Like a lot of people who watched the new Ghostbusters this past summer, I immediately fell in love with Kate McKinnon’s Dr. Jillian Holtzmann and her unabashed weirdness, brilliance, humor, and cartoon Egon-esque hair. So I went back to the theater and saw the movie a few more times, because there are few things autistic people like me enjoy more than repetition.
It was during those repeat viewings that I started to notice some of the engineer’s other traits, and how familiar they were. She was very focused on and incredibly excited about her specific area of interest. Her repetition of words, phrases, and quotes hinted at echolalia, a common trait of people on the spectrum. And an awkward but impassioned speech about friendship that she gave to her fellow Ghostbusters—in which she avoided all eye contact and used physics metaphors to explain her feelings—sounded almost exactly like declarations I've made to my closest friends, although I tend to explain my outlook in terms of pop culture instead of apparition busting.
Curious if anyone else thought that Holtzmann might be autistic, I turned to the internet and was thrilled by what I discovered. A small but growing community of young autistic people, most of whom are female and many of whom identify as LGBTQ—Holtzmann also appears to be queer—had already gleefully embraced the character as their own, and they’d noticed even more autistic traits in her than I had.
Tumblr users speculated her trademark tinted glasses could help her manage her sensory issues and suggested that her habits of spinning on stools, chewing straws, and even licking her guns could be signs of stimming, the repetitive self-stimulatory behavior that is common among autistic people.
One user pointed to her clothing and idiosyncratic posture as possible examples of sensory sensitivity management, writing that Holtzmann “wears soft, baggy overalls because they are nice to the skin,” and “sits with legs crossed or feet propped up, any other way feels wrong and uncomfortable.”
Another analyzed her speech patterns and related them to the ways in which many autistic people mimic the way neurotypicals (people who are not on the spectrum) talk when we’re “on”—and also what we sound like when we’re not actively trying to appear and sound like other people. “She has performative language (usually jokes and things, said with a more casual drawn out tone, almost a drawl—although she does still tend to be stilted/ have a bit of a stutter—imo this is the ‘persona’ voice) and non-performative language (when she’s talking about things she’s interested in, like engineering or ghost stuff, it’s a lot faster and rather monotone, I’d say this is her ‘natural’ way of speaking).”
Whether Ghostbusters writer/director Paul Feig and McKinnon intended to make Holtzmann autistic or not, they’ve created a character that has given me and a lot of other people a way to discuss our experiences on the spectrum in a way that we really haven’t had before. And now, with the film about to be released on digital next week, it has the potential to reach even an even wider community of fans—and women, especially—who are looking for authentic representation on screen.
While autistic or autistic-appearing (sometimes referred to as “autistish”) characters have become fairly popular in film, television, and books over the past decade or so, few of those portrayals have pushed beyond the socially awkward genius stereotype. “I find that sometimes characters with autism are very unidimensional,” Dori Zener, a therapist from Toronto, Canada who specializes in working with girls and women on the autism spectrum, tells me.
“I think that some of the things that are missing from pop culture are the stimming and the sensory issues, the sensory seeking and sensory avoiding, and all of those things that are very much a part of day-to-day life for people on the spectrum,” Zener says. “I think that if you actually saw the effort that someone on the spectrum puts into being a neurotypical in the world all day, the fatigue it creates, the difficulties with understanding the world, and the effort required for processing—if they showed both sides of things, that would be a much more balanced portrayal of people on the spectrum. Not just being the quirky friend.”
Another thing that most pop culture portrayals of people with autism have in common is that they’re almost always of cis men. While that doesn’t preclude other people on the spectrum from finding something of themselves in their stories—Zener says that many of her clients identify with male characters, and I have been known to describe myself as “like Abed from Community”—it can also contribute to some unfortunate misconceptions that have real-world implications for the autism community, namely that autism is primarily a male condition.
So much of what we know about autism is still based on the straight cis—and usually white—male presentation of the condition, which can mean that other people on the spectrum are overlooked, making it harder for us to get the help that we require. Girls, in particular, often learn to mask their symptoms in the face of social demands far stricter than the ones faced by their male peers. This leaves many woefully underdiagnosed when they don’t fit the typical male autistic model that’s perpetuated by both art and science. Many women have never even seen someone else who behaves or thinks like they do in life or fiction, which, in some cases, means they don’t realize that they themselves are autistic until well into adulthood.
Even some of the best female autistic or autistish characters we’ve seen up until now have reflected the way that autistic girls and women can fly under the radar, avoiding both diagnosis and detection. Bones’ Temperance Brennan, played by the actress Emily Deschanel, displays very mild autistic traits, mostly in terms of social awkwardness, literalism, and intense focus on her work. To succeed in many fields and negotiate workplace culture, autistic woman do often need to hide their symptoms in public, which leaves them presenting a lot like Brennan. But when so much of the female autistic experience is still explained in the negative—what we don’t look like or act like or show—a character who displays fairly subtle symptoms without any hint of how much work probably went into looking that “mildly” autistic can be frustrating for people seeking some semblance of representation in pop culture. Saga Noren from the original Danish version of the TV drama The Bridge (and Sonya Cross from the U.S. version) and Laurie Bream from HBO’s Silicon Valley are more obviously autistic in their behavior, but most of those characterizations still center around their struggles with—or marked distaste for—social skills.
What’s unique about what’s happening with Holtzmann is the range of behaviors that she exhibits and how pronounced and unapologetic they are. Referencing her as an example, autistic people who haven’t seen enough of themselves in other characters can start to discuss our autism in terms of what we are instead of what we’re not. We can cite what appears to be the character’s stimming, sensory avoidance, and echolalia, and use those things to initiate a deeper conversation about how we experience life. We can point to her varied conversational styles in the film and start to talk about the kind of effort and performance that goes into our participation in a neurotypical world. And the fact that the character is obviously queer (even if Feig has been cagey about confirming that fact on the record) gives queer autistic people, a population that faces a lot of issues surrounding erasure, a rare opportunity to remind people that we exist at all.
Perhaps most importantly, though, is the fact that watching Holtzmann doesn’t just give us a chance to see a part of ourselves on screen; it allows us to see a part of ourselves belonging on screen. Given our struggles to understand the unwritten social rules of society, many autistic people turn to TV, movies, and books for cues on how to interact with other people. It’s an exercise that’s not without merit. A lot of my favorite fiction has played an instrumental role in helping me participate in the outside world. Zener has clients who have learned about friendship and social interaction from the rules explicitly laid out in My Little Pony and various science fiction programs. She even knows one woman who taught herself to understand sarcasm by watching the entire Seinfeld series. But it can also be an isolating experience. When you’re teaching yourself to fit in by watching shows without autistic characters in them, you’re only learning how to relate to neurotypical people. These makeshift lessons offer no suggestions as to how we ourselves might fit into the picture, and not much hope that it’s possible at all. Seeing Holtzmann thrive in her work and make genuine friends for the first time—all while being undeniably herself—is such a welcome antidote to that.
“I think that there’s a real sense of living on the outside and never fitting in for people on the spectrum—and females, especially, because sometimes it’s easier for boys to fit in because what is expected of them isn’t as great,” says Zener. “So having these female characters to look toward is important. To be able to … see yourself reflected … makes you feel like you belong. That you can be embraced, that you can have a successful career, that there’s a place in life for you.”
Sarah Kurchak is a writer and self-advocate from Toronto who covers autism and her own autistic special interests for various publications.