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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Mayim Bialik’s Take on Sheldon Cooper and Autism is Wrong

The sitcom The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) has been on tv for eight years and has been renewed for at least two more seasons. In that time there has been a lt of speculation about whether the character Sheldon Cooper has either Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or both. He is never directly diagnosed or labeled on the show but his behaviour is easily recognizable as autistic.

As a result autistic viewers have been looking for verification from people associated with the show and we finally got it, sort of.

Actress Mayim Bialik (who plays Amy Farrah-Fowler on TBBT) was being interviewed by Neil DeGrasse Tyson when he asked her about the speculation. She gave a response that Radio Times lauded as “Brilliant”. She said,

“All of our characters are in theory on the neuropsychiatric spectrum, I would say, Sheldon often gets talked about in terms of Asperger’s or OCD. He has a thing with germs, he has a thing with numbers, he’s got a lot of that precision that we see in OCD. There’s a lot of interesting features to all of our characters that make them technically unconventional socially…

I think what’s interesting and kind of sweet and what should not be lost on people is we don’t pathologise our characters. We don’t talk about medicating them or even really changing them.

And I think that’s what’s interesting for those of us who are unconventional people or who know and love people who are on any sort of spectrum, we often find ways to work around that. It doesn’t always need to be solved and medicated and labelled.

And what we’re trying to show with our show is that this is a group of people who likely were teased, mocked, told that they will never be appreciated or loved, and we have a group of people who have successful careers, active social lives (that involve things like Dungeons and Dragons and video games), but they also have relationships, and that’s a fulfilling and satisfying life.”

Essentially TBBT is a utopian example of what happens when people are accepted for who they are and the lack of diagnosis is a radical move towards inclusion and building acceptance of people’s differences.

It’s a nice idea but it’s a false one both in how the show is structured and made and in how people who have autism and other behaviour disorders are treated.

It is true that diagnosis has been withheld on the show by design. The intention however was not to make a statement about the pathologization of people with behaviour disorders. We know that the creators of TBBT never intended for Sheldon to be seen as autistic because when asked, they deny that he does. Bill Prady one of the co-creators of the show has acknowledged the similarities but categorically denied that Sheldon was autistic. His reasons for denial are troubling. The avoided officially giving Sheldon an ASD diagnosis because it would put much pressure to get the details right. The other creator Chuck Lorre also denies Sheldon is on the spectrum.

So this idea that TBBT is a way for the awkward and possibly autistic audience to see that the world can fit them and that TBBT is just a big “It get’s better” message to those of us who were bullied for having characteristics similar to Sheldon are just false. Bialik’s excuse is just a way to push back against the criticism that TBBT gets for turning ASD into a caricature. She made a nice progressive sounding statement that just doesn’t happen to be true. There is no underlying moral of the acceptance of difference regardless of label in The Big Bang Theory.

There isn’t even really a veneer of it as most of the comedy around Sheldon is just how socially inept and different he is. The comedy comes all to often at his expense.

The show may not label Sheldon with OCD or autism but his behaviour is still pathologized. His friends constantly question and bring attention to his atypical behaviour. He is  even aware that people find him odd. He has on more than one occasion proclaimed “I’m not crazy, my mother had me tested”. The thing you should take away from this is not that he was seen by a doctor who failed to diagnose him and accept that at face value–My parents had me tested for ADD as a child, as I don’t have ADD I was not diagnosed, no alternate explanations were sought and yet I was and still am autistic. Heck, when my parents noticed that as an infant I avoided using my left hand, the doctor just said I was really right handed (seriously), I actually have cerebral palsy and failure to diagnose or misdiagnose is common–What you should focus on here though is that Sheldon feels the need to defend his behaviour because others are questioning it from a psychological way. So yes the show really does pathologize Sheldon, it just doesn’t give him the explanation or defense of a label. In so doing tacitly making the judgement and the laughter at his expense acceptable because if he were acknowledged as autistic, this treatment would be considered cruel.

As Jacqueline Koyanagi brilliantly puts it in an article on Disability in Kidlit (go read the article, seriously excerpts don’t do it justice)

Here is a character who is obviously coded as autistic, so much so that his behaviors often tip over into autistic caricature…. So, yes. Caricature it is, stripped of context. In this case, it’s all in the name of comedy, but it can and does happen in the name of entertainment of any stripe. Sidelining the issue does not erase it.

She goes on to say and I completely agree,

Fictional characters exist to be consumed by real people, and real people live on the autism spectrum. Characterization, regardless of label or lack thereof, regardless of genre, has a real impact on these real people, myself included. Content creators must understand that they can be answerable for that impact. When they render a character into their world wearing an entire suit of autistic behaviors, reactions, and needs, responsibility-dodging only serves to hurt the population they’re representing, whether they wanted their work to be representative of that population or not.

Koyanagi and I have something in common, we we both diagnosed on the autism spectrum as adults and as she points out,

The difference between “generic eccentricity” and a formal diagnosis is just that–formal diagnosis. It seems absurd that it bears stating, but a person on the autism spectrum is on the spectrum even before they are diagnosed. Similarly, bullying is bullying regardless of when diagnosis/identification occurs–and, yes, even if it never occurs…

Aspects of a person’s being can’t be swept under the rug by denying labels with a shrug and a saccharine smile. Eschewing labels does not equate dodging responsibility, and mistreatment done in ignorance is still mistreatment. That goes for the actions of fictional characters and writers’ intentions alike. When autistically coded characters are dismissed as eccentric and worthy of disdain, it reinforces the idea that we are just being difficult. When the people around autistically coded characters are portrayed as Atlas-like martyrs for enduring such a burden, that is doing real harm to real autistic people. Media matters. Media influences, shapes, and deepens perspectives on real issues.

When Mayim Bialik says that they refuse to pathologize the characters on the show. She is essentially saying “we don’t see disability, we just see people” a sentiment that erases experience. Perhaps not for the fictional Sheldon but for people in the real world. People with autism are already people and they are often people with needs that differ from those of the neurotypical majority. Not labeling someone is just reinforcing the idea that disability is bad or shameful, even if it is couched in terms of universal acceptance. Because at the end of the day difference is treated differently (often in terms of discrimination and oppression) and it is those of us with labels who are more able to advocate for accommodation and change. People who are simply different are far easier to dismiss and ignore.

I am with Dumbledore on this issue “Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself

Ignoring the autistic coding of Sheldon Cooper is harmful and unfortunately avoiding the label allows Lorre and Prady to create a caricature of autism with plausible deniability built right in.

So don’t be impressed with Bialik’s seemingly progressive interpretation because it is a lie painted over an issue that is finally being recognized to excuse past bad behaviour.

Radio Times gives Bialik a credibility bump by pointing out that she has a PhD in Neuroscience but she is not the person who has to live with the consequences of a world that internalizes her ideas. Autistic people do.

There is a reason one of the most enduring slogans of the disability rights movement is Nothing About Us Without Us. We deserve proper representation and not to be brushed aside when someone with credentials but no shared experience minimizes our concerns.

There is no TBBT utopia and things will not get better for the people who see themselves in Sheldon Cooper if the game plan is to pretend that neurological disorders don’t exist or more importantly that people will treat those exhibiting symptoms of ASD or OCD well without activism and advocacy. Ignoring social discrimination doesn’t make it go away, it helps it grow and gives it legitimacy.

Footnote/ updated

I would like to mention that Bialik does have one good point, the idea that people who are on as she puts it the neuropsychiatric spectrum don’t need to be changed or cured to have fulfilling lives is entirely correct. I also though don’t see that reflected in the show as the people around Sheldon are constantly complaining about how dealing with him frustrates them.