Steven Universe, Peridot, and Autism: A Troubling Narrative

Peridot is autistic. We need to establish this fact here and now. I don’t care if it hasn’t been stated in canon. I don’t care you think it’s reaching. I don’t care that this a children’s cartoon about genderless space rocks. Peridot is one autistic space Dorito, and that’s a fact beyond dispute. I know it. You know it. Everybody knows it. That girl’s on the spectrum.

With that out of the way, I want to join in on all the Steven Universe griping that’s going on and point not to any recent incident (though my god, haven’t the last few episodes been awful) but a much older narrative thread that I’ve got a problem with. That of Peridot, and her character arc.

When Peridot first appeared, she was a technician performing routine checks for an incubating Homeworld weapon known as “the cluster”. She spent her early days on the show being hunted down by the Crystal Gems, evading their clutches and cackling like a Saturday morning villain. When she was finally apprehended in Catch and Release, we got to see an entire other side of her. And to those of us on the spectrum, the aura of autism around her was palpable.

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This is Peridot as she first appears. Her rather spindly and gangling form is due to being outfitted with what she refers to as “limb enhancers”. In addition to enabling her to manoeuvre around her environment more effectively, she also has access to a screen she uses for data storage and communication.

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When these limb enhancers were lost, Peridot became vocally distressed, demanding to know where they were. When Steven returned a single foot to her (the only piece the team still had in their possession, as Amethyst had thrown the rest into the ocean) Peridot clings to it like a comforter.

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In addition to this, she also uses an old tape recorder given to her by Steven to replicate the routine of speaking into her screen, and even uses old paint cans to try and recapture the feeling of her limb enhancers (though this doesn’t stick, as she finds it hard to keep balance).

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The tape recorder in particular is very significant for an autistic Peridot. Not only does she use it to keep herself grounded and help herself make sense of her new environment, on several occasions she will communicate to the other characters around her by playing back audio recordings of herself. Finding alternate methods of communication than face-to-face dialogue is a very common trait of those on the spectrum (I myself am partial to communicating through writing, even if the person I wish to communicate with is in the same room as me).

In addition to all that, Peridot exhibits several other autistic traits, such as meltdowns when anxious or under stress (Catch and Release and Log Date 7 15 2 come to mind). Being very literal-minded, developing heavy obsessions and fixations (Camp Pining Hearts, alien imagery; her tablet). Lack of social skills or awareness, and the tendency to mimic the mannerisms of those she interacts with (such as pulling down her eye lid at Steven, displaying some of Amethyst’s mannerisms from time to time, giving thumbs ups like Garnet etc).

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These are just some of the things that make Peridot the excellently autistic little bundle of green joy that she is. Or rather, that she was.

Her character has… changed somewhat over time.

The Peridot of later episodes has had her rather more intricate personality traits boiled down into a shouty, smiley weird baby gremlin creature. And this is supposed to be a better Peridot. An improved Peridot. For you see, in the episode Too Short to Ride, Period receives a tablet from Steven (like, an iPad kind of a thing, not a pill).

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Note that she is still trying to replicate the feeling of her old limb enhancers.

Steven, Amethyst and Peridot then go to an amusement park called Fun Land, in which Peridot quickly finds herself isolated. Steven and Amethyst employ shapeshifting in order to enjoy all the rides, but Peridot is unable. And so she spends most of the day glued to her tablet, doing such things as Googling “Am I having fun?” or venting her frustrations on Twitter.

At the end of the day, when the group finally notice Peridot has not been having a good time, they attempt to teach her shapeshifting. After a few futile attempts which cause Peridot actual pain (the coding! The metaphors!) Peridot explains to her that these sorts of things are simply impossible for her (and while this is explained as something common to all “era two gems” it’s still ripe coding and you’re not taking it away from me).

With that out of the way, blame quickly shifts to her tablet. Amethyst, frustrated by Peridot’s constant use of the device, attempts to take it from her.

Peridot Amethyst Struggle.png

“You don’t need it!”

“You don’t know that!”

“YES. I. DO!”

Amethyst pulls the tablet away from her and throws it into the ocean.

It is at this moment, in a state of pure panic, that Peridot discovers she has the powers of ferrokinesis, the ability to move metal with one’s mind.

That’s right, by having her source of comfort taken away, the thing which helps her keep grounded and make sense of the world around her, Peridot has discovered her powers. Something she shouldn’t have, but does! And all she needed was to let go of her stim toys and get outside her comfort zone. In later episodes she has since mastered her ferrokinesis and shows no sign of missing her limb enhancers, screen, tape recorder or tablet whatsoever. Even the alien toy she wanted so much in Too Short to Ride has been tossed aside.

By shedding the things she “thought” she needed to function, Peridot has become more powerful than she has ever been.

If this doesn’t sound familiar to you at all, allow me to elucidate you on the sorts of treatments and therapies autistic people are subject to.

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Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) is a much-vaunted therapy for autistic people (usually children). Touted as a “safe and effective treatment for autism” by Autism Speaks, this treatment usually involves one-on-one sessions with an autistic person and a therapist for about 40 hours a week. They are then taught the “appropriate” ways to behave in social environments. In addition to learning basic scripts, both vocal and facial, autistic people will be made to repress their stimming (stimming is a repetitive physical movement or routine such as flapping hands, rocking back and forth or, in Peridot’s case, logging her immediate thoughts and chewing on her fingers) in order to become more socially acceptable.

Just as Peridot discovered her powers by having her tablet taken away, the prevailing belief is that autistic people can discover their own “powers” of living happy, functioning lives by having their behaviours modulated. It’s a cute, pretty little idea.

But the reality is a lot dirtier than that.

ABA therapies don’t just skirt, but leap majestically over the line between treatment and abuse. Autistic people in these sessions have no boundaries, and therapists will coerce and bully the patient into exhibiting correct behaviours and suppressing incorrect ones. Such methods involve food deprivation, toy/special interest deprivation (COUGH), light slapping (!), electric shocks (!!), forced consumption of vinegar and even ammonia (!!!).

It might seem a bit extreme to bring imagery like that to a discussion about a children’s cartoon show, but it’s hard to see Peridot having her tablet forcibly ripped away from her and almost destroyed as a clear parallel to these sorts of treatments.

And if you still think I’m reaching, allow me to be a bit naughty and share an anecdote (terrible for making arguments, I know). I remember the day the episode aired, seeing actual ABA therapists take to social media and scold any of the fans who were condemning Amethyst for her actions in the episode. Instead, they praised her for taking an “important” action for Peridot’s “recovery” and going into detail about all the ways our little green friend was “harming” herself with her current behaviour.

If actual ABA therapists see the clear parallel between this episode and their treatments, I don’t think I’m out of line in doing the same. Unfortunately, the posts I’m thinking of have been swallowed into the great abyss of time. But I’ll keep my bookmarking clicky-fingers primed and ready for the inevitable next time people casually advocate for the abuse of autistic folk.

So, where am I going with this? Basically: media is important. Doesn’t matter if it’s for children or adults. Doesn’t matter if it’s drama or comedy. Speaking as a writer, there’s no such thing as meaningless entertainment. Everything written, knowingly or not, has been informed by something. Knowledge, beliefs, prejudices. These genderless space rocks are fantastical to be sure, but every one of their characters has been moulded by the real world, and the writers’ perceptions of it.

As the shine of Steven Universe’s fantastic LGBT representation has started to wear off, areas in which the show is really lacking – really letting its audience down – are starting to show. And Peridot is one such area.

Autistic people cannot be made better, healthier and happier by having our coping mechanisms forcibly taken from us. We can only be made more pleasing to the neurotypical eye. Seeing the narrative of Peridot coming into her own and becoming happy and confident after having everything she knew and understood taken away from her is disappointing. Not because I don’t wish Peridot happiness, not at all! Because it informs the all-too-wide belief that these are the sorts of things that lead to the happiness and health of real autistic people.

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The reality is a little… different.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Suicide.

The Peridot that needed limb-enhancers to feel comfortable in the world; the Peridot that found solace in speaking into a tape recorder, or taping a tablet to her arm was not a broken Peridot. And a narrative insisting that a Peridot deprived of those things is better and more fulfilled is one that I can never support, because of all the grim real-world contexts that come with it.

And really, what is it about our stims that annoy you lot so much, anyway?

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8 thoughts on “Steven Universe, Peridot, and Autism: A Troubling Narrative

  1. I hadn’t made this connection, but I did notice the sudden change in her character. I sense that perhaps the writers haven’t yet figured out what “role” she’s supposed to play, because the show already has the Funny One, the Smart One, and several villains. I think some of the awkwardness in her character development stems from that. I’m not in ANY way trying to defend or condone it – I am 100% for an autistic-coded (or canon!) Peridot. I guess I just hope it’s something that will be smoothed out at some point. :\ I can see the writers making an effort to make some characters more than just a stereotype, but there are definitely some (like Peridot and Amethyst) who could use more love and attention.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah. Peridot, Lapis, Amethyst, Garnet (how many lines has she even had this season?). I think it’s just a fundamental problem of an 11-minute-per-episode cartoon that has all these characters. They all have stories that, on their own, could be explored for so long. So much potential is wasted because after an episode or two in the spotlight the writers just sort of expunge those characters of whatever’s previously defined them for the sake of keeping the plot moving forward. And it just ends up having a lot of unfortunate, though I’m sure unintended, implications.

      But then there’s characters who just get way too MUCH screen time for no apparent reason. *cough* RONALDO.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Uugggh, yeah, I’m so not sold on him. We definitely need some more Amethyst love, and I really want to see what they plan to do with Lapis’ character. I’m fine with her staying the Daria-esque one, though. It’s just poor Peridot doesn’t really have a niche. :\

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I can see what is said but I also think there is more to it than “force the autists into normalcy”
    there is also
    “you don’t know what you can do until you try”
    and
    “don’t obsess on the past”

    true. it was not the best choice for amethyst to toss the tablet
    but can you blame her as she has her own emotional issues
    and peridot then ignores her focusing instead on the tablet

    I’m autistic. I have done that. and I still find it annoying

    sometimes Being forced outside their comfort zone is a good thing

    Like

    • You can, in fact, blame Amethyst for the bad things she does (tossing the tablet, shape-shifting into rose, etc) because having issues of your own does not excuse you from your own actions.

      Being forced outside of one’s comfort zone is a rather nebulous concept that NEVER justifies the destruction of someone else’s property, comforter or not. When going through my own development therapy, examples of me leaving my comfort zone were being forced to handle common textures and materials that caused me pain (wool, pencils and the like). I still cannot tolerate these textures, but this at least a more mild form of “leaving one’s comfort zone” than having my property destroyed, or having by behaviour corrected through abuse tactics such as the destruction of my property, being slapped, or the forced ingestion of vinegar or ammonia. “Sometimes being forced outside their comfort zone is a good thing” is far too vague an idea to be used as a blanket concept.

      And finally, I ask that you consider your own choice of word here: “annoying”. Yes, Peridot annoyed Amethyst when she deliberately ignored her. Yes, that is an annoying thing that people, both neurodivergant and neurotypical, can do; but it does not justify having one’s property destroyed. In the context of my essay, which was that Peridot’s treatment can be likened to that of an abusive practise which in the real world can cause PTSD and suicides, I ask that you think about why you consider the elimination of “annoying” behaviours to be a benefit that outweighs the costs.

      Like

  3. Honestly, I’m stretching here, a lot, but my cousin went through this kind of therapy, and she didn’t show that she was upset with it at all, I mean ya, at first she did, but after a while she just started acting…weird as we called it, even for her. After a while she broke down and told us she was acting all weird because she was trying not to look all emotional and broken up about the whole thing when she real was, and I really hope that’s what the crewniverse is doing with Peridot, though its pretty much a impossible hope at this point, since even if it mirrors a real life thing, there’s no way it was intentional.

    Like

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