#ActuallyAtypical: a Media Roundup of #ActuallyAutistic Thoughts on the Netflix Series Atypical

Reviews

Alternate Atypical: Reimagining Netflix’s Atypical if it were Written by Actually Autistic People

“For some reason, Netflix has classed all of this as a dramedy. The thing is it actually has the basic structure of what could have been a pretty good gritty drama. The show presents Sam and his actions as inherent and unavoidable because he is autistic.And sure there are autistic men who display the same degree of entitlement and sexism. The thing is that this is learned behaviour. So I have tried to reimagine Atypical as if it actually dealt accurately and honestly with what is going on.”

Netflix’s “Atypical” Was a Major Disappointment for Autism Representation

“Netflix did not confirm whether there were concerted efforts to include autistic writers, creatives, or actors in any large roles. Onscreen representation isn’t the same as behind-the-scenes representation, especially if that camera-facing depiction is flawed.”

Netflix’s “Atypical” is offensive, but that’s not its real problem

“On one occasion, when he is about to lose his virginity, he has a freak-out in which he punches a girl as she takes her shirt off. Another time, when trying to seduce his own therapist (ick), he breaks into her house by sneaking into an open window. Elsewhere, he humiliates his girlfriend by proclaiming that he doesn’t love her in front of her entire family.

These aren’t classic signs of autism — they’re violent, creepy, cruel and make the autistic character seem like a monster. When the show then shifts gears to make us feel sorry for Sam, the characterization becomes more offensive. Arguing that those with neurological conditions shouldn’t be held accountable for hurting others is as patronizing as it is socially irresponsible.”

Sarah Luterman has done episode synopses of all eight Atypical Episodes on the website NOS Magazine

Episode 1

“Sam then points out that his therapist’s bra strap is showing, and it’s purple. For some bizarre reason,  Julia doesn’t tell him that this is an inappropriate thing to do. The scene caps off with Julia asking if Sam would like to donate his brain for research purposes. What kind of research? Apparently that isn’t important. She then reassures him that she means she would like his brain after he dies.”

Episode 2

“As Sam narrates how roosters attract hens for mating by putting on a display, we get a flash of Sam’s mother, Elsa, in the bar, seriously considering infidelity. We get more Discovery Channel narration from Sam as his sister waves to the boy she’s interested in. He’s come to watch her track practice. This is dehumanizing. And it’s not just Sam doing the dehumanizing. It’s the show’s writers, making deliberate choices to juxtapose Sam’s discussion of animal mating with human women.”

Episode 3

“In the kitchen, Sam narrates to himself about how humans can’t be perfect because we’re not machines, thereby checking off yet another square for autism stereotype bingo. Some on Twitter have suggested that I create an autism stereotype drinking game for Atypical, but I don’t want to be responsible for any deaths from alcohol poisoning.”

Episode 4

“Elsa gets a text from Nick the Bartender, lies about it, and then accidentally drops her phone, insuring that she misses her daughter’s race. Somehow, this is autism’s fault.”

Episode 5

“A core part of the family dynamic on Atypical is that somehow, Sam’s autism makes everyone around him’s life worse. How, exactly, is unclear. It seems that the mere fact of Sam’s autism negatively impacts everyone around him to a degree where any and all terrible behavior is excused and justified. It’s a completely toxic dynamic. It’s not funny. It’s not even sympathetic. It’s horrifying. I feel sorry for Sam. He’s not the only one who is poorly written and hollow. The people around him are too.”

Episode 6

“After six episodes of a show ostensibly about autism with dozens of characters, an actually autistic  actor, Anthony Jacques, has a bit part as Christopher, another autistic teenage boy. Apparently he originally auditioned to play Sam but didn’t get the part. Robia Rashid, the creator of the show, claims that instead, they hired the “best” actor for the role. The scene Christopher and Sam have together make the artificiality of Keir Gilchrist’s autism act even more obvious than usual. Admittedly, I don’t think that an autistic actor always has to play an autistic character. But in this instance, it would have lent authenticity and subtlety that Atypical completely lacks.”

Episode 7

“Doug takes Sam to Olive Garden to “case the joint.” This means Sam is exploring the space and the menu before his big dinner with Paige’s family. For once, I actually find Sam relatable, although his continued preference to ask people questions while making eye contact instead of just Googling the answers continues to be strange.”

Episode 8

“Treating women like sex objects is not a natural extension of autism. Limiting how often someone is allowed to talk about what they love is abuse, not a real relationship. Autistic women, autistic people of color, queer autistic people and transgender autistic people exist. Autism doesn’t cause families to fall apart. It isn’t even true that families with autistic children have higher divorce rates than the general population. The fact that Netflix could release something like Atypical and run a campaign like #FirstTimeISawMe at the same time shows that Netflix completely fails to understand what disability even is to the people who live it.”

Cultural Critique

Twitter Celebs who are Ableist and don’t even realise it

“The most annoying thing about the responses by Doctor Christian Jessen, a qualified medical professional in general medicine, infectious disease, travel medicine, and sexual health, is that it’s assumed by non-autistics―or allistics―that all medical professionals are experts on mental illnesses, diseases, developmental disorders, neurological conditions, and disability in general. I’m very sorry to inform all of you but you’re wrong. The only experts of a condition, illness, or disability are those who live with it or those who study it extensively and listen to those who have whatever it is they research.”

No, Bad TV Portrayals of Disability are Not Good Learning Opportunities.

“Hey everyone, you should totally watch Atypical  it’s super informative about autism except for the pathologizing of misogyny, the uncritical look at the cult of compliance, the portrayal of autistic people as one dimensional more uncritical takes on using disabled family members as props for personal gain, serious misrepresentation of effective therapy and interventions but yeah, you should totally watch it anyway”

Let me know in the comments if I missed anything.

 

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No, Bad TV Portrayals of Disability are Not Good Learning Opportunities.

Atypical Poster

Image Description: Promotional poster for Netflix series Atypical. The Main cast is lined up on the bottom of the screen Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), then only the top of Sam’s (Keir Gilchrist), Doug (Michael Rapaport), and Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a cartoon thought bubble surrounded by penguins is coming out of Sam’s head featuring the show title and release date (Aug. 11)

“Hey everyone, you should totally watch Atypical  it’s super informative about autism except for the pathologizing of misogyny, the uncritical look at the cult of compliance, the portrayal of autistic people as one dimensional more uncritical takes on using disabled family members as props for personal gain, serious misrepresentation of effective therapy and interventions but yeah, you should totally watch it anyway”

I wrote the previous paragraph on Twitter yesterday in response to someone who suggested that despite Atypical’s extremely problematic portrayal of autism that it was still a tool for learning.

teaching tool

Image Description: A screenshot of a tweet with the tweeter redacted. It reads “Us NTs could use a little awareness. No show will ever completely encompass such huge important topics. But they plant curiosity to learn +”

The problem with Atypical isn’t that it’s merely imperfect. It’s loaded with stereotypes and misinformation. This tweet positions autistic people’s concerns about Atypical as merely whining and an unreasonable demand for perfection rather than the actual protest that it is against the genuinely harmful messages of the show.

I am however going to focus on the last assertion of her tweet, that the show and shows like it create genuine curiosity to discover the truth about the marginalized peoples being misrepresented.

This is patently false. The actions of this person actually exemplify that. This tweet only came about because autistic people had pushed back against their uncritical demand for a second season. It also came after their original rebuttal of “If you don’t like it you don’t have to watch it”.

This latter argument entirely ignores the harm that can occur if people watch harmful portrayals of disability and believe and internalize those messages. Disabled people don’t have the luxury of just ignoring harmful representation. We need to know what happened so we can challenge it.

The fact that they originally wanted me to just check out is entirely indicative of someone who didn’t want to engage with the show in a critical way. The later suggestion that people might use it as a jumping off point to learn about autism was just a last ditch effort to try and deflect uncomfortable criticisms about something they enjoy. They didn’t want to have to potentially feel uncomfortable about the implications of the media they consume.

I have yet to see op-eds about individuals who have watched Atypical or any other awful portrayals of disability that talk about how the show inspired them to take a deep dive into the autistic community and then truly learned something.

The critical pieces I see come from disabled people themselves or from writers who have seen the backlash and are reporting on it and this is by design.

In the last five years or so, disabled people pushing back against awful portrayals has been getting more mainstream attention. (see the pushback against the film Me Before You as the perfect example). This hasn’t resulted in better disability portrayals but it has changed how disability portrayals are marketed.

Now it is almost inevitable that presenting a disability portrayal as accurate and authentic will make up in some part of the marketing of that film or television show. This is certainly true of Atypical where show creator and writer Robia Rashid gave an interview which hinted at a personal connection to someone with autism and where she talked about all of the consultants and parents of children with autism that will present on the sets. She talked about how neurotypical actor Keir Gilchrist had previously worked with autistic children.

We saw the same phenomenon with the film The Accountant. A film, I will remind you whose entire plot revolves around an autistic accountant who was also a skilled and dispassionate killer (he is often described as a hitman, however, at no point in the show or in his back story is he actually ever explicitly paid to kill somebody). Even this ridiculous character whose description is so unbelievable was treated to the veneer of authenticity by their marketing department.

The people making the shows and films are already controlling for the off chance someone will become curious about the genuine authenticity of the portrayal. They are building in safeguards to actually mitigate curiosity. The goal of these portrayals is that they be accepted at face value and they are.

true representation

Image Description: A screenshot of a tweet that reads “@Atypical is such a true representation of autism, I really hope it raises awareness and gives people a better understanding” it closes with a clapping emoji

The person who wrote this tweet later told me in a tweet which they quickly deleted that they had an artistic brother and that’s how they knew how “authentic” it was. considering that the tweet was deleted so quickly that I couldn’t get a screenshot of it I remain sceptical of this claim, though it is far from impossible. The family members of disabled people can, unfortunately, be a major source of misinformation and misunderstanding of disability.

people first

Image Description: A screenshot of two tweets with the original author’s information redacted by images of a tennis ball and of floppy disks (I got the screen shot off of Twitter). The first tweet reads “the “people first” language in this show!!! @Atypical this is so awesome! person then diagnosis! “Child with autism”, not “autistic child”. Second week which is a response from the same author to the first rates “such a huge step forward in the normalization of the importance of mental health! and representation!!”

it is not hard to find autistic people who prefer identity first language. It is widely held to be the predominant preference of the autistic community. So the fact that this individual was celebrating people first language which is contrary to that fact that only shows that they don’t know better but that they will use the show to validate their preconceived notions around language and identity in ways that invalidate autistic people and their preferences.

These are pretty representative of the sorts of comments that portrayals of disability will receive from nondisabled people. They are their internalization’s of that media’s messaging or they will use that media to validate their preconceived ideas. As Twitter user @sorrysorryetc pointed out, the show was so poorly written that it was  often unclear what the intended message was particularly as it pertains to language usage so people are just going to end up taking what they want from the show and not actually interrogating whether or not they have interpreted it correctly or whether the show was wrong entirely.

The mere existence of bad portrayals of disability are not learning opportunities. Watching these shows can be educational if it is done with a critical eye and if it is being fact checked with the people being presented.

For the shows to be truly educational they would need to be accompanied by a comprehensive syllabus and lessons learned would likely not be about disability itself but rather how media helps to construct oppressive systems around disability by misrepresenting them to an audience that is assumed to be nondisabled.

 

 

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Alternate Atypical: Reimagining Netflix’s Atypical if it were Written by Actually Autistic People

Atypical Poster

Image Description: Promotional poster for Netflix series Atypical. The Main cast is lined up on the bottom of the screen Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), then only the top of Sam’s (Keir Gilchrist), Doug (Michael Rapaport), and Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a cartoon thought bubble surrounded by penguins is coming out of Sam’s head featuring the show title and release date (Aug. 11)

I have now completed watching all eight episodes of the first season (it ended on a cliff hanger so they’re clearly angling for a second) of the Netflix series Atypical.

It goes without saying that this post will include spoilers and quite frankly you’re welcome. Now you don’t have to watch it.

The show is in a word terrible. The autistic character Sam has no perceivable personality and is largely just a collection of autism diagnostic criteria and stereotypes. His only driving factor is to get a girlfriend.

Pretty much all of the characters are irredeemably awful.

Elsa, the mother is the archetypal overbearing autism mom. She is controlling to the point of actually damaging Sam’s ability to function in the world. The show doesn’t actually really concretely address the extent of the harm. She is attention seeking and presents herself as a martyr on the altar of autism. Every horrible thing she does is blamed on Sam, from ignoring her other child to having an affair.

Doug, the father starts out promising but turns out to be awful. initially, he just seems to be cluelessly but genuinely trying to connect with his son. It is later revealed that after Sam was diagnosed he left the family for eight months because he couldn’t deal. He spends the series which takes place well over a decade later enabling Sam’s creepy misogynistic behaviour under the excuse of trying to make up for leaving. He does have some good lines challenging some autism moms person first rhetoric but in the context of everything else he’s still awful.

Casey, Sam’s younger sister is the only genuinely likeable person in the show. She treats him like a human being, though she uses him as a prop to further her own goals by referencing him in her interview to get into prep school. This is actually pretty realistic and in a better show might have been a genuine commentary on how even loving accepting family members can be ableist. Unfortunately, Atypical is not that show. Claire is the most well rounded and complex character in the show.

Evan, Casey’s boyfriend is a nice generic good looking boyfriend. Pretty much sums him up. They hint at a difficult home life but it’s basically a failed attempt at making him not a generic boyfriend character and as an excuse for why he’s a convenient human lie detector.

Julia Sasaki, Sam’s therapist, doesn’t know how to be a therapist. She’s ostensibly supposed to be helping him with life skills but can’t even set up clear boundaries. The first indication that Sam is creepy and doesn’t know how to talk to women is when he points out her bra strap is showing. She’s embarrassed but doesn’t use the opportunity to tell him that this might be an inappropriate behaviour. This foreshadows the rest of the show. Where Sam invariably gives someone a lot of warning that he might do something shitty and that person does nothing to stop it. No one explains anything to him in accessible terms.

Zahid, is Sam’s only friend and coworker. On the one hand, Zahid is truly accepting of Sam which is great. If only that wasn’t entirely undercut by his cartoonish level of misogyny and the fact that he eggs on an facilitates Sam’s being a creepy piece of shit.

Paige, Sam’s (ex)girlfriend, while Sam does treat her abysmally which is inexcusable, Paige also takes advantage of him and creates a controlling relationship where she defines all aspects of the relationship. She won’t let him talk about the things that interest him and in fact, implements a punitive system to limit his ability to steer the conversation.

For some reason, Netflix has classed all of this as a dramedy. The thing is it actually has the basic structure of what could have been a pretty good gritty drama. The show presents Sam and his actions as inherent and unavoidable because he is autistic.And sure there are autistic men who display the same degree of entitlement and sexism. The thing is that this is learned behaviour. So I have tried to reimagine Atypical as if it actually dealt accurately and honestly with what is going on.

The show would need more autistic characters to act as counterpoints to Sam. This could be achieved by having autistic activists who engage with Elsa at one of her autism walks. They would challenge her and of course, she would inevitably utter the all to common phrase “you can’t speak for my child”. Elsa would double down on her awful behaviour which would be reinforced by the uncritical support of her autism mom’s support group.

The inclusion of other autistic characters would help clear up the issue around the group’s use of language. Showing autistic people unapologetically identifying as autistic and owning their identities would throw Sam’s harsh reality into sharp relief.

Sam would spend more time second guessing everything he says because his mother’s constant control would have destroyed his self-esteem. The show would make it clear that he has no escape at home from the bullying he experiences at school because home is just a different kind of abuse.

It’s hard to figure out what to do with Zahid because in Netflix’s version he is the only person who genuinely accepts Sam. Realistically though his blatant sexism is likely what would trigger Sam to conclude that a girlfriend would fix all his problems. I hate getting rid of the accepting force but realistically the contradictions of the character don’t work well.

More realistically, after finding no acceptance at school or home Sam would be ripe for coercion and abuse from someone who presents a veneer of acceptance. Someone who thinks it’s funny to put Sam into uncomfortable situations with women. Not someone who genuinely thinks they’re helping.

Sam’s first attempt at a sexual encounter (which ends in him hitting the woman he’s with) might at least flirt with actual consequences. Maybe She calls the cops and they send an ambulance which is conveniently staffed by Sam’s EMT dad who talks her out of pressing charges.

This would at least more concretely deal with explaining why Sam has built up this idea that his words and actions have no meaningful consequences beyond how they make him feel.

Clear parallels would be drawn between Elsa and Paige and show that Sam is essentially exchanging one controlling relationship for another.

Julia Sasaki would be as ineffective and there would likely be more direct controntations between her and Elsa. the show might actually show how therapists and medical professionals buy into stereotypes of disability and how this invariably hurts their patients.

Paige would still plan the silent dance but she’d likely call the media and be publically celebrated for her altruism.

Casey wouldn’t change much but a better show would offer more context about her. Show how she learned that it was okay to use her brother as a prop. Interrogate why the prep school interviewer not only let her get away with it but bought into it completely.

That is what would make Atypical more real. Really, however, a better show would humanize autistic ppl and not turn us into victims. A better show would move away from the autistic white boy norm. An actually affirming autistic love story might include finding a partner who is able to communicate more clearly. This might allow for a more realistic portrayal of romantic and sexual exploration.

What about instead of a first failed sexual experience that ends in violence. Sam still gets overwhelmed but that’s okay. What if instead of ending the season with a hand job in an igloo. Sam has a partner who is willing to try different sexual activities so that they have a mutually enjoyable experience. What if a handjob is shown as a more comfortable introduction to sexual activity? What if that’s where he stays comfortable and that’s okay? What if he was in a relationship where he understood that women are people and so they used creativity to make sure that he is able to reciprocate for his partner?

What if his mother wasn’t sexually repressive?

What if he had autistic friends? If not in person then online.

What is an autistic love story was written by autistic people and a major company actually produced it?

What if…?

 

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The TARDIS is Inaccessible: Disability in Doctor Who

 

doctor who logo

Image Description: Doctor Who logo written in blue with a DW in the centre of the two words forming the shape of the TARDIS

 

This most recent season of Doctor Who has had me thinking about just how bad and limited the representation of disability has been on the show. The show which is often very socially conscious has created a universe past, present and future where disability is generally nonexistent or tokenized.

This is of course not just a problem with Doctor Who but is a wider issue of disability representation in the media more generally. The thing that makes Doctor Who stand out (other than the recent storyline of the Doctor going blind) for criticism is that on the rare occassions that there are disabled characters, they are either done very well or very badly. Most recently both at the same time.

The season 9 episode Before the Flood included Cass, a deaf character whose deafness was not a major plotpoint. The character was also played by a deaf actor. This kind of representation is revolutionary. A disabled character who just happens to be disabled.

This trend continued in the 10th season with the character of Erica in The Pyramid at the End of the World. She just happened to have dawrfism. It played no part in the plot. This positivity was however, overshadowed by the Doctor’s blindness–part of a three episode arc–which was dramatically cured at the end of the episode.

It really threw into sharp relief how tokenistic these disabled characters–and it is relevant to mention that not all people who are deaf or who have dwarfism identify as disabled–despite how good they are. They are still really noticeable because of how rarely they appear and yet they appear without question. In order for disability to be truly unnoteworthy is to make it normal and a part of the world of the show but these characters appear and are gone. Disability isn’t even visible in the background as extras. So as normal as the characters are in their stories, they remain noteworthy exceptions outside of them.

This is particularly clear when you look at what happens to the narrative of disability when it happens to the Doctor. Suddenly, the writers fall back on many harmful stereotypes and storylines.

The Doctor’s blindness which begins in Oxygen and is conveniently cured in The Pyramid at the End of The World is purely a plot device that is used to create tension and then conveniently discarded to again further the plot. The fact that this plotline intersected with actual disability representation is offensive.

A blind doctor was an ineffective one. His blindness had to be cured because he could no longer really be the Doctor. Having that moment of cure in an episode also starring a terrifically competent disabled character, really undercut the power of that representation. Particularly because the thing that foiled him was absurd. He needed to enter a code but instead of the more realistic keypad–which he could have navigated without sight–he was inexplicably presented with a combination lock.

The moment was so utterly unrealistic (yes I know it’s sci-fi) and clearly contrived to create the need to quickly cure the Doctor because if he doesn’t get through that door he’ll die.

So the audience is presented with the paradox of the real representation provided by erica’s character and the played out disability as plot device provided by the Doctor all in a single episode.

I want the future–both in the real world and in the universe of Doctor Who–to be accessible but it isn’t. We generally only see disabled characters in if not the present day then in earth type settings. The future in Doctor Who is very much not accessible.

The TARDIS itself is horribly inaccessible which limits who the Doctor can have as a companion and how well he would function if the Doctor became disabled in a way that couldn’t be magicked away for the convenience of the plot. The TARDIS doesn’t have automatic doors, though the amazing Mike Mort designed a shirt with just such an adaptation (buy it here)

 

accessible Tardis

Image Description: A Drawing of the TARDIS, a blue phone booth with Police Public Call Box on the top and a sign on the left door that reads “Police Telephone Free for the Public. The right side door has an automatic door opener with the International Symbol of Access and the words “press to open”

 

The real inaccessibility of the TARDIS goes beyond getting in the door. There are stair to access pretty much everywhere. There are stairs to get to the console and even more stairs to get to the rest of the ship that we never see. I can only imagine that the inaccessibility extends throughout the vessel.

the world of Doctor Who, very much like the real world is inaccessible but in some ways it’s worse because it shows that the world doesn’t get better and that the future is just as if not more inaccessible than the present unless it’s briefly convenient for the plot or to accommodate a single character who will never be seen again.

 

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But Wasn’t it Nice of Them?: How Praising the Helpers Can Lead to Less Aid

cap-2029798_640

Image Description: A black computer illustration of a graduation cap outlined in white.

But wasn’t it nice of them? Shouldn’t people who do things like this be rewarded? These are the questions I am often asked when I critique inspiration porn. Particularly around stories that heap praise on nondisabled people for their assistance of disabled people. The answers to these questions and their accompanying justifications are more complicated than the yes or no answers that the questions imply.

This university graduation ceremony season, the international media has siezed on a story about an American mother who was given an honourary MBA after she attended all of the classes with her son as academic support.

Why would anyone complain about this story? Wasn’t it nice of her to do this? Yes and no.

It is, of course, nice to help people who need assistance but as David Perry points out “Inspiration porn buries analysis of ableist societal structures under a mountain of awwwwwwww.” It is important to consider this story in context. There are other questions people should be asking but aren’t like,

Should she have had to do this?

Why were there no supports provided by the university?

What happens to disabled students who don’t have access to a parent who can take them to all of their classes?

How did having a parent ever present in the university impact the disabled student’s ability to socialize?

Does championing this mother so widely and publicly let the university off the hook from having to figure out how to accommodate disabled students in the future?

So, yes, the mother performed a selfless act for her son. She did it without pay and without the expectation of reward. However, the widespread celebration of her conceals not only the achievement of her son (who was the one to actually complete an MBA after all). It also reinforces the idea that disabled people’s access to things like education should not be the responsibility of society or the institutions themselves but rather on the availability of selfless volunteers.

The selfless volunteers are far too often mothers or other female relatives. The work they do is unpaid and generally considered to genuinely be their responsibility. Not only does this maintain a major system of unpaid labour. It also limits access to opportunities to those few people who have access to it.

It does not create or contribute to a more equal society. In fact, it actively works against it. So, yes it was nice that she attended every class with her son to take notes and otherwise assist him but she shouldn’t have had to.

Some of the justifications I saw around this boiled down to the idea that this mother would take better notes than anyone else because she’s personally invested her child’s success.

I call bullshit on that though. You know who else cares about success? The other students in that class. Many universities use a classmate volunteer system–often with a reward system of tuition credits or the potential to win free tuition (the latter being more common and still less fair)–where classmates share their notes either by taking them by hand and written on carbonless copy paper (how I got my notes through most of my undergraduate degree) or taken on the computer and emailed anonymously to the disabled student. While that system still unfortunately often depends on potentially unpaid labour, it comes from people who are already going to class in the first place and doesn’t require anyone to do much extra work or give up their time. It simply needs to be improved to ensure that note takers are getting something for their effort not just the potential of something.

I had great success with peer note takers. It’s not a flawless system but a disabled student can absolutely succeed using peer note-takers.

Additionally, if professional note takers are used, they have the incentive to do well because if they don’t they can be fired.

A mother is not by default the best or even most preferable option because really who wants their mother following them to class and participating in all their social interactions?

Twitter has also gifted us with many reactions to this story and common theme is this

This idea, that this story is what we should aspire to. This kind of selflessness. Which would be great if it meant a societal change to create more accessibility rather than a statement of support for self-sacrifice in order to access education. These sentiments are also predicated on the idea that this behaviour is or more accurately was normal. There is a false nostalgia here because access is definitely better (though not sufficient) now. There is no golden point in history where disabled people were universally or even widely ferried to school by selfless volunteers.

So, should this mother be rewarded for her actions? I actually think not. I think she either deserved to be paid–I would be open to the idea of her being given the option to pursue a real MBA (not just an honourary one) alongside her son–or external supports should have been provided. What she did deserves a salary, not a reward. Rewarding this kind of action only reinforces the idea that disabled people should be dependent on charity rather than given the right of access regardless of the ability of find or provide a volunteer.

Helping disabled people needs to stop being framed as an extraordinary act because it leads people to think that accessibility is and should be extraordinary, rather than the norm.

 

 

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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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But You Haven’t Seen it Yet: Why Critiquing Marketing of Future Portrayals of Disability is Important

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.

Yesterday, I saw promotional videos for two television shows that will be premiering next fall. Both shows deal with characters that are likely autistic (though only one will acknowledge that). They were the trailer for new ABC medical drama The Good Doctor

and a first look video of The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) spin-off Young Sheldon. That video has since been removed so I can’t link to it.

I am concerned about both. I’ve written about my issues with how TBBT theory deals with the character of Sheldon Cooper who is deeply coded as autistic but the creator and writers refuse to acknowledge that (see here). Creating a prequel series focusing entirely on a Young Sheldon Cooper is only going to exacerbate those issues and concerns.

Based on the first look video, the prequel series is unlikely to be faithful to TBBT cannon. Sheldon has had some personal growth on the show but references to his youth generally paint a static picture of a walking autism stereotype. He doesn’t like to be touched, he is rigid in his rule following, he is blunt to a point beyond rudeness crossing the line into cruelty and scientifically gifted to the point of probable savantism.

These aspects are present in Young Sheldon but it appears that the show intends for the young to experience some personal growth or the series will be filled with a child tattling on his much older classmates for dress code infractions (and that will get old really fast).

He is shown possibly cultivating a touching relationship with his father. A character who is wholly absent from TBBT (having died prior to the events of the series) and generally not referenced with much emotion by any of the characters who knew him.

It is unlikely that the series will be able to stay true to a character who would eventually grow up to be Dr. Sheldon Cooper of TBBT without the content getting dry but as a prequel, it is unlikely that the series will remedy any of the more problematic aspects that arise from the staunch refusal to acknowledge that Sheldon Cooper is neurodivergent.

The show is likely to largely ignore cannon but its primary source of humour is likely to be the same as that surrounding his older self, at the expense of his neurodivergent behaviour. We can likely look forward to a show packed with a young socially clueless Sheldon constantly putting his foot in his mouth. I can only hope that viewers get tired of it fast and the show dies a swift death.

In the series The Good Doctor, the character’s–Dr. Shaun Murphy–autism is front and centre. The show is from David Shore who previously created House MD. It looks like he’s trying to recreate the popularity of an emotionally unreachable disabled doctor with this American remake of the Korean drama Good Doctor.

The trailer sets up red flags for a problematic portrayal of autism from the word go. It hits on a number of tired Hollywood stereotypes about autism (many that are shared by Sheldon Cooper)

The character is a white man (ditto Cooper)

He is a savant level genius (ditto Cooper)

He is labeled as high-functioning (for more on why functioning labels are gross, see here)

He is played by a neurotypical actor (ditto Cooper)

To add insult to injury, the show’s summary on IMDB asks this question

can a person who doesn’t have the ability to relate to people actually save their lives?

This plays into the lie that autistic people lack empathy. A myth that is increasingly being debunked.

The trailer also sets the show up to be classic inspiration porn. A story of overcoming the prejudices of a hospital board that doesn’t want to hire him and potentially overcoming autism itself.

The most believable part of the trailer is the scene where a room full of people try to justify discrimination. Believable that is until an advocate for Dr. Murphy (because of course the autistic character isn’t advocating for themself) launches into an impassioned speech about how hiring Shaun will act as an inspiration to others.

We hire Shaun and we give hope to those people with limitations that those limitations are not what they think they are. THAT THEY DO HAVE A SHOT!!!”

*bursts into tears from being so moved*

I’m kidding. This shit makes me sick.

It makes me sick because this character has been created specifically to be palatable to a neurotypical audience. He has been given special skills that exist entirely to make up for the less palatable autistic characteristics. Sure he’s socially awkward and might react strongly to loud noises but he’ll save your child when everyone else would fail. That but is the problem. We’re unlikely to see a medical drama where the doctor just happens to be autistic without the bells and whistles of a highly fictionalized savantism.

But neither show has been released yet, so why am I already concerned? I know I’ll get asked because I’ve criticized the marketing for media portrayals of disability before.

The simple answer is that the marketing is in and of itself worthy of critique. How companies choose to sell stories around disability can have as much impact as the stories themselves. I find it unlikely that CBS (Young Sheldon) and ABC (The Good Doctor) are catfishing their prospective audiences and that the shows will be drastically different from what their marketing says they will be.

In the case of Young Sheldon, get ready to laugh at an awkward child (who will be denied a diagnosis so you can pretend you’re not laughing at a disabled child) for his awkwardness.

In the case of The Good Doctor, prepare to be inspired by a highly stereotyped and false but comfortable version of autism that tells you that disabled people are valuable only if they can overcome their disabilities.

I want better stories. I’m sick of disability portrayals. I want actual representation but that would require actually hiring disabled people.

 

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