Star Trek and Autism: Representation on the Spectrum

Guest post by Robert Vaux

(Twitter: @rvaux16)

From its inception, Star Trek has featured characters who deeply resonate with the Autistic community…starting with Mr. Spock and including every series in the franchise thus produced. But it’s Data (Brent Spiner), the self-aware android who struggled with his humanity, who might be the more prominent. He became a touchstone for Autistic viewers just as understanding about Autism was filtering into the public view. The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) added Autism and Asperger’s to their manual in 1994, the same year The Next Generation came to an end. In the seven years previous, a lot of people on the spectrum turned to Data to express their truth.
The similarities have since been widely discussed in the ND (neurodivergent) community. The character paired extreme intelligence with a detached bafflement at social situations. His skills were astonishing when on the job, but off-duty, he often struggled with interactions that his crewmates took for granted. He felt no emotions and his face remained a blank mask most of the time. And yet he routinely demonstrated ironclad ethics, selflessness and compassion, along with an absolute devotion to duty that only an artificial being could muster. His circle of friends was comparatively small, but fiercely loyal, and for a figure so supposedly clinical, he demonstrated creative thinking and leaps of imagination that could surprise everyone… including himself.
The ND community might have found one or two things to identify with in there. Data’s comparatively unique status in the Federation further endeared him to people on the spectrum, who often feel alone or ostracized within their neurotypical social circle. Almost every other character in TNG came from an existing race or culture that held intrinsic meaning for them. Even Worf, alone in Starfleet, still had his fellow Klingons and their history to turn to. Data, on the other hand, was singular. (Okay, he had an evil twin. But the principle holds; besides which, Lore clearly isn’t ready for a healthy sibling relationship.) He existed in a world with no peers and no common past: seeking knowledge and wisdom without the benefit of “belonging” to guide him.
In the days before the Internet – and indeed before Autism was acknowledged or properly diagnosed – such feelings were far from uncommon. People on the spectrum were simply “odd” or “weird,” or misdiagnosed with any of a dozen alphabet-soup comorbidities that never quite made sense. Data made a perfect fit for anyone who felt like they stood out just for being themselves.
In addition, his inner peace and self-awareness provided an ideal to strive for. Data knew who he was and accepted who he was without recrimination. His efforts remained unclouded by the self-doubt or insecurities that so many people on the spectrum struggle with. And all despite the fact that he understood no more about the purpose to his existence than his human colleagues. He questioned without getting any easy answers. He learned, and even developed quirks and hobbies. He tried new means of expression, including acting, painting and (very bad) poetry. He discovered the ability to dream and even found his own emotions eventually. The show’s seven-year-run provided ample opportunity to chart his development, and took good advantage of it. 
Most importantly, Data grew and evolved without ever changing the traits that Autistics identify with so much. They weren’t flaws for him to overcome or challenges to resolve. They were part of who he was and remained with him throughout the series. To change them – to even want to – went against his fundamental nature.
The final truth about Data’s appeal to the ND community lies as much in the franchise itself as the character. Star Trek helped pioneer in the notion of a shared universe, with an intricacy and level of detail that held an innate appeal to those on the spectrum. Indeed, fan devotion famously helped feed the Trek phenomenon throughout its history: filling in the details of the comparatively modest original series through fan fiction and similar expressions long before such practices were common.
Beyond that, there’s a deeper and simpler appeal for the community, especially when it comes to this character. Data was loved and accepted on the Enterprise. His friends celebrated him for who he was and didn’t look down on him when he appeared confused or awkward. They treated seemingly simple questions with patience and understanding. (“What is the definition of life?” he asks Dr. Crusher in one episode. Beverly suggests that he take a seat.) In short, they let Data be Data: part of Trek’s underlying ethos of diversity as strength exemplified in a figure who became one of the franchise’s most enduring icons.
It was a part of the vision the show offered: a world where everyone was valued for who they were. Data – and by extension those on the spectrum who identified with him – belonged there, not despite his uniqueness, but because of it.

You can follow Robert Vaux on Twitter @rvaux16. He also has a Rotten Tomatoes page.

Guest blogs represent the views of the guest blogger.

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