Advice on an online friend who speaks through a cartoon character

So, this has the potential to be a long-ish post as some background information is required. I apologize in advance.

I've had this online friend (let's call her Jess) for several years now. We met playing a small, social game that centers around a topic she enjoys. I've known that Jess is autistic for quite some time, as does most of the community. She's pretty open about it, and word also just tends to get around since there aren't many players. Jess is 24, but she acts much younger and is easily upset with things such as fighting, inappropriate language/topics, politics, and anything similar. Most of us are pretty accommodating and do our best to make her feel comfortable.

A little over a year ago, the game shut down for a short period of time. This upset Jess a lot, as we are much of her social interaction. During this period of time, Jess began to talk as a cartoon character from her favorite show. She'd send me texts that began, "[Chacter name:] Jess wants to know what she should do today." I went along with it, as I wasn't really sure what the best thing to do would be. I also figured this was something she'd either move on from, or if it was inappropriate for her to do that her parents would notice and help her out.

However, this started May of 2018 and it is now nearly October of 2019. She still speaks as this cartoon character, and it seems that she speaks almost exclusively as him. It seems like she uses him to express her emotions. If she is worried or upset or stressed about something then she will say the cartoon character is worried or upset or stressed. Sometimes, she'll talk as other characters from this show as well. Every now and then, her primary cartoon character will even have a conflict with another cartoon character from the same show and she will express worry and concern about it.

I've tried to ask if she speaks this way around her parents, just to get an idea about whether or not this is something about which they know, but she didn't really give me a straight answer.

I guess I'm just kind of worried, because I don't know if this is a typical or healthy thing for her to be doing, and I don't want myself or anyone else in the community encouraging it if it's not. I'm not even entirely sure if this is something that is typical in those with autism, or if this is something completely separate altogether.

It seems like she understands that this character isn't real. But at the same time, I'm not entirely sure. Sometimes she'll send me and my friends texts like, "What if you woke up and [Character Name] was in your room?" When people who don't know what she's doing ask, "Who is [Character Name]?" she'll respond with, "My rabbit" or the character's full name from the show. However, I think she has also referred to him as her imaginary friend, so I really don't know.

Mainly what I'm asking if this is anything anyone has experienced before? Is this autism-related or something else? Is this behavior I should discourage? Should I encourage her to speak as herself? For a while now, whenever she speaks, I'll just address Jess directly.

Also, let me clarify that all of this is via text or online chat, none of it is actual speaking, so I don't know if this is something she does when she speaks out-loud (I do know that she is verbal).

  • Hi. This isn't something I've specifically come across before, but I can share a couple of slightly similar experiences. I have to mention that I'm not a medical professional or an autism specialist, so this is just based on personal experience as an adult who's waiting for an autism diagnosis.

    I have a funny voice that I put on at home - I only ever use it when I'm with my partner, sister or parents. I just talk in a slightly odd voice and people find it funny. I usually do it to make people laugh, but I sometimes use that voice when I'm feeling awkward about communicating my emotions. If I'm really struggling to admit to something I've done that I'm embarrassed about, or finding it hard to express my feelings, I sometimes use that voice to start the conversation. I'm not really sure why I do it (perhaps to lighten the mood, or because I feel somewhat detached from the 'real me' when I'm doing it), but it doesn't seem unhealthy and the people around me understand. It gets me to open up sometimes, so I see that as a positive thing.

    In terms of fantasy characters, I have been known, in the past, to obsess over specific characters (I remember I used to create very vivid daydreams as a coping strategy, to mentally escape from whatever was upsetting me in the real world, and the featured characters would often be from books/TV/film). I did get unhealthily obsessed with living in that fantasy world, to the extent that I almost felt one of these characters would follow me around as I went about my day-to-day life. It wasn't a hallucination because I knew they weren't there; I just felt better having this character with me. It eventually reached a point where the character became a nuisance and I couldn't get them out of my head, so I had to gradually move away from using daydreaming as a coping strategy.

    I'm sorry if this isn't very helpful - autistic people are so individual that it's very hard to say what's healthy versus unhealthy. If the character helps her to express herself and she gets enjoyment/comfort out of it, then I'd err on the side of healthy. If it's something she feels she can't move away from and she feels 'trapped' (e.g. in terms of having to use the character, but not wanting to), then that could be an indicator that it's an unhealthy coping mechanism.

    The National Autistic Society does have a helpline, so you could always contact them if you'd like some advice on how best to support Jess:

  • Thanks so much for your response! Originally, I did definitely think it was a helpful thing for her to express her emotions/deal with something difficult. I encouraged it often and engaged with any of the characters she spoke as. As time has gone on, however, I can't tell if this is something she feels like she *has* to do or does so because she enjoys it. She does love the characters, but she also incorporates them into every single aspect of her life online in a way that I can no longer tell if she's doing it because she *wants* to or because she feels she has to. The part where you say that it felt these characters would follow you around stands out to me because she will sometimes say that she is fine, but that the character saw something and was upset by it. The vivid daydreams sound very similar as well. She will often create problems that the character faces (for example, having too much homework) that are problems she doesn't have, but may provide a good distraction from whatever she is facing in real life (frankly, I'm not entirely how much her parents listen to her/take her seriously when she expresses concerns she has, so I wouldn't be surprised if this was a way to cope with that). 

    Admittedly, I'm mainly concerned because someone a while ago mentioned how I was "enabling" this "unhealthy" behavior, and they insisted they knew better because they took a few classes in college about special education (but ended up switching majors). They were always a terrible person and made fun of all sorts of disabilities, so logically, I know I probably shouldn't listen to them, but it still pops up in the back of my mind every now and then; I worry whether or not I'm doing the right thing and not encouraging a situation where she feels that she isn't allowed to speak.

    I just want to say thanks again for your response. I've been looking for some more insight for a while now, and you've by far been the most helpful by providing your own experience. Of course, not everyone is exactly the same, but I do find comfort in knowing that this is something that isn't entirely unheard of and *can* be beneficial. 

  • It is interesting to hear about other people's experiences - I used to think I was the only person who had these sorts of daydreams, until I joined this forum.

    I think the person who criticised you sounds very judgemental. It sounds like you're somebody who Jess feels she can open up to, so that's a really positive thing. The main thing is that you care about your friend, you listen to her, and you're doing your best to understand. Nobody can ask for any more than that.

    You're welcome - I'm glad I was able to help in some way.

  • Hello,

    This video might give you some ideas and help you understand. It is the story of how an autistic child was able to communicate through his love for Disney characters. It is a rather heart warming tale.

    You should be congratulated for your concerned, non-judgemental approach.

  • Thank you for posting this video! After watching the first few minutes, I realized I've seen it and had forgotten all about it. While not exactly the same (but really, nobody experiences things in the same way), it is definitely encouraging to be reminded of how much of a positive thing this could be.