even though I’ve felt like I’ve transcribed what is or could be an embarrassing memory. It’s the same rush you get when you make a self-depricating joke that
disarms any potential mockery or lowers barriers between yourself and strangers. Laughing about it means that you have control over it. That’s what writing comedy has given me. 

It was also important to defy the stereotype that autistic people just don’t have a sense of humor. Comedy is subjective, but I hope that I can at least correct the idea that autistic folks, or anybody on the spectrum doesn’t know how to detect a joke. Unfortunately, every savantesque autistic characters in film, whether it be Raymond from Rain Man or Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, has an inevitable scene in which they *finally* learn how to tell a joke through the help of their patient friends and family. If you need further proof that us autistics can make a joke when we feel like it, then I recommend reading Funny, You Don't Look Autistic: A Comedian's Guide to Life on the Spectrum by Michael McCreary. 

Superpower? More Like Powerful Beyond Measure Because I'm Human

Something that comes to mind is a question I recently received about whether being autistic gave me any more “depth” as a writer. If only. I’d love a creativity superpower or some innate characteristic that elevates me. The fact is that I’ve been too often humbled, and I’ve learned too much from too many people across all backgrounds to even let myself think that it’s my diagnosis that gives me any sort of advantage in storytelling. I’ve been moved by stories written and told by artists both on and off the spectrum enough to know that the force which powers us as creatives is a collective energy of empathy and curiosity that transcends demographics and barriers. 

One More for the

That being said, autistic representation has a long way to go and I hope to be one of many voices that can add nuance to the conversation. Representation is driven not by a monotholic assemblage of singular experience but a rich tapestry of diversity, so I would love to see my fellow members of the neurodivergent community speak their truths with all the creative ingenuity at their disposal. While I truly appreciate the neurotypical allies who have written and portrayed neurodivergent characters to enrich audience’s understanding of our experiences, I’m struck by the fact that so much of our story has been written for us. Now, it’s time that we grab the pen for ourselves.

-Gabriel Theis, Roadmap Writers Success Story & our Head of Twitter


About Gabriel Theis: Gabriel Theis is a neurodivergent writer/director from Houston, Texas. After working on local film productions and grabbing snacks for Drake and Travis Scott, Gabriel wrote, directed, and produced his micro-budget thriller, THE CURSE OF PROFESSOR ZARDONICUS, which was distributed by Buffalo 8. When Gabriel's not writing for publications Polygon, Fangoria, and Dread Central, he continues to write humorous genre features and pilots about outsiders confronting their anxieties and defying gatekeepers. He's represented by Stephen Crawford of Industry Entertainment. 

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