A lot of what you read about autistic and Asperger’s personalities tends to focus on their typical weaknesses, like social awkwardness and difficulty connecting with other people. There’s a lot written about how traits like introversion can be a hurdle for autistics trying to fit in to a workplace or to form relationships.
But it’s a huge mistake to dwell only on the negatives. Let’s ask a different question: What are the strengths of an Aspie personality? Can a person with Asperger’s or autism be a good coworker, a good friend?
I believe that the answer is yes, without a doubt! People with autism, Aspies, shy people– have a lot to offer, especially if others are willing to listen and be patient with them.
I think that the character of Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter series is a great example of some of the strengths of an Aspie personality, and the way her friends accept her is a great example of how to treat others who may seem a bit different.
Speaking as an Aspie, it tends to be hard for us to talk about our strengths because we are so constantly aware of our weaknesses, but I think it’s a little easier to point out the strengths of a fictional character like Luna.
With that in mind, here are five positive character traits I see in Luna that I think she shares with a lot of Aspies:
1. The fruit of time spent alone in thought.
Aspies tend to need a lot of time alone to sort out our thoughts. It’s not that we are smarter or deeper thinkers than anyone else, but we are more easily distracted by all of the sensory data bombarding us from every angle and the conscious effort it takes to participate in the give-and-take of interacting with other people.
In some ways, the magical world of Hogwarts seems like it could be a nightmare for someone who is prone to sensory overload. It has all of the noise and busyness of a school, with people headed every direction all the time. But I think the most annoying thing would be the pictures.
All of the paintings on the walls at Hogwarts are enchanted, so the people and things in them can move and talk. So you can be walking down the hall by yourself, and one of the pictures might try to start a conversation with you. If have a light on late at night, they’ll all start complaining that they’re trying to sleep. Sure, sometimes it’s funny, but I think it would get annoying feeling like you’re always being watched. (And then even if you get away from the pictures, you still have to deal with the ghosts!)
Luna grew up in this sort of magical world, so maybe it doesn’t bother her that much. On the other hand, it’s not that different from having to contend with blaring advertisements in a crowded mall or airport in the real world.
But she does seem to appreciate time alone. In Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter finds her in the forest feeding thestrals, the silent winged creatures that are invisible to most people. When Harry asks why no one else seems to see them, Luna explains that she and Harry can see the thestrals because they have seen death– Luna lost her mother at the age of nine in an accident, and Harry was orphaned when he was just a baby. Just months ago, Harry also witnessed a friend and classmate being murdered by the killer of his parents, the dark lord Voldemort.
At this point in the story, Harry is feeling isolated from his friends and ignored by his mentors. He knows that Voldemort is about to strike openly and try to seize power, but the authorities are in denial. They refuse to even speak Voldemort’s name and have published stories in the “respectable” papers portraying Harry as a liar. Some of the people that Harry thought were his friends are avoiding him, and he has started to avoid them.
Luna quietly observes that perhaps Voldemort wants Harry to feel isolated. “If I were You-Know-Who,” she says, “I’d want you to feel cut off from everyone else. Because if it’s just you alone you’re not as much of a threat.”
This isn’t the sort of insight that occurs to someone without the benefit of a lot of time spent sorting out her thoughts. Who would expect a shy little girl to have spent time considering the strategy of a ruthless enemy? It’s an insight she has arrived at only after a great deal of thinking quietly by herself. Luna, too, has felt isolated, because of the teasing of the other students and the fact that she has experienced a loss that most children her age can’t relate to.
It turns out to be the insight that Harry most needed at that point in his life.
2. Noticing options that other people may miss.
“Thinking outside the box” is a a quality that is often valued in workers, leaders, and advisors. It’s the ability to see a solution that most people overlook because it doesn’t fall into a category people see as “ordinary.”
I’ve heard it said that autistics and Aspies are used to thinking outside the box. Actually, we usually aren’t aware there was a “box” in the first place. (That may be another reason why the process of thinking something through can take a long time for an Aspie– we have a hard time narrowing our focus by rejecting some options without consideration.)
Luna’s observation about Voldemort’s strategy in the previous section qualifies as thinking outside the box, I think– not many would expect her to put herself in the enemy’s shoes. Another example comes at the end of the movie when Harry sets off to rescue his godfather from Voldemort’s people, but all of the normal methods of travel are shut down. How can they get back to London?
“We fly, of course,” Luna says.
And so the students fly to London on the backs of thestrals. None of them would have known that the creatures even existed if not for Luna’s knowledge of them. And she could only see them because she had suffered the trauma of her mother’s death. I think that scene is a neat image of how joy can arise even out of something very painful.
3. A lack of pretense.
A lot of human interaction relies on very subtle signals– unwritten rules that people just seem to know. It’s often hard for people with autism or Asperger’s to interact on that level.
A lot of the time, this is presented as a negative trait because it can lead to misinterpretations if you break a social rule. I can remember a couple of times when I said something without realizing how it might be interpreted by others, and they thought I was being rude. When I realized that, it was very upsetting to me.
But social subtleties can have their negative side, too, even for people who are great at interaction with others. The whole thing can become like a game, with people using social signals to injure each other, saying one thing but meaning another.
Sometimes blunt honesty can be refreshing.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, we get to meet Luna’s father, Xenophilius Lovegood. In his main scene, he’s under an extraordinary amount of stress, so it’s hard to tell how he normally behaves around people, but earlier in the movie, Luna actually seems to be helping him with social interaction.
The two of them run into Harry Potter as guests at a wedding reception. Xenophilius considers Harry a hero and tells him that he’s been doing his best as editor of the Daily Quibbler to publish the truth about him and his fight against Voldemort.
I may be reading too much into the performace, but I find it interesting that Mr. Lovegood doesn’t seem to have a good sense of personal space (he leans very close to Harry), and he tends to ramble on a bit.
Luna steps in and says to her father, “Harry doesn’t want to talk to us right now. He’s just too polite to say so.”
Harry, of course, starts to stammer a denial, but the fact is, Luna is telling the truth! And she’s not saying it to embarrass her father or Harry– she’s just making an observation based on what she’s learned about conversations with others. Xenophilius doesn’t react to her statement as if she’s being rude; he seems to accept her advice as helpful.
If you understand that a person is speaking honestly, a straight answer– even if it contains criticism– can be a welcome thing.
4. Actions and words chosen deliberately and carefully.
Perhaps it’s ironic, but I’m not sure if can explain this trait very well. Hopefully I can get the gist of it across. One of the things I like about Evanna Lynch’s performance in the movies as Luna is how she seems to do things just a little bit mechanically, in a step-by-step way.
One example I can think of is Luna’s last scene in Order of the Phoenix, a conversation with Harry Potter. Luna’s possessions have been disappearing again, so she is hanging Lost and Found posters. Harry asks her if she wants help searching, but she shakes her head.
At one point, Luna stops what she is doing and reaches out to hold Harry’s hand. “I’m sorry about your godfather,” she says. Both the decision to speak and the action of taking Harry’s hand seem a bit deliberate and forced, and I think that’s because they are conscious choices. (In a way, this could be called “bad” acting, but it’s true to Luna’s character for her actions to seem a bit stilted.)
You can sort of see the wheels turning in Luna’s head as she stops what she was doing, decides she wants to express her condolences to Harry, and chooses the words and gesture to use. It happens again when she turns to leave and decides to skip rather than just walking.
There’s a little bit of awkwardness to these actions, but that’s because they don’t come by reflex– she is consciously making the choice to say something because she wants to.
You can see this again in The Deathly Hallows Part 1, when Harry loses another friend, Dobby. Luna closes Dobby’s eyelids and says “There. Now he could be sleeping.” It seems a little awkward, and her tone of voice is Luna’s usual monotone, but I actually think that makes the gesture more heartfelt.
When you know that you don’t always express things well, it actually takes a bit of courage to reach out and speak a word of comfort. It means you are putting others’ concerns ahead of your own worries about being misinterpreted. That’s a positive trait.
5. Enthusiastic loyalty.
Autistics and Aspies tend to have tremendous enthusiasm for the subjects that fascinate them. They can spend hours reading, thinking about, and creating things related to a topic they are passionate about.
For example, one of my interests is the history of pro football. A while ago, I began to wonder how many stadiums the NFL has played games in, and how a list of stadiums would look ranked by number of games hosted.
The only way to satisfy my curiosity was to make a spreadsheet listing every NFL game played from 1920 until today– 14,410 of them if you include a couple of other leagues that ended up combining with the NFL– and identify the stadium where each game was played. I loved it! This was actually one of the things that kept me away from posting here for so long.
I think that sort of passion and focus on a specific task could make an Aspie a great worker in a career that requires attention to detail. The challenge is finding that specific niche where they can apply that focus. (I’m still working on that, myself.)
Luna seems to have a love of learning about magical creatures like the thestrals, at least to the point that she spends her free time with them. And I believe that author J.K. Rowling has said that Luna goes on to a career as a nature expert.
Perhaps my favorite thing about the character, though, is that Luna seems to bring that same enthusiasm to her relationships with her friends. She doesn’t quite express it in an obvious way, but it’s clear that being included in the group with Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the others means a great deal to her.
At one point, she observes that spending time with them was “like having friends.” In The Half-Blood Prince, Harry tells her “I am your friend, Luna,” to which she replies, “Oh. That’s nice.”
Again, I can relate to Luna’s thinking here. When you aren’t that good at picking up social cues, it can be hard to know for sure how to categorize a relationship. Luna might have begun to suspect that she had found true friends, but how could she be sure unless someone said so?
Her nonchalant statement makes it seem like this revelation is no big deal, but it’s clear that, once she has had time to fully process the information, it has a profound impact on her life.
Harry and Ron both compete in the magical sport of quidditch, representing the house of Gryffindor at Hogwarts. Luna is from a different house, but she becomes a huge Gryffindor fan, sitting at their table and wearing a hilarious lion hat that it looks like she might possibly have made herself. She attends games and even practices to cheer for her friends.
Later on, when Harry and company visit Luna’s house, they find that she has painted the walls with pictures of them all, labeled with the word “FRIENDS.” She ultimately does a great deal to help them in their quest, even in the face of a lot of danger.
I hope that everyone who has autism or Asperger’s gets to experience the joy both of having friends and of being a friend. When turned outwards, Aspie enthusiasm can be expressed as true loyalty.
Well, that just about wraps up my analysis of Luna as a character. It is always tricky to generalize about a diverse group of people like Aspies, so hopefully I haven’t stretched too far in trying to make connections. I wish I could say that I always exhibit these positive traits, but of course I don’t. Luna is fictional, but in these respects, I think she’s a good example to follow.