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For Some With Autism, Furry Culture Offers Comfort And Acceptance

Sarah Boden
90.5 WESA
Group of furries play Uno at 2019 Anthrocon convention.

Furries are people who have created anthropomorphized versions of themselves, and a Pittsburgh-based researcher has found that up to 15 percent of people with this hobby have autism spectrum disorder. This number includes people who have been diagnosed with autism, but may or may not agree with the analysis, and people who have never received a diagnosis, but self-identify as autistic. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 2 percent of children in the U.S. are autistic.

Pittsburgh is uniquely situated to study furry fandom due to its annual Anthrocon convention. This year’s took place from July 4-7 and had a reported 9,358 attendees.

Credit Sarah Boden / 90.5 WESA News
90.5 WESA News
Furry research Elizabeth Fein, with some of her "furscience" collaborators.

“What I love are all the different expressions on the faces. Some of them are just wide-eyed, big smile,” said Duquesne University’s Elizabeth Fein, as she watched the convention’s furry parade. “Like a little bit toothy. A little bit of a jagged toothy grin.”

Most people at Anthrocon wear street clothes, often along with ears or tails. Some commission full suits, which are made from plastic, fake fur and foam rubber. Furry costumes often resemble Disney or anime characters, they’re technicolor with big, cute eyes. Others have a creepier vibe.

As Fein surveyed the scene, she noted the crowd and humidity.

“Everyone’s trying to kind of maneuver around each other,” she said. “This is the kind of thing that seems like it would be incredibly difficult for a person on the spectrum.”

Fein specializes in psychological and psychiatric anthropology, as well as neurodevelopmental disorders, like autism.

Credit Sarah Boden / 90.5 WESA News
90.5 WESA News
Travis Latkowski, of Gettysburg, attended the 2019 Anthrocon convention as "Silva," an arctic saber cat.

The American Psychiatric Association defines autism spectrum disorder as causing “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts.”For this reason, said Fein, the suits are a draw for many autistic furries, which is the case for 22-year-old Travis Latkowski of Gettysburg.

Latkowski said he was diagnosed with autism while in middle school. He came to Anthrocon dressed as “Silva,” an icy blue, arctic saber cat.

“When I’m wearing the full suit and the head I feel like I don’t have to be me,” he said. “I’m the character I’m trying to portray, so in a way it’s like a break from the anxiety and stress.”

Latkowski said the suit feels comfortable, even in the July heat.

“The full suit is very sensory for me,” he said. “It’s like I’m just wrapped around just a big, giant-like, carpet-like hug.”

Many autistic people find it soothing to use a weighted blanket or wear heavy clothing. Also, it’s harder to hear or see in a fur suit, which Fein said helps some autistic people who get overwhelmed in environments that are loud or bright.

“People will talk about seeing less and hearing less,” said Fein.

Additionally, lots of people with autism struggle to read social cues or make eye contact. Furries wear masks, forcing people to communicate with exaggerated gestures, which Fein said can be easier to interpret.

“When you’re in a fur suit…there’s not that degree of fine-grained nuance,” said Fein. “Are you going to open up your arms for a hug, are you going to tilt your head, are you going to squeak your squeaker? …  For a lot people on the spectrum that makes social communication easier and more fun.”

Latkowski and Fein pointed out that autism comes with lots of strengths, as many people on the spectrum are honest, logical, and artisticCori Frazer, executive director of the Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, said that Fein's work could help public policy makers capitalize on the benefits of autism. 

"We are truly lacking in scientific data reflecting who autistic people are, rather than the customary study of how to make us seem more normal," said Frazer.

Fein and her collaborators, who comprise the International Anthropomorphic Research Project, aren't just studying autism. These "furscientists" are also researching identity, fantasy engagement, and the psychological needs met by being a furry.

Much of the data are collected during conventions, like Anthrocon, through surveys and focus groups.

One of the volunteers who filed out this year's Anthrocon survey is Camille Zugarek of Luzerne County, PA. Zugarek's furry persona is a mountain goat named “Rizzo,” who she described as energetic, loud and obnoxious. Zugarek didn’t mention autism, but explained why she enjoys furry culture.

“It’s like super accepting,” she said. “There’s no judging here.”

Credit Sarah Boden / 90.5 WESA News
90.5 WESA News
Chantel Fortin of Chattanooga, TN (left) and Sam Engstrom, or "Shrugs Yolo," of Ontario, Canada. Both are artists who specialize in furry art.

That welcoming atmosphere is something many in the fandom mention. Kathy Gerbasi, a social psychologist and founder of the Anthropomorphic Research Project, said studying this aspect of furry culture might help other marginalized groups.

“Bottom line is human beings are basically afraid of things that are unfamiliar,” she said. “It's like an evolutionary kind of thing, right?"

Gerbasi said society becomes increasingly comfortable and accepting when minority or peripheral groups are accurately represented.

Furries know that it might seem strange to wear tail to the grocery store, or spend the weekend dressed as a pink fox, but that doesn’t matter when they’re part of a menagerie, which might be the biggest reason so many furries are on the spectrum.

“I was bullied a lot growing up. And then when I found out I was autistic, my depression hit a lot harder, 'cause I always thought that was a bad thing. But finding the fandom I learned it wasn’t a bad thing, it was just me.”

But Latkowski said becoming a furry and meeting other furries has helped him realize there is nothing wrong with him, he just thinks differently.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.