After attempting to write two blog posts and then ending up having to delete them due to not having enough to write about in the subject matter, I finally overcame my writer's block. I decided that the topic that I want to write about is how autism is portrayed in film and television. What spark this topic was a recent twitter post that I stumbled across and end up retweeting from autistic self advocate Sara Luterman criticizing the upcoming netflix televison series Atypical and how it uses the same portrayal of a heterosexual white male looking for a date. This post got me thinking of the portrayal of autism in movies and tv shows and how it contributes to people's perceptions of how autistic people behave and act. I am going to discuss in great detail the lack of diversity of autism portrayals in the media and what I would like to see in future portrayals of autism.
Whenever a a film or a tv show is made that features a character with autism, there is a tendency for these stories to use certain stereotypes. Usually, the main character is a white male who either has some special savant abilities or who is a geeky Asperger type with socially awkward characteristics and is interested in dating but does not know how to approach girls. Oftentimes, these films are made by the perspective of third parties such as parents and professionals and not from the viewpoint of the autistic character. Even the more progressive television shows and movies such as Atypical and Autism in Love that attempt to make first person portrayals on autism also lack diversity and reinforce classic stereotypes on autism. I know the intention is to show that people with autism can form close intimate relationships with a romantic partner. The problem is that these portrayals of autism love stories is always formed within a heterosexual context. There are autistic people who are gay/lesbian, bisexual, transgender as well as being asexual and everything in between. By not portraying autistic characters of diverse sexual identities denies the fact autistic people can feel anything besides being heterosexual. It also stigmatizes and alienates autistics who are not sexually attracted to anyone or not interested in dating. The use of the "geeky white male" autistic protagionist ad nauseam in movies and tv shows perpetuates the stereotype that autistics are socially awkward and have some sort of special talent when in reality that can be farther from the truth.
As an Asian American autistic female who is more on the asexual end on the sexuality spectrum, it is hard to relate to a lot of films and tv shows out there for the reason I discussed in the previous paragraph. Whenever I hear that a new tv show or movie is made about autism, I am met with initial excitement. However my excitement usually fades by the time I get a sense of the plot line and the other characters' reaction towards the autistic character. At the end of these films and tv shows, I am left with disappointment of how these shows fall short of accurately portraying the diverse spectrum of autism. I feel that none of these narratives relate to my own experience of living with autism. This is because none of these stories takes into account the salience of being a female as well as a person of color and the unique challenges each one of these identities has on living with this mysterious condition. They don't take into account what it's like being the one of few females in autism social groups, how it feels to navigate female friendships and the drama that comes with it as well as going through puberty and other issues that exclusively effect autistic females. It is not only gender that I feel is underrepresented in the media in regards to autistic characters. In all the films I see about autism, I have never seen an Asian American or or an other ethnic minority autistic character. Although I am not as bothered with the underrepresentation of my race in the media, it would be nice that the topic of race/ethnicity and how it intersects with the autistic identity was explored more deeply. I also would like to see more autistics of color in film and television because it sends the message that autism is not a disorder that exclusively affects whites.
However, race ,gender and sexual orientation are not the only factors that affect diversity in the telling of autistic stories in the media. It is also diversity of experience. Even though there are some commonalities, every autistic person experiences life differently. By portraying some experiences or stories in the media but ignoring others, sends the message to the greater society that some experiences of being autistic are valid while others are not. In terms of my personal experience, I would like to see more shows and television shows explore the intimate but important role that support people ( such as aides etc.) play in the lives of autistic people. The tv sitcom Speechless does a great job exploring the personal relationship between aides and people with disabilities. Now if we can take this element from Speechless and incorporate it into a tv show revolving around an autistic protagionist, that would be great. Growing up, I have grown attach to the various aides that helped me. In particular, I have grown attached to my high school aide and that relationship has formed a great part of my identity and how I connect with other people as an adult. A lot of people have no clue of the important role that paid help such as therapists or aides can play in the lives of people on the spectrum. Another topic that I would like to see portray in regards to my own experience is the notion of living with an invisible disability and the notion of "passing." In my own life, people would never guess that I am autistic. Despite passing as "normal", I still have issues related to my disability that a lot of people don't see. The notion of support people and the struggle of passing in terms of living with an "invisible" disability is an experience that affects the lives of lots of autistic people (not just myself). There are lots of other topics and stories about autism that are not covered in the media that I have not discussed yet but would make this post run too long. The point being is that there no one "right" experience of being autistic and each story has value and worth that needs to be told in film and television.
In sum, media representations have a lot of implications and repercussions because it has the potential to shape peoples' perceptions about certain groups. There is a lot of work that needs to be done in regards to how autism is portrayed in film and television. We can start by employing autistic people as full time consultants for television and movies. As other self advocates have argued, there needs to be more actual autistic people to play the roles of fictional autistic characters since they know firsthand what it's like to live with the condition . By using recycled stereotypes about autism gives the impression to neurotypicals that there is only one way autism is expressed. It conveys the message that autistics only have value if they have a special talent or they can meet neurotypical milestones such as being in a close heterosexual romantic relationship. I know Hollywood is big on exaggerating certain characteristics to make it more entertaining. But, to simplify autism as a singular experience doesn't make room for other stories. The spectrum is very complex and there is no right or wrong way to be autistic. This is the reason why I started blogging in the first place: to question what is normal and to give some insight as what it is like to live with a mysterious but often misunderstood condition.