When People Use Diversity to Defend Sameness in Autism Narratives

“It’s just one story” or so people keep telling me when I protest the lack of diversity in both autism narratives and characters in the media. The thing is that’s exactly the problem.

Film and television have basically been writing fan fiction about the same autistic character in different scenarios for decades.

This character is invariably white

The Good Doctor

Image Description: Promotional poster for the upcoming ABC show The Good Doctor. The title appears in blue over a grainy black and white image of half of series star Freddie Highmore’s face (he is a young white man with dark hair). In contrast to the black and white, his eyes are a vibrant blue.

Male

Adam

Image description: a still from the film Adam where actress Rose Burne (a thin white woman with brown hair pulled up in a messy bun) sits on a bench facing and speaking to Hugh Dancy (a white man with wavy brown hair), the autistic character who is sitting faced forward rather than toward the person speaking to him

Have savant-like abilities

rain man

Image description: Cover art for the Rain Man soundtrack. Dustin Hoffman (a white man with dark hair) who plays the autistic savant walks down a path beside Tom Cruise (a white man with dark hair) who walks with his right hand in his pocket while he carries a bag in his left

There is generally very little deviation. Occasionally, overt savantism is replaced with a special skill or focus as in the case of the film Adam. These minor changes are however not meaningful.Savantism and special or focused skills are treated as almost interchangeable personality quirks.

You will very rarely see and autistic character who is not white and even more rarely see one who isn’t male. These characteristics extend beyond the acknowledged autistic character to those who are merely coded autistic. Those whose behaviour and traits are largely indistinguishable from those of the acknowledged autistic character. The only difference is a lack of stated diagnosis. Examples of such characters include Sheldon cooper on The Big Bang Theory and Spencer Reed on Criminal Minds.

Think I’m exaggerating? I made a chart

Title Character Diagnosed Coded Savant-like Abilities White Male
A Brilliant Young Mind Nathan Ellis Y Y Y Y
My Name is Khan Rizvan Khan Y Y
The Accountant Christian Wolff Y Y Y Y
Rain Man Raymond Babbit Y Y Y Y
Mercury Rising Simon Lynch Y Y Y Y
TBBT Sheldon Cooper Y Y Y Y
Adam Adam Y Y Y
Criminal Minds Spencer Reed Y Y Y Y
Elementary Fiona Y Y Y
Young Sheldon Sheldon Cooper Y Y Y Y
The Good Doctor Shaun Murphy Y Y Y Y

It’s not an exhaustive list but it is an informative one. Seriously, if you come across an autistic character in film or television plug them into this chart and see how many boxes get ticked. Another thing that all of the characters have in common. They were all played by neurotypical actors.

And yet, when I wrote yesterday about the continuation of this single white male autistic narrative in the new show The Good Doctor, I was met with this

one story

Image description: a screenshot of a tweet that reads “People with autism take many forms, faces, and stories. this is just one. Showing that capability isn’t exclusive is so important!” (link to original tweet)

I have a couple of problems with this sentiment. First, it is not just one story. It is pretty much the only story we are told. For this to be an accurate defence, there would need to be evidence that there were other narratives available. Where are they? Second, is it really an accurate story. Another common defence of tired repeated disability narratives is “well some people are really like that“. I am however sceptical about the existence of a man with ridiculous medical skills and genius level proficiency in several areas. I’ll wait while you find me a real life stand in for this imagined magical autistic white man.

It is true that Rain Man character Raymond Babbit (though not the story) was loosely based on actual savant Kim Peake (who was not himself autistic) but even then it was more a mishmash of diagnostic traits than a portrayal of the man.

These characters have a fictionalized kind of autism that focus on rare traits like savantism and then sprinkle in more common traits like sensitivity to noise and difficulty with eye contact so that people see enough recognizable autistic traits to get away with an authenticity defence to tell basically the same man’s story over and over. They just put him in different scenarios. The biggest change in autistic characters overall is that they’ve become cuter (if they’re children) or fuckable (if they’re men). Though actually having sex is rare for these characters. They’ve mostly just gotten hotter. This switch to a more appealing autistic male is generally to use their savantism or special skill as a consolation prize. Sure, he’s autistic but it makes him a fabulous doctor and he’ll save that kid’s life.

This leaves little room for autistic stories where savantism or special skills don’t counteract the perceived unpleasantness of the autism for a predominantly neurotypical audience.

Despite this, there is still the idea that stories about marginalized populations should be “authentic” which is where the “This is just one story” line gets pulled out like a weapon to defend these all too similar stories.

During the promotion phase prior to the release of The Accountant, actor, Anna Kendrick

admits she initially had concerns about whether the film would be able to represent autism in an accurate and nuanced way.

“A friend of mine has an autistic child, and I was so worried about telling her I was going to do a movie with this subject matter and potentially getting it wrong,” she said. “She was like, ‘I’m going to tell you something that somebody told me when my son was diagnosed: When you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child. To have an expectation that he should act this way or you should act that way — don’t even worry about that. Everyone is different.’”

It is both unfortunate that this line is being used by people in the entertainment industry as a promotion tactic. It is also unfortunate that a parent with an autistic child helped her do it.

The phrase “if you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child” was meant to indicate the true diversity of the autistic experience. Not be used as a blunt object to defend a film about yet another magical white autistic man. It does not mean “Do whatever, you want. Autism is basically whatever you want it to be”. Though that is how the entertainment industry interprets it.

Seriously, the next time someone defends a fictional autistic narrative through the diversity of autism. It had better actually be a story I haven’t seen before.

And can we just please put a moratorium on putting white men in those stories because the real diversity of autism goes well beyond diagnostic traits.

 

 

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6 responses to “When People Use Diversity to Defend Sameness in Autism Narratives

  1. I get very tired of the standard narrative. I couldn’t get through _The Rosie Project _because of it.

    Do you know “Community”? Abed isn’t white or a savant, and the tendency of others to treat him as magical is fiercely mocked. He has sensory issues and meltdowns, and he cares about people. He’s the autistic representation I identify with the most.

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    • There’s also Billy in the Power Rangers reboot, who’s explicitly autistic; he’s a black teenager who doesn’t have any savant-like abilities, and he’s valued as a kind, smart member of the team. Like with Abed, he’s an autistic character in a story that isn’t just About Autism, which might also be significant.

      Of course, there’s also Will Graham in Hannibal, who’s somewhere between diagnosed and coded autistic (in the first episode he says he probably has Asperger’s, but it sounds like he hasn’t been diagnosed, and apparently showrunners have said he isn’t autistic even though he’s absolutely coded that way, so…I don’t know what to make of that); he’s white and he has savant-like empath abilities. Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts is also coded autistic; he’s another white male, although he doesn’t have savant-like abilities.

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  2. I’ve definitely seen how this narrative hurts people, too. I was a special education paraeducator and my student had Asperger’s. His whole life, people kept telling him how he was so brilliant at math and great with computers. The thing was…. he wasn’t. He was pretty much average in his math and tech abilities. But everyone thought “oh he’s Autistic, he must be so great at math” and told him that over and over and over. By the time he got to 7th grade, getting a single math problem wrong could trigger a melt-down.

    You know what he was great at? History. He read massive books about historical events and made brilliant connections between historical moments and issues in literature. He would make hilarious jokes about whatever they were learning social studies. But he was incredibly insecure in those classes and terrified to try because everyone had told him that he was better at math than humanities. His 8th grade History teacher was the first person to point out where his strengths really were, but it was a heck of a struggle to get his other teachers (and himself!) to see it.

    So, yeah. This single-perspective narrative of Autistic folks being STEM geniuses with no social skills is absolutely harmful. I can only imagine how many melt downs and self-injurious behaviors could have been avoided if adults in my student’s life had gotten to know HIM instead of relying on lazy stereotypes.

    Liked by 1 person

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