Autism in the Media

Trigger Warning: Autism Speaks, discussion of Ableism and ableist manifestations in the media

We’ve been doing a lot of hiring the past month in preparation for the summer, and it’s been nice getting to know the new workers. I generally like them, and they seem to generally like me, some in spite of, others because of, my idiosyncrasies.

Probably what requires the most getting used to is me asking if someone is serious or sarcastic to make sure I’m following the conversation correctly. One particular incident, a few of the new hires were standing next to my cashier station with some of the other old cashiers, making jokes. I was pretty lost. And so I asked some questions to clarify the situation and make sure I was following. I guess some of the new hires seemed confused, or to find it funny, because my supervisor, a great Autistic ally who was standing nearby, injected, “Erika Lynn has difficulty understanding certain jokes.”

“Oh, are you like Sheldon,” one of the new hires asked me. In case you don’t get the reference, she’s referring to Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, the most popular show in America–literally.

“Yes, actually, I am. We’re both Autistic,” I said.

“I didn’t know Sheldon was Autistic!”

According to a producer of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon is not Autistic, but rather based off the stereotypical computer programmer or hard scientist…who generally share nearly all the same traits of with one of the stereotypical images of Autistics. Jim Parsons, the actor who plays Sheldon, has said he believes is character has highly Autistic qualities, and hinted that, if it weren’t for the show’s producers telling him otherwise, he would outright identify Sheldon as Autistic. Beyond that, many Autistics believe him to be Autistic, and on YouTube, there are countless videos that seek to explain Autism using Sheldon Cooper as the main, often only, example of an Autistic.

Sheldon is not the only believed to be, or confirmed, Autistic on television. Probably the two next prominent are Dwight Schrute from The Office and Abed from Community. These three characters share a lot of common traits. For starters, they are all men, and they all seem to be intelligent (yes, even Dwight). They all come from backgrounds that do not appear to be underprivileged (yes, even Dwight, too). They all have specifics areas of interest ranging from bears to beets to Battle Star Galactica to string theory, and have difficulty with humor and sarcasm. They often misinterpret rhetorical questions, and will say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Despite being regarded as annoying by nearly everyone in their shows, they are in some way loveable, which redeems them from their “flaws.” Each have their own idiosyncrasies, but they are all very similar in how they are so different from the rest of their “normal” cast mates.

If you widen the scope from television to movies and books, you see many characters that resemble those on television. Adam from Adam, Christopher from The Curious Incident with the Dog at Night Time, Donald from Mozart and the Whale, and Don Tillman from The Rosie Project, along with Dwight, Sheldon and Abed, all fit into what I call “the quirky, high-functioning Aspie” archetype. Some of these characters have Asperger’s diagnoses, some don’t, but either way, most people, like my coworker, don’t even realize they’re watching or reading about an Autistic. To most people, these people are idiosyncratic weirdos who are nonetheless loveable.

This stereotype does a lot of harm to Autistics.

But it’s not the only one. The other main stereotype we see of Autistics is, as I like to call it, “the ultimate burden.” Suzanne Wright conjured up this image in her November address last year in which she referred to us as lost kids. It’s the same image that is brought up whenever the Autism epidemic is talked about, or when a parent or an Autistic child who needs serious support begs us to find a cure so their child can become normal.

This is the image of Autistics that Autism Speaks, the mainstream scientific community, and the news media often portray. In recent years, they have been acknowledging the quirky, high-functioning Aspie more and more. Yet more often than not, these sources nearly exclusively talk about Autistics as if 90% of us were an ultimate burden.

Now, these stereotypes tend to highlight and focus on some of the extremes from the Autism spectrum. There are people like the quirky, high-functioning Aspie. My grandpa is one. And there are also Autistics who do require near constant assistance. My mom has worked, mostly tangentially, with several.

My criticism of these two stereotypes isn’t a rejection of those two ends of the spectrum. Rather, it’s a call to understand that there is so much Autistic diversity in the world. When only a tiny fraction of the spectrum is represented, most Autistics become even more marginalized. It becomes even more difficult for neurotypicals to relate to us, and can lead to misunderstand and mistreatment of Autistics.

Detective Sonya Cross sits at her desk facing the camera, her eyes shifted to our right. She's wear a gray sweater, a white undershirt, and her expression is taught.
Detective Sonya Cross sits at her desk facing the camera, her eyes shifted to our right. She’s wear a gray sweater, a white undershirt, and her expression is taught.

There are glimmers of hope out there, currently. For example, the FX The Bridge has Diane Kruger playing an Autistic (Asperger’s) character that, while in many ways similar to the quirky, high functioning Aspie model, in many ways complicates the narrative. The role is consulted on by Wrong Planet founder Alex Plank. This is good, but still far from where depiction of Autistics needs to be.

Going forward, I hope that the media, collectively, can construct a more nuanced collective image of Autistics. The more that neurotypicals understand that we are a diverse collection of people–just like they are–I believe that they will be better able and more willing to understand us individually, our needs and our accommodations, and our skills and our strengths. They will be able to empathize with us more, and I believe will have a better ability to start conversations about how to make spaces they inhabit Autistic friendly, safe, and affirming.

❤ Piija Suoynna Riistia

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