"His people are completely literal. Metaphors are gonna go over his head."
"Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it." ―Rocket Raccoon and Drax
One of the most important keys to a successful story is character relatability. In other words, we need to be able to see ourselves -- and other people we know -- in a story to fully grasp it. Being neurodivergent myself, I appreciate the recent media attempts to represent autism and other conditions in movies and on television, but I also recognize autistic traits in some of the popular characters we know and love, even though they aren’t purposely coded autistic. One of my favorite examples of this is the group of space misfits known as the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Before I begin, a necessary disclaimer: This is not by any means a comprehensive list of autistic traits, and not all autistic people will experience all of even any of the traits on this list. This is also not to be used as a diagnostic tool, people; we’re here for fun and light education. Got it? Let’s go.
The MCU’s Guardians consist of five core members: Peter Quill (self-styled “Star Lord”), the lone human abducted by aliens in his youth; Rocket Raccoon, who resembles a raccoon and has a penchant for sarcasm and violence; Groot, an animate tree-like fellow who is Rocket’s companion; Gamora, perhaps the deadliest assassin in the Galaxy; and Drax, the ultra-tough guy with a tragic backstory. These are the character prototypes, but they are not the aspects that make them relatable. For that, I will discuss the Guardians through the lens of autism, beginning with Drax.
Drax is, in my opinion, the easiest to imagine in terms of autism. His literal-mindedness produces some of the films’ funniest moments, but I relate to him completely. The old joke goes, “You’re austisic? That means you take everything literally, right?” “No, that’s kleptomaniacs.” Many neurodivergent folks spend a lot of time puzzling over the meaning of phrases uttered by the people around us. And like Drax, we try out the phrases we learn, with varied (sometimes embarrassing, sometimes gratifying, often hilarious) results. Learning to understand and use sarcasm, for example, can be a lifelong process. Some autistics seize on it with glee and use it at every opportunity and some don’t understand why people would ever say the exact opposite of what they mean. There are other ways this literalism affects communication, too.
Many neurotypical societies (USA included) view directness as rude. They’ve developed intricate, unspoken rules around conversation, and while they mean what they say, they often don’t say what they mean. This can be baffling to the autistic mind. We end up paying acute attention, reading between the lines, and considering every possible meaning before responding to what we think is the most likely interpretation. Add to this the common auditory processing delay, and we could veer entirely off topic. (I have comorbid ADHD; I am GREAT at veering off topic!)
Another fairly obvious example of an autism trait is Groot’s repetition of his own name: “I am Groot” is all he is able to say, and he is otherwise nonverbal. Or, as Rocket so gently explains to a very frustrated Peter early on, “He don’t know talking good like me and you, so his vocabulistics is limited to ‘I’ and ‘am’ and ‘Groot.’ Exclusively in that order.” Groot, like most nonverbal autistic people, is nonetheless highly expressive and certainly manages to communicate with his friends. Those around him even learn to understand his inflection. Entire conversations happen on screen with the regular-speaking characters talking to Groot in a casual way, and Groot saying “I am Groot” and everyone stays on the same page. Groot’s self-repetition illustrates a condition called Palilalia which is often mistaken for its more popular cousin Echolalia, the repetition of other people’s words. It is fairly common for autistic children with Palilalia to speak entirely in movie, television, or book quotes before they gain the ability to use spontaneous, original words. Many of us continue to employ the device as adults because it is fun or soothing.
Repeating words for the sensory experience of it is one version of an activity called stimming. Stimming comes in many forms, not only repeating words and phrases we enjoy, but physical actions such as hand flapping, rocking, dancing, humming, and
anything enjoyable involving our senses. Stimming has lots of uses: expressing joy, regulating the amount of stimulation coming in through the senses, self-soothing, or again just because it’s fun. To be clear, stimming is not unique to autistics, nor even to humans. Many creatures stim; humans do it often, autistics do it much more. If you guessed the Guardian I’m associating with stimming is Peter Quill, congratulations! Peter listens to the same music cassette tape obsessively. He knows every note, beat and syllable all the way down into his bones. He has an entire Galaxy of music to explore and he sticks with these same eleven songs, why? Because it is not just enjoyable, it’s pacifying. The familiarity of home and the comforting memories of his mom bring him peace, yes, but there’s something in the music itself that tickles Peter’s brain in just the right way. He listens on repeat like he’s scratching an itch. It just...feels right.
Similar in intensity to stimming is the passionate joy many of us find in our special interests. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing an autstic person talk about their passion, you’ve likely caught a glimpse of the awesome depths of their knowledge on the
subject. I know a young autistic man whose passion is “vintage” (ah, youth) video games and video game consoles from the 1980s and 1990s. The so-called “late 1900s.” He can tell his listeners which characters were introduced in which iteration of a game and which consoles it was played on, just to start. He can list the various cheat codes available by name and function. He can hear a few notes from a game’s music and tell you what game, what level, and what the obstacles are. He knows every plot and intimate detail of characters’ relationships with one another, and will expound upon what doesn’t make sense and why. His memory for these details blows my mind. Rocket Raccoon is our patron saint of special interests. His innate and inexplicable understanding of explosives and electronics in general is exemplary. He takes his surroundings apart and builds bombs compulsively, and his comprehension of mechanized systems saves the day more than once. He doesn’t need to be familiar with a system to manipulate it, he just already knows. His brain works in a different, wonderful kind of way.
You may be thinking, sure, I can understand Drax and his literal mind, Groot and his noverbal communication, Peter and his stimming, and Rocket’s special interests, but what about Gamora? How do we relate Gamora to autism? I’m glad you asked. Gamora appears, aside from the whole “most dangerous woman in the Galaxy'' thing, to be mostly typical. What we call neurotypical: she exhibits few, if any, obvious autistic traits. But Gamora has deep trauma in her past, and while she casually mentions that fact, she masks what it has done to her. Masking is one of the most prevalent autstic experiences there is. The world we live in is not constructed with neurodiversity in mind. Neurotypical is considered the default, and so more often than not, neurodivergent people collect trauma as quickly as we collect special interest facts. We learn to mask that trauma, and our autistic traits, to pass in society. Masking is exhausting, as we can see by observing Gamora. When we first meet her she is steady and emotionless, but as the adventure progresses she has less energy for masking (and probably more trust in her companions) and her demeanor and even her voice changes to become more vulnerable. Masking is incredibly difficult to unlearn. It is psychological conditioning which causes us to constantly be different than we are. We often grow up thinking something is wrong with us because we repeatedly fail to meet the expectations set for us. In reality, our strengths are different, often powerfully so, than those of our neurotypical peers. We rarely have a chance to explore them though, so we always feel like square pegs trying to fit into the circular spaces in society.
And that is precisely why the Guardians of the Galaxy work together as well as they do. They are all square pegs. They have unique strengths and accommodate each others’ weaknesses. They have trust and compassion born of being misfits who have somehow found their fit.
The Guardians, like most pop culture characters, were not written as autistic, at least not to my knowledge. I would love to see more neurodiversity in pop culture, but until that time it is fun to speculate: How would autism inform a character’s actions? How do these autistic traits they’re exhibiting affect their lives and their relationships with others? Maybe it’s just my special interests talking, but I encourage you, readers, to think it over and give it a try. You might find something shiny to stim about.
For more on representation, check out Kk's article "Nanaue & Me: The Suicide Squad Does Representation Right."