“Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome in particular, as a plot device: To use or not to use, that is the question! PART 1”

Diablogue #23

Note: This blog post was set to be published Oct. 22, but we got tangled up in its length and then, life intervened. We’re now publishing it as a two-part post, one today, one next week. Please comment—we value your thoughts, thank you for your understanding and support.

Christina and Ken diabloguing at the very nostalgic 99th Street Diner
Christina and Ken diabloguing at the very nostalgic 99th Street Diner

Helpful hint: We’re people, not plots.

Helpful aphorism: “Autism: Why plot against us?”


So, let’s diablogue

Ken: I surmise the pendulum of Autism awareness has swung from one end of the arc—obscurity—to the other end—to today’s buzz word.

Christina: Flavour of the month. Catch of the day. I agree; it seems to be all over the news and popular media.

Ken: This is human nature.

Christina: Yes. Something catches our attention, becomes “sexy,” then it’s everywhere.

Ken: I think some history is in order. Asperger’s Syndrome—now considered part of the autism spectrum—is named after Dr. Hans Asperger who diagnosed the difference between autism and Asperger’s in Austria in 1944. Asperger’s research remained virtually unknown or ignored until Dr. Lorna Wing’sAsperger Syndrome: A Clinical Account,” a 1981 academic paper that popularised the research of Hans Asperger and introduced the term “Asperger syndrome.” Since then, there has been a slow awareness, awakening, and acceptance of this very unusual physiological and cognitive difference. We’re almost normal, but quirky enough to be a curiosity….

Christina: …even attractive (laughs). Well, it’s attractive on the outside: loveably geeky, hilariously quirky, and endearingly different. Like the character Sheldon Cooper on The  Big Bang Theory television show. That is, until a non-autistic person lives up close and personal with an autistic and experiences all the realities of the different mixing brains—the frustrating communications, confounding contradictions, and the needs both ways that the other can never fully understand—and that won’t ever change. But yeah, autism seems to be ‘hot’ in popular media now. TV shows, talk shows, people ‘coming out,’ documentaries, blogs… and mainstream movies.

Ken: As well as posthumous diagnoses of famous eccentrics.

Christina: Yup. You know, in theatre and other arts, it’s the unusual, the unconventional characters or ways of thinking that draw our attention. That make us buy tickets and go to shows. We seem driven to wrestle with—or laugh at—-the people and ideas that push us to think differently. They make the best stories, the best characters. Asperger’s certainly fits with that.

Ken: And autism is my character. It’s who I am. You do not have to play the character if you are a character—

Christina: Explain that? You are playing a character?

Ken: Affirmative. Every day. I attempt to act ordinary, average, since that is the environment I live and work in. Performing “normal” is how I survive, socially, though it is tremendously draining.

Christina: For sure. We’ve talked a lot about that.

Ken: People appear to be fascinated and enthralled by the odd and quirky—which we call “eccentric” if the person is in some way famous or has a certain degree of celebrity.

Christina: That’s because from an evolutionary standpoint, it’s the divergent thinkers who move societies forward. Advance them. Push the others just enough outside of their comfort zones to help them discover things that make life easier or better—make us more likely to survive and thrive.

Ken: Agreed.

Christina: Remember, Shakespeare said all the world’s a stage and we are ALL merely players. Since he’s a posthumously diagnosed Aspie, that’s especially interesting. But I can see that for you, it’s certainly more obvious than for non-autistics. You know you are ‘playing’ a character in daily life. You work every day to play that “ordinary” character as well as you can—to not stick out, as you say. Non-autistics mostly deny they’re acting on the daily stage—though it’s true. We all perform “us” in hopes that others see and judge us how we want to be seen and judged. It’s ordinary social survival.

Ken: You know how we say that we judge a person by his or her character? That’s what I’m talking about. People use the word very generically, as in, “that’s in his character” or he or she “is a real character.”

Christina: And YOU are a version of the kind of characters that more and more producers are aiming to show in the plays and movies.

Ken: There is a quote I want to interject here: “To those who are willing, the gods will guide, to those who are unwilling, the gods will drag kicking and screaming.” Is it not interesting that the god of thespians is Janus, the two-faced god: happy and sad, comedy/tragedy— which is also a perfect exemplar of the binary nature of autism.

Christina: How so?

Ken: First, thespians are characters themselves as well as portraying characters who are often odd or at odds and/or eccentric, and their symbol is the comedy/tragedy faces—binary opposites. Like me. Like all autistic people. I would therefore propose that theatre is based upon autism.

Christina: Wow, that’s a cool claim. I wonder what theatre folks would think of that. I hope some comment.

Ken: This thought occurred me a long time ago.

Christina: Our point with all this is that autistics are popping up all over the place in media—writers and directors are using them as central characters, like x in y, or as plot devices. And that has two faces: the happy: autism gets talked about, normalized, even. And sad: autism gets misrepresented—not all autistics have superpowers!

Ken: Indeed. Next post I want to look at a trajectory of autism in the movies. One of the first covert examples was Star Trek, then later, we saw characters with obviously autistic traits but the word ‘austim’ was never used, and lately with autism clearly stated as a key—and both fortunate and unfortunate— attribute of a character. More realistic, I’d say, and a lot more helpful.

Christina: Ok.


Next post: ~ Autism— Asperger’s Syndrome in particular— as a plot device, Part 2. An exploration of Ken’s observation: “We were being used as a plot device even before Asperger’s Syndrome was even known.”