Star Trek fans have long connected Vulcans with autism — their stoic façades, blunt demeanors, and adherence to logic and facts are traits often shared by their autistic human counterparts. I’ve been a Star Trek fan for over 16 years, but it was only recently that I made the connection for myself; my particular brand of autism makes it hard for me to read between the lines and look deeper. Once I started thinking about it, I found that I had a previously unseen connection with Star Trek: Discovery’s Michael Burnham. Everyone knows Spock as the “child of two worlds” — half-human and half-Vulcan — but it is his foster sister, a human raised on Vulcan, who better represents my experience.
Most people don’t think of me as autistic. Weird, sure, but thanks to a lot of early grooming from my mom, I learned to suppress most of my stereotypically autistic behaviors. I don’t have meltdowns in public when I’m overwhelmed; though, I dig my nails into my palms to hold myself together. I make small talk with people even though I despise it; it’s rude not to acknowledge the nice ladies at church or the customers at work. I am an actress putting on a performance every time I step outside. Michael, too, had to fight her nature to fit in after Sarek brought her to Vulcan. She had to learn to suppress her emotions and adopt objective, rigorous logic like her Vulcan peers. She did exceptionally well; in fact, she was good enough to attend the Vulcan Science Academy, but Sarek chose to give the opening to Spock instead. Spock, of course, refused the position and joined Starfleet, as did Michael, giving rise to the stories we know and love.
Joining the Shenzhou’s crew under Captain Philippa Georgiou threw Michael back into the deep end. Instead of relying on logic, she had to tap into her human emotions to form friendships, now an alien concept to her. It took years for her to begin to readjust to her new surroundings, and thankfully she had someone helpful and understanding to show her the way in Georgiou. I’ve clashed with many of my employers because I didn’t do things “their way,” but there’s usually nothing actually wrong with my way — it’s just different. In the same way, autistic people aren’t broken or lesser, just different. We don’t fall on a spectrum of low- to high-functioning autism, but instead have our own strengths and weaknesses just like anybody else. Sometimes I can be very objective to a situation, examining both sides meticulously, and other times I can’t see past the page in front of me. Even the great Michael Burnham has had similar troubles.
In the story that unfolds in Discovery’s opening episodes, Michael commits an act of mutiny that leads to Georgiou’s death. It struck me as a very autistic act — it would so easy for me to jump into something without seeing the big picture. Michael didn’t act with villainous intent; she just thought she knew the right thing to do and took it upon herself to do it. I haven’t always been so noble. When I was about six years old, I was supposed to go to a program at the library after-school; however, my mom wasn’t feeling well and told me that she couldn’t take me as intended. I threw a huge fit, not because I didn’t care about her, but because all I could see was that my plans were ruined. I was completely blinded by the feelings I never figured out how to handle, and they came out in ways I couldn’t control.
I’ve gotten better at processing my emotions over the years, just as Michael’s “autistic” layers began to peel away as well. She got back in touch with her human side and turned out to be a wonderful leader. The same woman whom everyone feared and even hated after her act of mutiny showed herself to be caring, wise, and loyal. She placed her trust in her friends and their abilities, helping everyone flourish into their best versions of themselves. She became a strong diplomat due to her abilities to empathize with all parties and examine the problem from a distance. In the most recent season, she helped mediate the conflict over how to handle the DMA threatening the galaxy, utilizing her equal fluency in Vulcan logic and human emotions. She helped lead intelligent, honest discussions and refused to give in to her fear. Her strength has inspired those serving with her across 900 years of time and space.
I wish I could say I’ve come as far as she has, but I’m working on it. Recently, I was accused of something I didn’t do; I could see exactly why the other side thought I did it and I didn’t even blame them for thinking it. But, I was frustrated because I was innocent and unable to get them to listen. I reached out across multiple platforms with polite, poised messages only to be ignored at every turn. What made me the angriest wasn’t even that my name was smeared, but that no one seemed willing to fix the problem, which was on their end all along. The result is too important for me to consider giving up, but I can’t pretend that I’m not worried. Michael has helped me find it in myself to keep going, inspiring me with her cool logic in the face of danger.
Spock may be the iconic child of two worlds, but it's Michael that got the best of both worlds. She epitomizes the balance I hope to attain. Despite a tendency to withdraw and a desperate need to cling to facts, I’ve gotten so much better at channeling my emotions. Michael has been an amazing role model as I reach for my own human side. As long as I have to act every day, I might as well act like Michael Burnham.
Andrea Bush (she/her) is a rookie freelance writer from Ohio who hasn’t met a Star Trek she doesn’t like. You can follow her on Twitter @librarianandr3a
Star Trek: Discovery currently streams exclusively on Paramount+ in the U.S. Internationally, the series is available on Paramount+ in Australia, Latin America and the Nordics, and on Pluto TV in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom on the Pluto TV Sci-Fi channel. In Canada, it airs on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and streams on Crave. Star Trek: Discovery is distributed by Paramount Global Distribution Group.