Ghostbuster Phoebe Spengler – The Ultimate Autistic Hero
November 21, 2021
By Dori Zener
Phoebe Spengler, granddaughter of Ghostbuster Egon saves the day in the latest supernatural sequel. What they don’t mention is that heroine Phoebe is neurodivergent, and it is her autistic personality traits that make her a hero. Not to worry, no spoilers here.
Direct communicator: Phoebe tells it like it is.
“Flat affect”: Autistic people can be misperceived as uncaring or unfeeling because their emotions are not always communicated through their facial expression or body language. Phoebe is aware of the disconnect between how she feels and what others notice. She’s also a good self-advocate, explaining to her friend that even though she may not appear upset on the outside, “on the inside I’m vomiting”.
Passionate interests: Phoebe is a science nerd, and like many autistics she is a self-taught kinesthetic learner who knows more about her area of interest than most content experts. Like many on the spectrum, she is inquisitive and intelligent, and gravitates to the facts about the natural world.
Challenges authority: Hierarchical relationships are social constructs that many autistic people do not recognize or adhere to. Phoebe demonstrates her indifference to authority in her dealings with the police and her teacher. She speaks to everyone the same way, regardless of their status. She does not modulate herself to adapt to the context or the audience. She is just Phoebe across all settings.
Masking: On the first day of school, Phoebe’s mom gives her advice on how to make friends. She says, “Don’t be yourself”. Autistic people are often given the message “who you are is not okay”, so they learn to conceal their autistic traits in an attempt to pass as neurotypical. Luckily, Phoebe ignores her mom’s advice and takes the mask off.
Sensory processing differences: Surrounded by chaos, Phoebe tells her friend Podcast, “overstimulation calms me”. When her mom goes in for a hug, she stiffens, finding this touch uncomfortable. Her sensory motor differences are mentioned as well. At one point her mom states, “she’s not very coordinated”.
Friendships don’t come easily to her: Phoebe’s mom and brother teach her jokes in an attempt to attract friends and break the ice. She’s learned the scripts, but as her brother tells her, “you have the worst timing”. Even though she’s got the lines, it’s hard for her to read the room to know when to get the laugh.
Dead-pan delivery: While she may struggle to insert scripted comedy, she is great at dishing out sarcasm, such as this great line, “super news, we’re trying to save the world right now”.
She’s self-aware: Like many autistic girls, she is aware that she is different from her peers. What is great about her portrayal is that she embraces her difference.
Thrives under pressure: When every other character is recoiling in fear, Phoebe is moving closer to the action. If you’ve ever seen an autistic person in a crisis you know that they are often the calmest one in the room. Phoebe remains focused on her mission and is never phased by the supernatural around her.
Gender non-conforming: With her collared shirts buttoned to the top, and her baggy denim, Phoebe has her own unique style. She does not conform to gender stereotypes in her clothes or her interests.
Kudos to Reitman and Kenan for showing the world the power of neurodivergent females in Ghostbusters: Afterlife. This isn’t the first time the franchise has showcased a non-neurotypical hero. Author Kurchak notes in her article (2016) that Holtzmann from Ghostbusters, gave her and her peers a way to “discuss our experiences on the spectrum in a way that we really haven’t had before.” Another nod to neurodiversity is the return of actor Dan Aykroyd, as Ghostbuster Ray Stantz. Aykroyd, the creative genius behind Ghostbusters, told the Daily Mail in 2013, that he attributes his special interests in ghosts and law enforcement as the spark for the original 1984 movie. Without neurodivergence, we would not have the iconic Ghostbusters.
Ewing, S. (2013, December 9). ‘I have Asperger’s – one of my symptoms included being obsessed with ghosts’: Under the microscope with Dan Aykroyd. The Daily News. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2521032/Dan-Aykroyd-I-Aspergers–symptoms-included-obsessed-ghosts.html
Kurchak, S. (2016, September 22).How ‘Ghostbusters’ Holtzmann has become a queer, autistic hero. Splinter News. https://splinternews.com/how-ghostbusters-holtzmann-has-become-a-queer-autistic-1793862135