Diverse representation in the media is essential. It shapes how we think about others, how we think about ourselves and how empowered we feel within our own identities. As an autistic adult, I’ve rarely come across explicitly labeled autistic characters that aren’t just stereotypes. Many are even straight up offensive like in Sia’s newest movie.
When you’re a part of a community that’s not represented very much, if at all, it’s common to search for characters that you can relate to outside of a directly-labeled lens. In my case, these characters are never labeled as autistic, but their mannerisms and life experiences still strike a chord. We also see this in other areas such as the LGBTQ+ community, where the official term is queer coding. For our purposes, I’m going to be diving into Pearl, a character from “Steven Universe” that I believe to be autistic coded.
Pearl’s Disgust With Eating
Since Pearl is a gem, not a human, it’s not essential for her to eat in order to survive. Gems often still eat because of the joy of consuming food — a good example of this is seen through Amethyst’s bizarre and hilarious food choices throughout the series. For Pearl, she feels the opposite of joy when even thinking about eating food. She cringes at the thought of food being chewed in her mouth, passing through her body, and eventually coming out of her.
My interpretation is that food makes her experience sensory overload, a sensation that’s common for autistic people and often leads to emotional mayhem through outbursts or complete shutdowns, both due to too much stimuli being processed at once. It’s obvious that her avoidance of food isn’t just for the sake of preference; her dislike of food is so strong that when she’s fused with Garnet and Amethyst and they try to take a bite of food, Pearl can’t handle it and their fusion falls apart entirely. The texture and consistency of food likely cause some of Pearl’s outbursts when she even thinks about eating.
Pearl’s Literal Reactions to Social Situations
For some autistic people, myself included, it can be difficult to accurately read in between the lines, and as a result we often interpret words and phrases at face value. We see this in Pearl as jokes go over her head and she’s often too blunt. The most obvious demonstration of this is with her relationship with Amethyst, who is a very chill jokester by nature. They will often bicker with each other, and I think it’s because Pearl’s autism makes it extremely difficult to not take Amethyst’s actions seriously and literally, and as a result, she becomes quickly frustrated by her lack of understanding.
Pearl’s Background in Masking
In “Steven Universe,” every gem is created for a specific purpose. Pearl was created to be Pink Diamond’s personal servant for life, which burdened her with a low societal status and a stunted development of her individuality. When Pearl and Rose (who is also Pink Diamond) decided to rebel against Homeworld to protect the Earth, Pearl had to work extra hard to find herself after a long life of being told she only existed for the comfort and benefit of others. Masking is a very similar experience since it’s not just about “acting like others.” Masking is done as a response to social ridicule, and it means completely altering who you are for safety and social comfort to the extent of losing who you truly are. That’s exactly what Pearl went through and continuously works to overcome throughout the series.
Pearl’s Emotional Intensity
Pearl often gets agitated easily compared to other gems, and reacts very strongly to situations — but what I’d rather discuss is her unhealthily obsessive love with Rose. She needs Rose around to tell her how to act in a way that’s “acceptable,” and she takes pride in being the only one who knew her deepest secrets for thousands of years. Her love was intense beyond what words can describe, and I often find that to be the case when looking at the physical and emotional feelings of autistic people. Since we live in such a neurotypical-dominated society, there aren’t a lot of great ways to describe the different ways in which autistic people experience the world, and I think Pearl’s love for Rose is a prime example of that concept.
Pearl’s Need For a Plan
Pearl is not known for being spontaneous. She calculates and makes plans, which can be interpreted as a need to mentally prepare for situations. This, in my experience and opinion, is classic autism since many autistic people have a strong need to have control and visualize what’s going to come next, which often looks like having a regular routine or generally planning far ahead in advance, while having issues dealing with sudden changes out of anyone’s control.
Do I think that Pearl is literally autistic? My answer is: Who cares? Sure, Pearl is a gem, and to assign a human neurotype to a gem probably wouldn’t be a very accurate diagnosis. Still, with all of the problematic autism representation the autistic community has had to deal with in 2021 alone, I’m going to tightly grasp any sort of positive and accurate representation I can get my hands on.