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Why "Naruto" is relatable to the autistic experience

Updated: Apr 18

Okay, yes, I’ve watched anime. Anyone who knows me is not surprised by this information. I usually watch shorter animes, or animes that unfortunately get cancelled too soon (anyone else remember Baby Steps, a tennis anime?)

An image of the anime "Baby Steps" featuring the main character, Eiichirou, and Natsu, his friend, both holding tennis rackets.
An image of the anime "Baby Steps" featuring the main character, Eiichirou, and Natsu, his friend, both holding tennis rackets.

But during the pandemic, when I had to substitute media for social interaction, I figured now was my best chance to make it through a long-running anime. My brother and husband both watched Naruto growing up, so I figured that one would be the best choice, since I could talk to them about it.

Of course, my autism radar is always on, so it was not hard for me to find parallels between Naruto’s experiences and my own experiences growing up. While I think neurotypical viewers can also relate to Naruto, there are certain story beats of his that I think appeal to autistic viewers in a unique way. Let’s look at some plot elements that exemplify this. Because the show is so long, I will provide spoiler warnings for each section, as needed.

We Are Who We Are

When we meet Naruto, he is considered somewhat of a social pariah. This is because Naruto was born with a beast that is sealed inside him called a Jinchuriki. His Jinchuriki is a 9 tailed fox, called Kurama, who almost destroyed the village Naruto lives in. The 9 tailed fox was bound to Naruto to prevent the beast’s destructive power, and Naruto is othered because of this. We see him struggle to fit in with his classmates. He frequently exasperates his teacher, Iruka. Clearly, Naruto is a misfit.

I find Naruto’s predicament with the Jinchuriki relatable. As I have stated in other blog posts, sometimes autism has been referred to as some sort of “monster” that will wreak havoc on those who get close to us. But autistics know that autism makes us who we are and that’s not a bad thing. No one should be ostracized for who they are. Seeing Naruto wrestle with this predicament on screen made me feel understood in a way most shows have not.

An image of Naruto sitting outside his school on a swing while everyone else is together and having fun.
An image of Naruto sitting outside his school on a swing while everyone else is together and having fun.

While he is upset by his ostracization, Naruto is not deterred from being his best self. He wants to hone his skills and become a great ninja. While Naruto thinks that he needs to become more powerful to earn the respect of others, what the story shows is that people are drawn to his spirited and determined personality more so than any skills he possesses. Throughout the story, Naruto continues to make friends and allies who are willing to fight alongside him even when facing the toughest battles.

It is not hard for autistics to relate to the character of the social pariah as we often have lived experience in this role. This is why I find the story of Naruto to be such an encouragement, because by staying true to who he is, he is able to find ways to integrate into his community. Autistics are often told to change ourselves in order to fit in, but oftentimes we need to do the exact opposite. Our hearts and our values are important, and it’s up to others to recognize that.

“Annoying” is not a disqualification

We follow Naruto’s story from the ages of 12 to 17 years old. He is a headstrong, loud, and onery teenager. In other words, Naruto can be annoying. This does not go unnoticed by his peers, who know how to push Naruto’s buttons too.

What makes his relationships with his peers unique though, is that they have an underlying respect for who he is. He’s earned their respect by training alongside them and by fighting them in the chunin exam (a fighting tournament). Whenever we see the group banter (there’s lots of physical comedy), it’s usually friendly or competitive in nature; it’s rarely mean-spirited.

Autistics have been forced to minimize their personalities for the so-called comfort of others. This is why I find it refreshing to watch a shonen (a coming of age story of a teen boy) with such a feisty main character. If Naruto can be, well, Naruto, and still be embraced by his friends, then what is stopping me from showing my true self to others?

I can be headstrong, loud, and even annoying at times. And this is not a death sentence for my relationships, or at least, not the ones worth keeping. The people in my life have seen my many other attributes as well; they see me holistically. Besides, I think most of us have someone who we love that gets on our nerves occasionally, but those moments don’t deteriorate our relationship with them.

Solidarity Found

(Spoilers for episode 20)

In the chunin exam, we are introduced to ninjas (shinobis) from other places outside of Naruto’s home, the Leaf Village. This exam, where violence is permitted, is where we meet Gaara, who is willing to do whatever it takes to succeed in the exam. This is understandably terrifying for those from other ninjas who would prefer to make it out of the exam in one piece. However, Naruto views Gaara differently than the others, because Gaara is a Jinchuriki too.

But Naruto can’t let Gaara stay on his rampage and decides to confront him. Once they exhaust themselves from fighting, Naruto discloses to Gaara that he’s also dealt with isolation and loss, but that didn’t stop him from building relationships with those he cares about. This is a turning point for Gaara, who decides that going forwards he will use his powers to protect rather than harm.

"Between humans that experience the same pain, there can be no hatred." - Gaara

This story reminds me of a statement from Meg Farrell, an occupational therapist and autistic ally, who says that we don’t know what an untraumatized autistic person looks like. What Meg means by this is that autistic people grow up experiencing trauma by living in a world that doesn’t accept them. Unfortunately, every autistic person has experienced some level of trauma because of this.

While we advocate for a better future for the next generation, autistics can find others who share their pain and learn how other autistics work through that pain. The connection Naruto and Gaara form over the course of the show reminds me of my experiences meeting others in my community.

Because I was diagnosed early on, I carried a lot of pain that was affixed to the label of autism. At the same time, others who were undiagnosed got terrible names heaped upon them as well. When an undiagnosed autistic asks me about my experiences, and then shares their own in return, it forages a connection unlike anything else.

I could only imagine the relief that Gaara felt when he met Naruto and realized that all this time he wasn’t alone in his pain. I hope that autistics are able to find community so that they know they’re not alone in their struggles.

Making Peace and Finding Power

(Spoilers for episode 329)

As the shinobi world faces battle unlike anything they’ve ever known, Naruto is right there in the midst. However, he has to take a break from the fighting to look inward and to address Kurama, his Jinchuriki.

Kurama mistrusts Naruto at first, as he does not like being bound to Naruto. Yet, Naruto understands that it is okay to wield his abilities if it means protecting his village. He creates an understanding with Kurama that allows them to combine their powers. Because of this alliance, Naruto is able to persevere in the battle.

This is a beautiful metaphor for making peace with yourself. Everyone has qualities or parts of themselves that they grew up thinking of as bad traits. However, it’s not necessarily the trait itself that’s a negative, but it’s knowing when to use it. As we get older, we find that our stubbornness, our anger, our impatience, or whatever it is, can benefit us if we know when and how to utilize it.

I have said time and time again that I would not have made it through school if I was not stubborn. I’m sure it frustrated my parents when little me didn’t want any help opening a banana or wanted to win the board game. As I’ve gotten older, I know how to draw upon my stubbornness to drive me to keep going. I would not be who I am today if I was not stubborn.

Again, I think this is a unique metaphor for autistics who have been told they have negative personality traits, whether explicitly or implicitly. We get the message that the way we are is wrong and that it must be hidden. When we decide to step into our power, we realize that all of our emotions and characteristics have a purpose.

Kurama and Naruto’s story invites us to look at ourselves, even the parts we don’t like, and to consider how we can use these traits in new ways. I hope you will challenge yourself to look inward and to reframe personality traits that have previously been dubbed as negative.

What’s Your Story?

I hope that Naruto’s story has encouraged you to be yourself, to find friendships, and to take back your power. If you would like to talk to someone about any of these ideas, then please contact us today to get your life coaching process started!

If you would like to read more about the autistic experience in media, you can read about Wednesday Addams, or if you're a fan of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy, you can read about Sezed and managing your energy.

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