It is a common trope in science fiction to make alien or robotic characters unable to understand or use the nuances of verbal communication. Often portrayed as either emotionless or infrequent in their emotional displays, they stumble through social interaction, misunderstanding the use of sarcasm and humor constantly. At times they provide comic relief: the perfect companion straight man-woman-alien-robot-thing to any character. At other times they are moral centers, certain and unfettered by emotion in their beliefs of right and wrong and of the common good. Spock and Data, the Vulcan and android of Star Trek fame, immediately come to mind as prime examples of such characters.

As a child, I loved them. Their logical thinking and scientific minds helped to inspire my own love of the sciences, and their unwavering certainty in doing what was right—no matter the personal cost—inspired the strict morality that I still adhere to. They were my role models, my heroes, and not just because I thought their uniforms were super cool.

As a young autistic child, these characters were also often the only people I could relate to. Like many autistic individuals—and like my idols—I had difficulty understanding and making sense of the nuances of social interaction. What was and was not appropriate to say and do in different social situations was challenging, and often impossible, for me to grasp. Sarcasm and innuendo were my nemeses, my ability to communicate limited to the most literal of speech. During a time in my life when the world around me was confusing, these paragons of reason were people I could understand. But, like any other form of hero worship, this conception had consequences.

Characters like Spock and Data are portrayed the way they are because they are based on a fundamental assumption throughout science fiction, an unspoken truth that permeates our society and our concept of ourselves: that to be emotionless is to be inhuman, alien, other. As an autistic person, I do not experience emotion in the same way other people do, and so to others I can seem at times emotionless. So when looking on these inhuman characters, who were more like me than my parents or teachers or friends, I too felt inhuman.

When aliens and robots are more like you than your family is, you start to question some things. In my childlike innocence, I did just that. Why is my family so different from me? Why am I so different from everyone I know? Do I really belong? Am I even human?

I would continue to doubt myself well into adolescence, and it would not be until years later that I put my questions to rest, and accepted that even though I was different, that did not mean I did not belong.

A big part of this acceptance came from meeting other autistic people. Many autistic people say that growing up, they felt as though they were from a different world, and had been born on the “wrong planet.” However, knowing that we are not alone in our experiences of the world has led an entire community of autistic people to spring up, both online and in real life. This sense of belonging was something that I experienced far too late, and so I try to share it with as many young autistic children as I can. What I now wish I had had, in retrospect, was a role model who was also autistic. Not a character that was like someone with autism, but someone that was openly autistic, who lived the life of an autistic person, who struggled with the same things I struggled with, but who could overcome their difficulties. While I still love my childhood android and Vulcan (I cried when Leonard Nimoy passed away) and still enjoy our similarities, I try to remember that they are characters written to convey a story, and not real people living their lives one day at a time.