Like most topics that aren’t to do with love triangles, bloodlust and the all-important, constantly refreshing and totally interesting genre of middle class male angst, the mediums of film and television are not exactly known for their sensitive or nuanced portrayals of those on the autism spectrum – more often than not, those with autism are reduced to mere tropes of quirks and offensive characteristics, with little room for personality beyond the stereotypes. It’s an issue that has only recently started changing within the industry, and only after some forceful dialogues and activism by autistic people themselves.
As this is a topic important to me, I wanted to give the opportunity to spread some of those messages: through a conversation led by those on the spectrum themselves, which is essential. After seeking some UoA students for conversation, we had some talks that were incredibly interesting and worth reading. I even get corrected at one point, which speaks as to how our understandings of these topics are always capable of growing. I hope you enjoy this piece as much as I did – considering it’ll be in next week’s issue as well, you better!
Note: With the exception of Jasper Poole, all responders wished for anonymity, so their initials are pseudonyms – their initials are just there for the purpose of identifying who said what!
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about autism spectrum disorder that have been pushed through media/popular culture? If you have any media examples (The Black Balloon, Rain Man, etc), feel free to include them.
KH: I think one of the biggest misconceptions is the gendering of ASD. I haven’t personally seen any non-cis-males depicted – although I’m sure somewhere that has happened. Also, a lot of the time, when those men are depicted, there is something that seems to imply that he or others think he is entitled to be rude or mean because he ‘doesn’t get it’. It’s not accurate that people with ASD are much more likely to be men or mean, although missing social cues can result in people thinking someone with ASD is rude.
JP: The single most damaging misconception surrounding autism in my opinion and I think in the opinion of many others is that we lack empathy. It is this claim that has been repeated in media, in cinema and in mainstream psychology which has left many of us feeling disempowered and prevented us from seeing our true capabilities. This can be illustrated strongly in the film, Rain Man and through the character of Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory. Both are portrayed to show a total and complete inability to understand the other person and learn to be show warmth.
VC: Personally, as someone with Asperger’s (or “high-functioning” autism) the two things that stand out in how “people like me” are represented is that 1. They are almost exclusively male and 2. They are show as completely unempathetic and incapable of feeling compassion.
As a girl, only seeing male autistic characters is frustrating for obvious reasons, but even more so because it’s a stereotype that exists even in the medical community. As a girl, my diagnosis took years and was very drawn out as opposed to male autistic people I know – for whom it was immediate. To see autism consistently represented as a male diagnosis is frustrating because it pushes a stereotype that has negatively impacted me.
The empathy thing is also hard. I think a lot of people’s first contact with autism, especially Asperger’s, is through media, so this oblivious unkind caricature of it sticks with them. I have had many teachers say horribly offensive things about autistic people in this strain of thinking – “it’s okay, I didn’t expect you to understand this poem because your diagnosis means you don’t feel emotions” and likening autistic people to monsters as a throwaway comment are two examples that come to mind. It’s no coincidence in my opinion that the teachers who’ve said unkind things to me about autism and compassion were English teachers who coveted their copies of “The Curious Incident”, or just generally English/arts people who are in contact with a lot of media.
TS: I think the biggest misconception in media about autism is there is no one way to be autistic. When you see an autistic character in a film or television show, usually the social difficulties that come with autism are overemphasized (while I’ve only seen one episode of “Atypical” on Netflix, it seemed like they were taking this approach). However, in reality, there are a number of traits associated with autism, and every autistic person experiences them differently. For example, someone may find interacting with others a little easier than someone else, but they might struggle with sensory processing more.
How do you feel about the trend to portray characters with an ambiguous disorder as ‘quirky’ or the butt of the joke? Is there a way to do this humorously without being disrespectful?
KH: Kind of the opposite of what I just said, but ‘quirky’ or butt-of-the-joke ASD depictions are normally poorly done by people who don’t seem to understand much about the spectrum. It’s not a quirk – it’s a different worldview, and at times, I think, a helpful one. I think with proper research these characters could be pulled off, but even so, aiming to make characters with ASD a source of humour makes them a lot more one-dimensional, so that research might not actually be apparent.
JP: Yes, because jokes about someone’s quirks and personality differences often form a fundamental basis of a conversation between equals. Autism gives individuals personality quirks and such quirks form the basis of who they are as an individual not just a person of autism. It can be fine to joke about them so long as you do not actively do so on the basis of their identity. Another thing: This comes from my experience. A lot less autistic people than what you may think buy into the idea of intersectionality and progressive politics, even though I do personally.
VC: I definitely think there is a way to do this without being disrespectful, because my friends and I manage it, and so have a few rare examples. Unfortunately, I think TV comedies especially don’t think their audiences are smart enough to get anything more nuance than the straight-forward “its funny cause it’s not normal, laugh at the weirdo” stuff that reigns right now.
One example in my opinion that does a truly dismal job is Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. The writers swear that he does not have Aspergers, but the way he is coded makes it pretty clear that they intended for him to come across as such, and they just don’t explicitly admit to it to avoid backlash. I think showing him as rude, horrible and a constant pain to the protagonist character (who is clearly supposed to be the most likeable and relatable) is counterproductive.
I guess what makes me more comfortable with autistic characters being the butt of the joke is when the characters around them are laughing out of fondness rather than exasperation. (Atypical has its issues, but I love the way his sister will laugh at him and make fun of his quirks from a place of love, rather than frustration or malice.)
Something that springs to mind on this topic is BBC’s Sherlock in one episode having Sherlock’s best friend quite maliciously quip about his “Aspergers”, using the word Aspergers as an insult. I think part of the reason this sticks in my mind is because the actor for Sherlock has also played Alan Turing – who many autistic people think was autistic – once said in an interview that he didn’t like people interpreting his characters as autistic. “They’re sort of brilliant, and they on some levels almost offer false hope for the people who are going through the reality of it” (That’s an exact quote). False hope of what? Being brilliant? Ultimately, I’m just sick of people with NO authority on the subject at all dictating almost 100% of what people hear about it.
TS: Usually I’m not a fan of these sorts of jokes. However, I do believe it is possible to tell good jokes about autism. Part of a good joke about autism for me is relatability. When you have a neurotypical writer or comic making jokes about non-neurotypical people, they don’t really understand what it’s like to live your life like that, so their joke inevitably falls flat. In my opinion, if writers want to make more jokes surrounding autism, they need more autistic people in the writers room.
On the opposite side of things, can you think of any examples where media has portrayed ASD correctly, or if you prefer, realistically? In short, who gets it right?
KH: I think The Good Doctor does a pretty good job. Freddie Highmore has also been very open about how he wanted to portray ASD accurately, but also clear that this is one version of what ASD can look like, so it shouldn’t be considered the best or only source. I think that kind of attention to detail is very important.
JP: There is no “Correct” way to portray ASD. (Editor’s note: Was glad to be called out on that) We are all individuals with different quirks and personalities and abilities. Large percentages of Autistic are estimated to be nonverbal. Large amounts are also estimated to be highly verbal and have a mastery of language.
VC: I’m not sure that anything has or will ever get it right completely, but a couple of examples stand out to me.
One is kind of embarrassing for me to admit to having watched, but there was an episode in a Disney Channel show called Girl Meets World, where one of the characters was maybe going to be diagnosed with Asperger’s. I cried watching it because it was the first time I’d ever heard the word “Asperger’s” outside of a doctor’s office, and when the character’s friends said he was too smart to be autistic, and he explained it to them, it was very sweet. He ended up not getting the diagnosis, but the show revealed that his girlfriend (I think?) had it, and everyone was very supportive of her. Might be the only female Asperger’s character I’ve ever seen in media, and she was still young and liked typical preteen things but was prone to hyper-fixations and was a bit odd. I thought the representation was pretty good, and perfect for the young age group it targeted to introduce them to the idea.
The Good Doctor definitely has its problems (we’re autistic, not X-men) but I do recall it having a particularly good representation of sensory overload and I think the actor portrays the physicality of it well
TS: Not off the top of my head. Nowadays I tend to avoid media which I know features autistic people, since it’s usually not great.
Next week’s issue will continue the conversation, with an additional three topics.