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L from Death Note is (Probably) Autistic: Autism Viewed Through the Lens of Japan


C H A R E C T A R I S A T I O N – A N I M E


Shammi Syera Simin


Autism isn’t usually stated in pop-culture outright, rather it ends up being implied more often, especially when the pop-cultural element in question origins from a country where mental illnesses and seeking help from psychologists are perceived as taboo. Just like your everyday mangaka (the Japanese word for a comic artist), non-autistic authors write autistic characters all the time; they just don’t realise it. They’d rather not admit it most of the time either, more so in Japan, as the Japanese public are not exactly keen on associating themselves with menhera.

The thing is, non-autistic people do end up meeting autistic people more than they think, but due to their stereotypes about autism, they often can’t recognise it. 

Autism varies extensively. From people who can’t function at all within society and need to be fed and have all their other basic needs provided by another person, to people who you wouldn’t even be able to tell are autistic—unless you spent a long time talking to or watching them. Autism is often characterised by a difficulty in understanding symbolism (nod = agreement) within conversations and in making logical jumps, for instance, aluminium cans go in the small blue trash-bin, so when an autistic person goes outside the classroom and has a can with them, they put it in the blue one, regardless of size and shape.

An unintentionally autistic-coded character

Occam’s Razor: A problem-solving scientific and philosophical principle that entities should not be multiplied without necessity, or more simply put, of the explanations that account for all the facts, the simpler one is more likely to be correct.

This analysis is going to cover L’s traits that are specific to the manga first, and then the anime adaptation, since manga L is the original L after all. Starting from physical traits, to behavioural, then ending with his overall character writing.

1. Sitting

Sitting with legs up and spine bent/sitting on the floor is an important indicator that is extremely common in autistic people. Sitting in chairs ‘normally’ proves to be uncomfortable and sometimes outright painful for many people with autism.

L sitting like that (which itself is a homage to Sherlock Holmes, another character that is blatantly autistic—coded) speaks to other autistic folks, who find that sitting in a certain way gives them specific helpful sensory commands, or aid to avoid distracting discomfort and pain. A post, written by an autistic person on the topic of sitting in chairs being uncomfortable, reads:

“I suspect that seating discomfort is common in autism (though by no means limited to autistic people). Many of us, particularly as children, benefit greatly from chairs designed to be non-stationary: Rocking chairs, fidget chairs, and so forth. These can improve focus, compensate for proprioceptive hypo-sensitivity, and alleviate restlessness. In short, many ‘attention issues’ can be fixed simply by providing a little motion for the person sitting. Small change, huge results. That’s what accommodations do at their best. They make (often minor) adjustments that have profound impacts.”

2. Standing

Standing with a slouch/shifting weight around is quite common for autistic people, and for a number of different reasons — from physical comorbidity to other issues such as dyspraxia (a brain-based motor disorder that affects fine and gross motor skills, motor planning, and coordination). An article by YAI, an I/DD (intellectual and/or developmental disabilities) community program, mentions:

“Kyphosis (a curved spine), collapsed chest, dropped shoulders and even scoliosis are observed in many of our patients. These myriad of postural issues may result from reduced strength, decreased biomechanical stability, or from a sensory impairment, such as apraxia.”

L has quite blatant mild to severe kyphosis which is very common in autistic individuals, depending on the scene. Other things mentioned in the above article that you might want to click on is the instability in standing, where one sort of shifts their weight around a lot between their feet or rests all of their weight on one foot, which L is doing literally the first time we see all of him.

3. Speaking with a monotonous voice

This one honestly depends on the voice actor you find for L, but in the anime in particular, L has a very flat tone. Much of this is because he has a dry sense of humour, but rest assured knowing that it is very common for autistic people to have a colourless speech (or go the other way by being too loud or emotive).

4. Eating habits

A lot of autistic people can only eat certain kinds of food due to a range of texture and flavour reasons. However, there’s a term used in the autism community called ‘samefoods’ which is really well put by two of my autistic friends:

“‘Samefoods’ or ‘samefooding’ is a community word that describes the autistic trait of eating the same food over, and over and over and over again. It is partly sensory and partly routine-driven in most cases. Majority of the time we samefood because we need a particular mouth-feel or texture or taste, and a lot of times even after that need passes, it turns into a need for routine until you actively dislike that food again.”

“Samefooding sometimes is closer to a special interest. When I have a ‘samefood’ (mint ice cream, currently), I really, really want that food. I could eat that food endlessly and not get tired of it. I will get upset if I’m not able to have that food in a day. For me, it usually is kind of routine based as well. For instance, with my current samefood, I have some in the evening and it’s become part of how I wind down from my day.”

We don’t exactly know why L specifically desires sweet food or if he considers it part of his routine, but what we do know is that he really wants to eat it and avoids eating anything else, so it could either be that he’s a picky eater or he’s samefooding on sweets.

5. Outsourcing self-care

L wears the same clothes every single day. It’s also worth noting that whatever he decides to wear is baggy, too-big clothing, the kind that wouldn’t be tight and uncomfortable. Once again, sensory inputs are a huge thing for autistic individuals. One of my personal favourite aspects is that in no adaptation does he ever wear socks. Even when L wears shoes, he wears them like slippers, not putting them on all the way. Students from Light’s school comment that he seems like he’s poor, but we know for a fact that he’s very rich and that wearing these clothes is a personal choice he made. One Day is a parody comic of Death Note, but it was made by the creators for a reason, and that reason being that L heavily relies on Watari (his caretaker) for his personal needs, and the man cooks and cleans and does most things for L.

6. Doing stimming behaviours

Stimming refers to self-stimulating behaviours, usually involving repetitive movements or sounds. Everyone stims to some extent, but in autism it tends to be more obvious, goes on for longer, and can sometimes be more disruptive to others. It’s often used to help deal with sensory overload, or used to express feelings—think of an autistic person being happy and flapping their hands in the air.

There are several instances of L displaying stimming behaviour, from stacking his food or things on his desk, to spinning in his chair, to biting his fingers and using them to press on his lips, to wriggling and tapping his toes.

7. Detective work as a special interest

Having a special interest means to have a deep, intense, passionate and incredibly focused or narrowed interest in a certain area of study, subject, topic or thing—to the point of excluding other interests. This interest is something that exists for the long term, most often lasting for multiple months, years, or even an entire lifetime.

L says that he only does detective work because it’s a hobby, and he finds it entertaining. We’ve also seen that he’s been at it for quite some time—if you take the side content (Wammy’s House comic, LABB) seriously, then he’s been at it since childhood, with unwavering interest. It definitely comes across as L having a special interest in detective work, rather than it just being a normal hobby or a job for him, especially since he says it isn’t out of any moral obligation.

8. Germaphobia & muted emotional expression

Germaphobia is common for individuals with autism. A lot of the time it’s actually sensory issues associated with ‘dirty’ things, and most of the time it’s because features of OCD are heavily comorbid with autism, including contamination OCD and such fears. Regardless of the reason, though, L’s aversion to touching Bad Things is a very autistic behaviour, and so is his resulting quirk that he tends to hold things in a very odd manner.

L seems to feel and express emotions in a very muted way. Not to say he doesn’t have them, but for instance, in the example below, L doesn’t have a solid grasp on what exactly he’s feeling. He thinks he might be acting irrationally and over-emotionally, because he logically should be afraid, but he isn’t sure, and none of these emotions present themselves visibly.

Ukita’s death is another good example of his muted response to emotion—he tells Aizawa to stay rational and his voice doesn’t waver as he tells him as much, but he holds himself tightly. For someone with poor emotional competence, these physical signs of distress can be hard to read in oneself, but Aizawa (a man who is extremely in-tune with his emotions) can tell immediately.

9. High logic, low empathy, and bluntness

L is also a character who, like many autistic people, lacks a certain degree of empathy. It’s not that he doesn’t have any, it’s just that it’s limited—and he also values logic over it enough to the point that he’s willing to make extreme decisions and take an ends-justify-the-means approach (such as using people as bait) in the example below. In said example, when asked to empathise, L takes a moment to work through what it must actually feel like, which rings as very autistic.

About bluntness and not caring about social convention, there are many many examples and I could list them all day, but L is a character who is very to-the-point and doesn’t care about mincing his words. He can be outright rude to the people around him, especially if he considers them not worth basic courtesy. Poor Matsuda.

My personal take

At the very beginning of this analysis, I was talking about how characters are often unintentionally autistic coded, and it’s important to understand how this unintentional coding is different from a headcanon — I didn’t make up these traits. They aren’t something that only exist in my head, that I ascribe to L for fun. 

I made this analysis both because I wanted to share L’s autistic coding in one cohesive place, as plenty of people have made lists before, but none that I could find that included so many examples with images and explanations—and I also made it because of the old ‘Ryuzaki Persona Theory’. 

For those unaware, the Ryuzaki Persona headcanon suggests that L faked all of these traits in order to make people uncomfortable, to put them off-guard and better mask his identity. I’ve seen posts about people claiming that nobody could actually behave in these ways, that L would surely be unhappy and uncomfortable sitting like that, or eating like that, or engaging in any of this behaviour. I’ve seen some people outright say that L isn’t autistic, but his persona is—that is, he’s pretending to be autistic.

Hence in the beginning I stated Occam’s Razor, because, to me, L being autistic is the simplest answer to account for all of these traits. Claiming that an autistic coded character is faking it is ableist and it just doesn’t make sense with anything else we know about his character.

 

To me, after all these years, Death Note is low-key funny. The entire first half is just L going:

“So, I think you’re a serial killer. It just seems likely.”

And in counter attack, Light performs a bunch of social cues that make himself seem trustworthy:

“Would you still say that if I did, this?”

And L, who is incredibly autistic and only has to interface with as much of it as he feels like analysing manually, is like lol is you done?

“I mean yeah—”

“Great. As I was saying.”

 


Shammi is a high penguin who loves planners, highlighters, giant calendars, nice pens, to-do lists—and anything else that gives her the illusion that she’s getting her life together. Scream at her on Instagram through her writing account @delulushamz

 

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