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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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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If You Care about Autistic People Don’t Just Perform Solidarity

So April is upon us and along with it Autism Bewareness Month (I stand by that word choice). Tomorrow is World Autism Awareness Day and I am already feeling suffocated by all of the faux awareness.

Awareness would be great if it actually meant that people were actually educating themselves about the realities of autistic people. If it meant promoting the voices of actually autistic people. I would be ecstatic if that real awareness translated into acceptance and action. Action, that meant fighting for the rights of autistic people. Unfortunately, more often than not we get shallow shoutouts.

The danger of those shoutouts is not only in their inefficacy and often patronizing messaging, it is also in that they benefit problematic organizations.

Yesterday, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I noticed that a friend had added a border to their profile picture. The following image is my own photo with the border as illustration (don’t worry it never made it onto my profile).

autism speaks frame facebook

Image description: A woman with short blond hair, blue eyes and dark blue lipstick, looks directly at the camera. On the bottom is s white border with the Autism Speaks logo (a blue puzzle piece over the words Autism Speaks) and followed by the words “different not less”

First, let’s deal with the messaging. On its face, it’s a positive message but it also doesn’t really tell you anything about me or my experiences as an autistic person. It’s also so basic that it merely pays lip service to my humanity rather than actually affirming it. It exists in the same vein as the empty “special needs” memes that promote “acceptance” through pity.

10940999_769959393059095_6633527766282533542_n

Image description: Black text on a pink background the text reads “anyone willing to post this and leave it on their status for 1 hour? It is Special Education Week & Autism and ADHD Awareness month–This is in honor of all children who struggle everyday”

Images like this often position themselves as dares, the suggestion is do you dare? are you brave enough? The message that those who don’t are morally suspect. Then the images don’t share any actual information but reaffirm the preconceived notion that to be disabled is to suffer.

Not only is this not true awareness it is active misinformation that spreads pity.

Returning to the Autism Speaks Facebook border. While is isn’t as aggressive in its approach to getting people to use it, the end game is the same. You can feel good about the fact that you’ve done something. You’ve helped raise awareness. Admittedly an awareness that consists largely of an acknowledgement that autistic people exist and a general sentiment that it’s probably best to be nice to autistic people.

It doesn’t tell you why you need to be reminded of these facts. It doesn’t tell you about the real risks of violence and bullying that autistic people face. It doesn’t tear down stereotypes about autism. Which means that people are likely going to continue to comfortably believe the misinformation they may have internalized.

This kind of solidarity is predominantly a performance. It may come with good intentions but it ultimately does little or nothing to actually help autistic people. It does make people who add that border to their profile picture feel warm & fuzzy though.

One thing that the widespread adoption of performance solidarity like that border is that it gives a lot of publicity to the organization that created it and that’s a problem.

Autism Speaks is an organization that has a long history of speaking for autistic people with little or no input from actually autistic people. It has spread dangerous narratives about autistic people. It has supported anti-vaccination narratives.

While there have been changes in the organization and it no longer promotes a cure narrative and is no longer overtly anti-vaccination. It still widely benefits from it’s history peddling those dangerous narratives.

consider how the White House is going to “Light it Up Blue” (a practice created by Autism Speaks) tomorrow for the first time in years after the Obama administration halted the practice, in large part because of feedback from the autistic community. Donald Trump is friends with Bob Wright, one of the founders of Autism Speaks and the source of many of the dangerous narratives that the organization no longer officially supports. Trump is also sceptical of vaccines.

So regardless of their official position change. Autism Speaks is still largely associated with those narratives and they crop up in very visible ways. Autism Speaks is almost certainly going to financially benefit from this connection.

Despite their official change of heart, Autism Speaks is still widely disliked by actual autistic people who remember the years of demonization from the organization. It is also far too early to tell whether the official changes in policy will translate into real change in the actions the organization takes.

So, I would ask you not to change your profile picture to include that border this April. I would ask that you not support Autism Speaks.

If you really want to support autistic people this April and hopefully beyond it, you can support organizations that are run by autistic people like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and the Autism Women’s Network. You can read the work of actually autistic people. You can promote and amplify their voices and work. You can financially support them (shameless plug for my tip jar).

These are things that can actually create a more nuanced understanding of autism and a positive kind of awareness. An awareness that leads to acceptance and action on the right of autistic people.

 

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