I’VE ALWAYS got at least one rewatch going amongst all the current television I follow, and these days it’s Star Trek: Deep Space Nine—still the best Trek series, and Benjamin Sisko is still the best commander/captain. It’s more relaxed than my typical rewatches in that I’m comfortable skipping an episode here and there (somewhere in season two there's inexplicably two Quark episodes in a row?) something I’m usually loathe to do.
What I wasn’t prepared for this time around was discovering that Odo somehow manages to be an analogue of the #ActuallyAutistic. Tumblr agrees, of course. (There’s fanfic out there about Bashir being autistic, but, let’s face it, Julian really is just an asshole.)
Odo was a Changeling who served as chief of security aboard the space station Terok Nor, later known as Deep Space 9. He was the only known Changeling to reject the Founders’ beliefs and instead gained an appreciation for humanoid species. Despite being affiliated with several groups in that capacity, the Bajoran Militia, Cardassian Union, United Federation of Planets, and Dominion, he gained a widespread and respected reputation from all these groups for being a fair enforcer of the rule of law.
It’s established early on that Odo can’t quite manage to take fully-human form, something that’s represented by his inability to complete a human-looking face. His is stiffer, his expressions a sort of self-conscious mimickry of human. This is something some autistic people discuss a lot, and while not universal it’s sometimes referred to as having a “flat affect”.
That “widespread and respected reputation … for being a fair enforcer of the rule of law”? Autistics have a reputation (of mixed valuation) for having a fairly firm conception of right and wrong. I suppose it’s likely linked to the “rigidity” many of us experience. Odo is deeply suspicious of attempts to subvert the rules, as are many autistics, and he seems equally reluctant to accept “ambiguity [or] behavior when he does not clearly see and agree with the method and purpose of the tasks and general direction of the activities” (to quote from my own psychodiagnostic evaluation).
There’s an episode in season three in which, in order to get rid a man who had been hitting on her the night before, Kira pretends Odo is her lover, a charade that he takes more literally than her ruse intended. While again not being true for all autistic people, a tendency to take statements a bit too literally in a common observation.
The big one for me is that Odo’s true form is a shapeless and gelatinous liquid. He can’t maintain human form (or, technically, any foreign form) for more than sixteen hours at a time, at which point he must resume his true shapelessness in order to regenerate.
Odo could not hold a form permanently, and had to regenerate on a regular basis, generally every sixteen hours. During this time, he returned to his natural state for a period of several hours. Nevertheless, in 2369, while trapped in a turbolift for several hours, Odo showed signs of distress when approaching the fifteenth hour mark since the time of his last regeneration; physical changes in his appearance were already beginning to show. (DS9: "The Forsaken") Several years later, while bunk mates with Quark during a mission on the Defiant, Odo appeared fine physically, even if highly agitated, when – interrupting multiple attempts Quark made to engage in conversation – Odo explained he had been holding his shape for a full sixteen hours. (DS9: "The Search, Part I") In one case, Garak tortured Odo by preventing him from regenerating, using an Obsidian Order device that prevented Changelings from changing form. The inability to regenerate appeared to cause Odo great distress and pain, as well as causing his physical appearance to begin to fall apart. (DS9: "The Die is Cast")
This is really sort of remarkable. Odo in a very real sense is spending sixteen hours of every day camouflaging his true nature and self. As he approaches the tail end of that period, he shows signs of “distress”, and if prevented from regenerating he experiences not just distress but “pain”. Ask your favorite autistic Star Trek fan is this ever struck them. I can’t imagine I’m the first ever to notice.
After his encounter with the Founders, Odo stopped using the bucket and got himself assigned to personal quarters; he would instead revert to his gelatinous state and shapeshift freely throughout the room, allowing himself to spread across the floor when he needed to become gelatinous. Odo kept the bucket with him "as a reminder of how [he] used to be."
After discovering that not only was he not the only one like himself but that there was an entire community of beings like him, Odo decides that his regeneration time should more truly reflect his real self. In effect, even regenerating in a bucket was a denial of who he truly was, a sort of socially-acceptable version of what he truly needed to recharge himself physically and psychologically.
In the end, Odo returns to his people to join The Great Link, which really is just all the various individual shapeless, gelatinous liquid people mixed together in an ocean of each other. It’s vaguely as if an autistic person up and joined an autistic commune because the world outside wouldn’t let up on the insistence that they camouflage all the time.
The parallels fall apart, of course. Nothing is exactly like something else all the time, despite Odo trying to do exactly that for most of his day.
When he first encounters his own people, he’s left alone at one point in what his people’s leader calls an arboretum, but Odo doesn’t understand that the point of the place is to change into each of the different forms on display in order to understand them better. In this conception of his people, it’s camouflaging as exploration, as discovery, as a kind of joy, even. Being something else for awhile is considered as much a kind of freeing experience as is returning to your true form.
That’s not the autistic experience, of course, where camouflaging instead is a kind of self-inflicted, if world-mandated, violence. In the real world, we need less of it, not more.
Still, be it intent or accident, the Odo-as-autistic metaphor is there. My rewatch just hit season three and I’m curious now to discover if any other parallels exist. Rest assured, I’ll be watching from the safety of my bucket.*