Why It Matters that Overwatch’s Symmetra is Officially Autistic

Overwatch’s Symmetra has been the center of speculation since Blizzard first released A Better World. Part of a comic series expanding the lives of the characters and the world that they live in, it follows Symmetra — real name, Satya Vaswani — as she undertakes a bit of corporate espionage.

It also features this panel, which had people wondering just how committed Blizzard might be to featuring an autistic character in one of their games.

From A Better World

When looking for positive portrayals of autism in the media, people often have to make due with scraps. Characters like Temperance Brennan of Bones, Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory and Patricia Tannis of Borderlands are given traits associated with autism, and the people around them make reference to that — but creators rarely actually proclaim that a character is autistic. If a portrayal is official, after all, creators become responsible for it.

It’s no surprise that Overwatch fans were reluctant to get too excited about a single line in a comic.

That changed last week, when an Overwatch fan showed off the letter he received from game director Jeff Kaplan:

I’m glad you asked about Symmetra. It was very astute of you to notice that she mentioned the spectrum in our comic. Symmetra is autistic. She is one of our most beloved heroes and we think she does a great job representing just how awesome someone with autism can be.

 
Blizzard later confirmed the letter’s veracity to Polygon.

Some fans are thrilled by the confirmation. Reddit user XeernoftheLight started a thread in the Overwatch subreddit sharing his appreciation for her understated portrayal.

I feel that Symmetra is a hero in more ways than one. Not only does she represent a portion of the population that is vastly underrepresented in media, but she does so in a way that shows how being with high functioning autism is like. That line where some think you’re lying because you’re not bouncing off the walls, and others expect you to do so, where neither party actually understands. Good on you Blizzard, for not making her make a big deal of it. That’s the kinda representation I’ve wanted.

 
The conversations about Symmetra have also given people the chance to address stigma and stereotypes. Some users, like LeIcyfroggy, were quick to thank both Blizzard and the community for this chance to educate themselves.

If it was not for Sym, I wouldn’t be educated on what autism truly is and I really want to thank Blizzard and everyone who have been really educating a whole load of people on this, it really opened up my eyes on Autism as a whole and this is why representation is so important. Thank you so much Blizzard and people like the OP and this another person who really explained what Autism really is

 

The praise isn’t universal, of course. Some fans think Blizzard could go further to make Symmetra’s portrayal representative. PVPLive explores that angle:

Well, the first question to ask is: though she’s described as having autism, does she actually resemble a woman on the spectrum?

“Okay, so I have talked with a few teens about this,” said Jacob Sanders, formerly of Guthrie Mainstream Services – an Arizonan educational and care services program for the developmentally delayed population. “They have older siblings who played Overwatch, and I asked them this same kind of question about Symmetra.”

Most have said that, while Blizzard’s said she is autistic, that Symmetra shows no real signs of autism like their little sister or brother does. And that Symmetra would have to be the most high-functioning person with autism to exist.”

Is that as damning as saying that Symmetra’s supposed neuro-atypicality is false advertising then? That Blizzard’s just using perceived stereotypes of what makes an autistic person, and ignoring the reality?

 
But as the article goes on to explain, some people, particularly women, have trouble getting diagnosed at all because they don’t match the general cultural image of autism.

As PVPLive also points out, no matter how good a portrayal is, it can never be everything to everyone. Symmetra is the only neuroatypical Overwatch character to be revealed so far, and one of very few in video games, period. For as long as that’s the case, she’ll be expected to be the most representative, the most accurate, and the most positive portrayal. Criticism is bound to happen when people are forced to try to see themselves in a single character.

One autistic character is a great step, but until we have more, that’s a big responsibility for Symmetra — and Blizzard — to carry.

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