Hello folks! One topic that I have been wondering whether or not to write about is representation in media: autistic representation that is. It is quite a tricky topic due to conflicting ideas about what autism is, and so I have largely ignored it. However, the time has come where I have managed to corral together enough thoughts for me to write a post about it!
So, the best place to start would probably be a discussion of what representation we have. Well, that is difficult to answer. Many characters that I read as autistic may not be ‘officially’ written as autistic, and so my interpretation of them as such is easily argued against. Shows that have at least one canonically autistic character include Atypical, The A Word, Rain Man, The Good Doctor, etc. There are, of course, other films and series to choose from, but given that time continues to move forwards regardless of whether I want it to or not, I can’t review everything and so I have chosen a few that I reckon are the most well-known.
Taking a look at the first example given —Atypical— we would expect pretty good things as the show protagonist is an autistic character, however Atypical is quite controversial within the community. Unsurprisingly, ‘Sam’ is not played by an autistic actor, and so will only ever have the depth of an actor imagining what it is like being autistic. That said, I quite like Atypical and its portrayal of autism and it is a show which I relate to quite well. Sam attends a “normal” school and is shown as being academically capable but struggling with the social / sensory parts of school. He has a clearly defined special interest which he dedicates considerable amounts of time to and likes talking about. His family are accepting of him, and his relationship with his sister is one of my favourite on-screen, sibling relationships I have yet to see. He is also in therapy to help him manage, something which I think should be hugely normalised. There are, however, some fairly major flaws, and it would be remiss of me to not mention them. Sam displays some fairly stereotypical traits, from his speech pattern, right down to his sometimes-blunt rudeness in conversation, and he does occasionally feel like a caricature of an autist. However, I do recognise that stereotypes, while not relevant to everyone, are still some people’s reality. When I am overwhelmed or not masking, my voice changes into what I refer to as my “autistic voice”. I lose my intonation and the way I talk becomes distinctly more disjointed, something which I recognise in Sam’s character.
The show also does a pretty good job of showing that while Sam does sometimes come across as rude, he doesn’t do it out of malice, and if you explain to him why it is wrong, he is more than capable of learning and adapting. I like this in particular because I am a fierce believer in autism being an explanation, not an excuse for poor behaviour. I have said and done things before that would be considered rude or inappropriate, but I did those things because I didn’t understand the social rules. When I was told about why my behaviour was not okay, I am able to learn from that, so as not to make the same mistake later. An example that I am absolutely mortified by now is a joke I made at the dinner table with my family. I don’t remember the actual joke, and it probably wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to those outside of my inner family, but it was about a particular family occurrence which is not appropriate to make jokes about. Luckily, my family has a fairly high tolerance for dark humour and understood that what I said was not well thought-out. However, the silence and shocked looks I received were enough for me to realise that what I had said was a bit too far. There have been other examples throughout my life, but the point I want to make is that while I, and other autistic people, may not have the innate ability to pick-up and understand social rules and etiquette ourselves, allowing us to get away with otherwise inexcusable behaviour serves no one. If I had made the joke that I did to someone other than my family, the situation could have been a lot more complicated and offensive. The beauty of growing up with siblings is that whenever I made these social faux pas, they would correct me and move on. Now, I would consider myself fairly socially aware, and a large part of that is because people afforded me the opportunity to learn from my mistakes, rather than just allowing them or writing me off as just rude. There is something to be said about the fact that I am a woman and women generally do mask better, possibly because they have to because of the society we live it… but that is another post.
I have already talked about Rain Man in previous posts and so don’t want to dedicate too much time to this film. All I will say is that it is a very particular image of autism, and one which is proving incredibly difficult to diversify from. Again, this may be the reality for a proportion of autistic people, but for others it is very far from the truth. I am good at maths and dealing with numbers (although this maths degree has me questioning that), but that level of mathematical savant skills is not the norm for autistic people. I asked in a group chat of exclusively autistic people I am in, “hey, if I put a page of maths questions in front of you and asked you to solve them, how would you react?” and the first response was: “I would be very confused and unable to understand why you think I can do maths!”
The Good Doctor is another show where the protagonist is an autistic savant, and while it makes for a good show, it does lead me to feel slightly annoyed that I missed all these super skills that are apparently being passed out. I like the show, I find it entertaining and Freddy Highmore seems like a really nice guy, but it is still frustrating that autistic characters have to be made more interesting or in some way more palatable in order to be included in shows. This also goes the other way. Characters with seemingly above average intelligence or possible savant syndrome are often described by watchers as being autistic. Examples include Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory and Sherlock from Sherlock. Neither of these characters are written as autistic and there are even jokes made in the Big Bang Theory about Sheldon’s mother getting him tested for being special and him being “normal”. Sherlock is a self-diagnosed sociopath, a different diagnosis to autistic, with Benadryl Cucumberpatch saying he “didn’t want Sherlock being easily labelled as being either on the spectrum of Asperger’s or autism,” comments that I do actually agree with, given Sherlock’s schtick is being an unapologetic arse. (Side note: Bumberdink Crumplehorned-snorcack made some really horrible, ableist comments about autistic people when preparing for his role in Frankenstein, and then again about Alan Turing, so I wouldn’t recommend looking into him if you are in search of a good ally to the community.)
A very recent example of poor autistic representation is that of the character in Sia’s new musical extravaganza. While it is true that only the trailer has been released, it is enough for me to see how little care she gives for actually autistic people. The main character is played by a non-autistic actress and is a hugely stereotypical, non-speaking autistic person. Watching the actress put on different facial expressions and body language that were evidently deemed appropriate, evoked a feeling of anger within me. It felt very much like a mockery. Not only did it seem like a caricature of an autistic person, but the fact also that it had passed multiple stages of editing with no one thinking it might be offensive made the situation worse. Then to top it all off, when members of the autistic community spoke out about how the portrayal was not okay, Sia’s response was to react with insults. The film was also made in conjunction with Autism Speaks, a charity which does immense harm, all while masquerading as acting in our best interests. There are lots of excellently written pieces about the Sia controversy and I am struggling to write succinctly because it is so obviously offensive when I watch it that it is difficult for me to word my response. I recommend this post if you want to read more.
So, why does representation matter? In short, representation helps people to feel recognised and valid. Representation is a way to understand and normalise your own experiences in the world through another media. Representation can help you feel less lonely and more confident in who you are. Speaking for myself, I have recently watched Netflix’s “The Prom”, multiple times and every single time I find myself leaning forwards, arms folded around my legs as I watch the final scene. I am now 21 years old and have been out since I was 16 or so, yet that film makes me feel happy and hopeful. There was a period of time where I wasn’t sure if I would be able to live as openly as I do, not only for fear of other people’s reactions, but because I wasn’t sure if I would ever reach the stage where I am so comfortable with my sexuality. Watching that film and seeing the main characters dance together and talk and sing about their feelings and their experience is something I derive immeasurable joy from. I wish I had been able to watch that film when I was 14 and see how unapologetically queer it is. A film featuring multiple queer people where no one dies and there is a happy ending is something I would have (metaphorically) killed for when I was so unsure of myself. So now I want the same with ASD. I want representation that makes me feel happy and proud of who I am as an autistic person. I want to watch something where the autistic person is not the problem. Something where they come out on top and their ASD is celebrated, not because they have done something extraordinary, but because it should be celebrated regardless.
As this sort of representation does not exist yet (at least as far as I know), I choose to read other characters as autistic. Since I was little, Harry Potter was one of my special interests and I have spent hours consuming everything I could to do with it. My 18th birthday party was even Harry Potter themed! Unfortunately, She Who Must Not Be Named has made it difficult for me to enjoy this interest as her bigoted views towards gender conflict hugely with my own. The character of Hermione however, is one who I strongly believe is autistic. She definitely lacks social skills at the beginning of the first book and has an obsession with following rules. She devotes herself to the study of magic with a passion akin to autistic people researching their special interest. I am trying to contain myself from turning this entire post into a character analysis of Hermione Granger, but it is also worth noting how she occasionally has outbursts in very emotional moments when she is otherwise extremely calm and (seemingly) collected. Hermione Granger is the character that I related to more than any other I read in my childhood, and likely ever. What I loved about her was how she had these characteristics and yet she was always incredibly brave, dependable, intelligent, sensible, emotionally capable, kind, loyal, protective and so much more! I loved reading how she learnt and grew in both her magical prowess as well as her inter-personal relationships. Hermione Granger was the character that I aspired to take after. I think she is autistic because I see characteristics in her that I see in myself and my autistic friends. Regardless of whether others agree with me, I choose to view her as my representation because of the profound impact she had on me.
The last question to consider is how can we have better representation? I would say that the key is diversity. You cannot hope to represent a spectrum condition by having only a handful of characters. You need a mix of all different types of people, all of whom are influenced by autism in different ways. Not only that, but you need to include intersectional representation. There is no point having only straight, white, male, autistic people. What about people of colour? What about queer and trans people? What about other disabilities? People are multifaceted and so you will never be able to give good representation if you only give them one identity. Putting in a token autistic character is not good enough to be counted as representation. If you made a character where their only trait is liking banoffee pie, they would not be a very good character. In addition, you have to ask #actuallyautistic people about their experiences and include them in the creative process. You can’t benefit from the community if you aren’t willing to include us.
People talk about representation as if there is some limit. I have genuinely heard people say things along the lines of “but there are, like, 3 shows now with autistic characters, so they might be going over the top.” Buddy, I hate to break it to you but there are more than 3 autistic people in the world. I have sat through thousands of non-autistic characters and so you cannot seriously expect me and others in the community to be satisfied with 3 generic autistic characters. I want depth and I am tired of autism always being a problem. How about a show about a group of autistic friends who do things together that suit them? The autistic people I know are incredibly diverse and we have had our own drama that is far more interesting than many of the shows I have watched. Granted we don’t have Riverdale-esque drama, however, given that we want to keep our death toll at 0, that is okay with us.
In conclusion, if anyone knows people who work in media, please send them this post or just talk to them about including some more autistic representation. I promise that we are multi-dimensional people and would be great characters to include. Plus, the community is strong, and so if we get some good rep, you can bet that we will rally around that show like seagulls descending upon a discarded chip. I hope you enjoyed this post. Please consider liking it or something, but if you don’t want to then that’s chill! Have a good day,