The Sky is Green: On Autism Misrepresentation in the Media

This post contains spoilers for the CBS show Elementary, you have been duly warned.

When an autistic character shows up in film or television, they are far to often carbon copies of the same tired stereotypes. Monotone, savant level intelligence at math or math related field and of course the complete lack of social skills. There is very little variation here.

Cue last week’s episode of Elementary. BBC’s Sherlock’s American more humanized cousin. I suppose I ought to give them credit for trying to do things differently but they ultimately fail.

The show to it’s credit does try and do disability differently. Last season, the had a murderer with schizophrenia (nothing new here I know, crime shows love their mentally ill perpetrators). Unlike most crime shows which will throw a mentally ill perpetrator into the show if they’re to lazy to come up with a motive because “crazy” is a motive apparently. In the episode of Elementary, the schizophrenia is basically incidental as the character takes his meds and *gasp* has an actual motive for his crime. I’m still not sure if I think this is progress in portrayal of mental illness or not. Sure they toy will the whole unreasonable and erratic mental health stereotype but ultimately they take a different road to get to the same conclusion as so many crime shows before it. The person with the psychiatric diagnosis did it.

In this latest episode, they switch their focus to Autism where in keeping with their do things slightly differently but still rely on stereotypes M.O. they give us a character with “autism”.

Things they do differently,

  1. The character is a woman (when they are usually though not exclusively men)
  2. She uses self-labeling and refers to herself as Neuro-atypical ( a nod to the neurodiversity movement)
  3. She refers to others as neurotypical (though she withhold judgement on Holmes himself). This is her only moment where she shows any insight into the mental workings of others.
  4. They indicate that her “special interests” expand beyond her stereotypical vocation of computer programming. She also really likes cats (this might be a nod to the fact that women are often misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all because our topic fixations are often more socially acceptable).

She is also treated differently than other autistic characters in crime shows. In keeping with the genre she is initially a suspect and when they go to her workplace to question her, her employer does what so many do when TV detectives come looking for an autistic suspect. He insists that she is innocent but is cryptic about how he knows this and insists that they’ll understand when they meet her.

If this were any other show, the autistic suspect would then be placed in an interrogation room where they would be unnecessarily harshly questioned until they have a melt-down and reveal their autism because no one had the decency to just tell the cops that they were autistic because where’s the drama in that?

Elementary sets you up for that but then doesn’t follow though because of course Sherlock Holmes can easily identify autism. Especially when it follows stereotypes so closely. The character is monotone and an extremely gifted coder. The icing on the cake of proof of both her autism and ignorance is that she can’t lie. He prompts her so say “the sky is green” which she refuses to do and appears to be very uncomfortable with the request.

I’m autistic, I’m a terrible liar  and yet I’ve managed to type “the sky is green” three times. Once in the title of this post and twice here. I don’t feel weird about it probably because I know that no one will believe it. If someone asked me to quote a lie knowing that we both knew the statement was untrue, I’d similarly have no issue with saying it.

Yet it is held up on the show as both the ultimate diagnostic tool and also evidence of innocence. We later learn the real reason that her boss knew she was innocent is because he was guilty. Autism was just convenient. It was a plot device.

These misrepresentations even when seemingly well-intentioned are harmful. They spread the lie that autistic people are basically carbon copes of one another with only minor variations. These are the kind of stereotypes that when widely accepted lead to us being described as people,

whose eyes are not windows to their souls but black mirrors

In widely circulated publications like the New Yorker. I’m not sure if this made it into their print publication or if it was only published online, either way the autistic community is understandably not pleased. The #NotBlackMirrors is going strong on Twitter.

It is time for the media to see autism as the spectrum it is and which they only pay lip service to acknowledging before falling back on stereotypes. This happens in both fictional ans supposedly nonfictional media.

As far as the media is concerned the spectrum is comprised of either people who are nonverbal and require constant care or people who are basically robots.

I mean, I’ll be honest, I’d love those math skills we’re all supposed to have. I passed basically every math class I ever took by the skin of my teeth with the exception of one anomalous B in grade 11. Seriously media, where are my math skills. I feel cheated.

But really being one or the other doesn’t really fit the definition of a spectrum now does it? Neither description is particularly accurate to individuals either. So I beg you, please do better, especially if you’re actually trying to convince people that your publication isn’t as fictional as a TV show.


3 thoughts on “The Sky is Green: On Autism Misrepresentation in the Media

    1. Yes, the language is definitely racially coded as well and their were concerns with how some predominantly white autistics were protesting by photographing their blue and green eyes and posting the pics online, though I think there is value in challenging the specific language of black mirrors for both its racism and ableism.

      Liked by 1 person

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