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.

 

If you liked this post and want to support my continued writing please consider buying me a metaphorical coffee (or two or more). Donations help me keep this blog going and support my ongoing efforts to obtain a PhD.

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