Category Archives: Autism and Media

To Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield: Thanks, but No Thanks

Celebrity activism is pretty tricky. There’s not a lot of celebrity activism I truly condone, in large part because it tends towards the worst types of activism out there. The kind of activism where you wear a logo from a mainstream organizations that looks pretty and nice and host FABULOUS parties but do little but lip service to help the communities they’re trying to aid, all so you can get a few nice photos and brownie points for support us marginalized folks. We get it, “you care.”

Photo of Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield walking down the street holding small signs with writing in front of their faces. Writing is blurred from this distance.
Photo of Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield walking down the street holding small signs with writing in front of their faces. Writing is blurred from this distance.

One of the few celebrities whose activism (at least what I know of it) I support is Darryl Hannah, a fellow Autistic, who for years has spoken and worked tirelessly to support and aid various environmental campaigns. She gets that the environmental movement is not an isolated cause, but rather intersects with class, race, gender, and so on. In 2006, she was arrested for protesting the closure of the South Central LA farms, created in the early 1990s after the ’92 riots so low socioeconomic families could feed themselves healthy food. She has worked with native groups in recent years to protest the Key Stone XL pipe line. Yes, she gets nice pictures of her taken, yes, she gets press time, but most importantly, unlike most other celebrity activists, she gets that the activism is not about her.

Recently, it seems like Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield, who have literally been only every single talk or variety show the past forever promoting SpiderMan 64 (I’m only being somewhat hyperbolic), have been trying to merge their celebrity into the realm of activism.

You might remember last month when Andrew Garfield played dress up as a transgender women for the Arcade Fire song “We Exist.” The irony of situation (that in a song about how transfolk exist, a white cis-het male was cast to play the transfemale character), as well as it’s generally fucked-upedness, has been widely dissected, and a variety of calls for him to shape up have been issued.

Today, Buzzfeed posted about Emma and Andrew doing THE COOLEST THING EVER AS THEY WERE LEAVING LUNCH. They spotted the paparazzi while eating, and rather than getting their billionth (that might actually be realistic) photo together, they made signs on notecards that essentially said, on hers, “We don’t need more attention, but these great organizations do.” On his was a small list of organizations that need more attention, including Autism Speaks.

Now, if you’ve followed my work, or the work of probably 90-98% of Autistic bloggers, you know that we despise Autism Speaks. It is a terrible organization founded on the belief that our existence is sad and pitiable and must be fixed or, better yet, eradicated.

Judging from the photo, (and the fact that they’ve done similar things before) this didn’t seem to be an impromptu yuppie moment. Most people don’t carry around with them the necessary supplies to make the kind of sign with them, let alone celebrities of that stature.

This was preplanned.

This was done with the intent not to draw attention to those organizations, let alone the marginalized groups. If that were the case, they would never had suggested that Autism Speaks, the media and fundraiser obsessed eugenics promoter needed any more attention.

This was done with the intent to play up the Emma and Andrew Care About Sad Things Card. This was done so they could look good. This was done so they could say that they cared about me without actually doing anything.

If they had listed some organizations that supported marginalized groups, organizations with whom they regularly volunteered, I’d be happy. If Andrew had helped produced a video for “We Exist” starring a transwoman, in which he played her brother, or friend, or lover, I would have believed that they might actually have cared. If they did spontaneous mini-campaigns that had a semblance of believability, I might actually have a more positive opinion of them.

But all they care about is themselves.

Emma and Andrew, you do not help me when you use your power to silence me.

You do not help me when you make your “activism” centered on your promotion.

You do not help me when I become and object that you can cling whenever you want to look good.

You do not help me.

-Piija Suoynna Riistia

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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