Searching for Neurodivergent Role Models in Anime

By: Patricia C. Baxter November 3, 20174 Comments
a focus on two pairs of grasping hands

I love many things about being a geek: I love researching various pieces of media for their histories and lore, I love the process of reading, watching, or playing the media itself, and I love interacting with other people who share my passion.  These activities are viewed not only as normal, but essential to the identity of being a geek.  

But replace the word ‘“geek” with the word “autistic,” and suddenly all the traits that were so readily accepted get read as strange and negative. These reactions are a daily reality when you’re a neurodivergent geek due to the overwhelming prevalence of ableism and ignorance in online spaces, which is often stressful and frustrating.  

Neurodivergence refers to a wide variety of neurotypes that are viewed as different from what is considered to be “normal.”  This includes autism, dyslexia, epilepsy, and those with mental illnesses. Throughout the years I have observed many neurodivergent fans in anime and manga fandom. Our reasons for enjoying the medium may be different, since our perceptions of media are shaped by our unique experiences and identities, but our passion is undeniable.  However, our perspective on anime, or any aspect of geek culture for that matter, is commonly overlooked or undervalued.

a young woman underwater, staring up at the camera with her arms outspread

My experiences as an autistic woman who deals with anxiety and depression have impacted how I experience media. There are very few stories about autistic and/or mentally ill characters; the rare exceptions are usually told from the perspective of an allistic (non-autistic) character (like an autistic child’s parents) or the character is extremely stereotypical to the extent that the portrayal feels completely inaccurate and offensive.  

Still, there have been many occasions where I find myself identifying with characters who I have felt are highly similar to me. Characters who do not have very many friends, who have very specific interests, and are commonly viewed as “weird” have always stood out to me because I have often experienced the same thing. Three characters in particular have stayed with me: Anna Sasaki from When Marnie Was There, Futaba Ooki from Amanchu!, and Rakka from Haibane Renmei.  Their narratives relate back to events in my own life as a neurodivergent woman in a way that I seldom, if ever, encounter in media, and thus hold great personal meaning.

a young woman with short hair stares out the window of a bus

When Marnie Was There begins with Anna Sasaki sitting at a park, drawing in her sketchbook and observing that “In this world there is an invisible magic circle.  There’s an inside and an outside.”  Anna then goes on to say that she is on the “outside” of this circle.  This line and its implications struck home to me as an autistic woman.  Even before I was formally diagnosed at the age of twelve, I felt like I was an outsider among my schoolyard peers; I had a hard time understanding why they acted the way they did and couldn’t really connect with their interests or activities.

I preferred to spend time by myself, much like Anna in this scene—in society’s periphery.  This was a rather paradoxical scenario for me, as being “outside,” apart from everyone else, was the most comfortable way for me to survive at school. At the same time, I felt the distance between myself and my peers keenly.

two girls stand in the woods; a blonde girl in a blue dress stands behind a short haired girl in shorts

Anna is shown to face these same struggles.  She truly wants to make connections with those in her age group, but feels more comfortable spending time with adults, who usually don’t mind that she’s quiet and reserved compared to other children her age.  Watching this film reminded me of the feelings of longing to connect with others I had as a child, but also the confusion at what I perceived to be my inability to understand people.  

These feelings still persist into my adult life, but thankfully I have begun to realize that making connections is something that all parties must work towards.  As Anna herself discovers through her personal journey, the best connections are those between people who understand and accept each other for who they are, rather than an impossible, idealized perception.

Underwater, three girls and a boy in swimsuits gather around another girl in the center; she looks shocked while they smile at her

The importance of friendship is also highlighted in the series Amanchu!, which explores the value of friends supporting each other and respecting the coping mechanisms that people need to get through their daily lives. Amanchu! is the story of Futaba Ooki, a high school girl who recently moved away from her original home in the city to live in a town by the sea.

Over the course of the series, it becomes clear that Futaba suffers from anxiety, both general and social, which affects how she views herself.  This storyline reminds me of my own teenage years and how I learned the importance of self-care while dealing with my own anxiety issues.

Futaba’s anxiety primarily manifests in the form of her cell phone.  She is shown to cling to it like a comfort object, since it was not only her last connection to her old friends, but also houses a series of photographs she deems essential memories. The item is so significant to Futaba and the story that it even makes several appearances throughout the series’ opening sequence.  

a close up of a hand tightly holding onto a cellphone

For many people with anxiety, myself included, keeping specific objects or items on hand can help with the coping process. I personally find Sudoku puzzles relaxing when sitting in waiting rooms, while “fidget” toys like my Tangle help me when I’m feeling more significantly stressed. The types of objects I use have changed over the years, and may vary based on context, but as an autistic person with anxiety these items are necessary for me to move forward in my daily life.

We seldom see characters in media relying on comfort objects in a manner that’s respectful to their need for a coping mechanism. Instead, we commonly see such characters mocked as childish or immature. This can inadvertently do more harm than good for individuals who genuinely need such items to go through their daily lives.  

Amanchu! is one of the few pieces of media which realistically portrays not only the importance comfort objects have to the people who use them, but also depicts her friends as respectful of her needs. Watching the series, Futaba’s arc feels as if it’s made to intentionally resonate with viewers who have anxiety. Her actions feel too genuine to be interpreted as anything else, at least for me. This is only one show, but seeing a character who acts like me and relies on similar coping mechanisms like comfort objects  was both validating and uplifting.

Three girls cluster around a kneeling boy, as if for a photograph. A fourth girl looks on from the background

While Amanchu!’s portrayal of comfort objects was more overtly positive, sometimes uplifting messages can be found in the least likely of places. Haibane Renmei, a show that looks and feels bleak and gloomy, helped me through its frank discussion of depression.

I began watching Haibane Renmei during what I now consider to be my worst episode of depression. After completing my undergraduate degree in my hometown, I went on to attend graduate school in a different city. Without my support network of family and friends, the stress of grad school seemed like a daunting and impossible task. This took a huge toll on my mental health, and made me consider giving up my education and going back home.

I managed to spend some time with my family during winter break and made some important decisions: I would continue to pursue my graduate degree, but I would also begin taking anti-anxiety medication and take better care of my mental and emotional health. One method was watching various animated shows, be they shows I had nostalgia for or new series that caught my attention. During this gradual recovery, I began to watch Haibane Renmei—which, in retrospect, was exactly the show I needed.

a young woman with a halo and wings rests her head on her folded arms. another young woman in the background looks toward her

The story centers around a girl named Rakka, who arrives in a strange world inhabited by “Haibane”: human-like individuals with grey wings and halos.  As I mentioned, it can be a rather sad and gloomy show to watch.  Between the dull, almost diluted colors of the world and watching Rakka experience her own episode of depression, it could certainly distress some viewers.  But for me, watching Rakka go through her depression, in all its stages, gave me a chance to see my own experiences from an outsider perspective.

I empathized greatly with Rakka because I had been in her shoes: in a new place, trying to make the best of things, but caught off-guard when things begin to change in ways I couldn’t anticipate.  She reacts by closing herself off to those who could help her in her time of grief.  Yet despite at first being closed off and feeling hopeless, Rakka eventually begins to forgive herself, slowly accepting help from others and taking steps on her own path to recovery.  

This series provided me with the self-awareness to realize that I’d been trying to bottle up and hide all of my problems from others and that this was not a healthy solution.  Instead, it showed how discussing one’s problems with others and accepting their help is the better solution. The path to getting better was difficult for me, as it was for Rakka, but the end result was more than worth the effort.

a small sprout grows out of surrounding concrete

Finding a story with a character similar to yourself can feel extremely validating, especially when there are seldom, if ever, any positive portrayals of people like you in fiction. These are the stories that have provided me with that feeling of belonging, but each spoke to me in a different way, which is part of why it’s so important for there to be a wide variety of diverse representation that can capture people’s complexities.

My hope is, as we move forward, it will become more common for neurodivergent people to speak up about their experiences with media. Because whenever we add more voices to a conversation, we end up creating more stories to share with the world and a hope that they will resonate with someone who needs them most.

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