“Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome in particular, as a plot device: To use or not to use, that is the question! PART 2”

Diablogue #24

Christina and Ken at the annual Alberta Legislature Christmas lights switch on night performed by Alberta's Premier Rachel Notley.
Christina and Ken at the annual Alberta Legislature Christmas lights switch on night performed by Alberta’s Premier Rachel Notley.

Helpful hint: We’re people, not plots.

Helpful aphorism: “Autism: Why blather?”


So, let’s diablogue

An exploration of Ken’s observation: “We were being used as a plot device even before Asperger’s Syndrome was even known.”

Christina: So, continuing from last post, Nov. 19, we’re talking about autism as a plot device or as characters in popular media and the kinds of problems or misrepresentations—and also some good things—that can result.

Ken: Yes. The first example of major media underpinned by, and displaying, autistics’ ways of seeing the world was Star Trek in September 1966. I immediately identified with Mr. Spock, portrayed by Leonard Nimoy—who is posthumously thought to be Aspie— because of the way he behaved, acted, and reacted. It was and is very much like the way I behave, act, and react. At that moment, I began to realize that I was not the only one, alone; alone—all one. Sorry! More wordplay. In any case, I realized then that I was not as odd as I thought, and my oddities were not all negative.

Christina: I see. Of course, nobody knew that autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, was behind the character and that Gene Roddenberry was likely autistic, an Aspie himself.

Ken: Correct. And I did not know that I was autistic, an Aspie myself. Nor did anyone else at the time, either.

Christina: And that started the autism visibility trend in social media—and since then we’ve seen…

Ken: Television shows: The Bridge, Big Bang Theory, Atypcial, Numbers—NUMB3RS, Touched, Movies…Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman portraying Raymond/Rain Man is also thought to be an Aspie, Adam, Mozart and the Whale, starring Josh Hartnett, thought to be an Aspie,  Marry and Max, Philip Seymour Hoffman also thought to be Aspie, performing the voice of Max, Bicentennial Man, starring Robin Williams who was thought to be both ADHD and Aspie, A Beautiful Mind…. though John Nash In 1959 he was diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia, although he was also thought to be Aspie as well, The Aviator, Carrie Pilby, although Autism and/or Asperger’s Syndrome are never mentioned, the character of Carrie Pilby, checks all the box and is a text book example of an Aspie, The Accountant, etc. All have characters that appear to be Autistic, near Autistic, Asperger’s Syndrome, near Asperger’s Syndrome, on the Autism Spectrum or near Spectrum.

Christina: Wow. Amazing list. I haven’t seen some of those. But the ones I have seen I’ve connected with in different ways. So, at least to a degree, I think it’s great that autism–even if the condition or term isn’t mentioned it, and even if the producers or directors are not aware that they’re doing it—are portraying autistic characters.

Ken: Yes. However, the problem is that it has gone from little or no information to a great deal of misinformation and disinformation.

Christina: What do you mean?

Ken: The creators of these movies, TV shows, plays, or books and whatnot are often not autistic themselves or have no connection to autism, and they are inadvertently writing a character type as a plot device or as a foil to another character. That character clearly has autistic traits. However, they unavoidably do it from the point of view of a non-autistic person.

Christina: So, they create an autism stereotype. Right. Such as super weird and super smart—even savant. I read about a parent of an autistic boy saying that people ask him, “So, what’s your son’s special ability?” But the kid doesn’t have a special ability; he’s just ordinary with a different way of thinking and being, and hurting from being misunderstood. The father found himself endlessly ‘apologizing, almost, for his son’s LACK of amazing talent with numbers or memory. That’s tragic. But I know that some directors hire autistic people to be consultants…

Ken: That is correct. However, this is very recent trend, and a welcome one. Still, perhaps the damage is already done; only time will tell. Up until this point, across all manner of social media, autism has been only partially represented and often significantly misrepresented, which has led to people misjudging autistic people. Misjudging me.

Christina: So, because people see autism in the media as this or that, they expect you do be like that…it gives all autistics a bum rap for being things they are not. Which is a disservice to you. To understanding you. Stereotypes make people assume things. And when we start with assumptions, it’s really hard to let them go.

Ken: They begin to believe the paint is the real thing.

Christina: The paint is how people with Asperger’s are painted in popular media. Fake paint. As plot devices. As characters.

Ken: In actuality, I would say that some autistic stereotypes—such as logical thinking and social awkwardness— are harmless because they are in fact borne out by research as mostly true. The difficulty comes when non-autistic characteristics such as use of profanity are grafted onto otherwise accurate Aspie characters.

Christina: Such as?

Ken: Sheldon on Big Bang Theory. He is portrayed as having an average intelligence—a common Aspie trait—but also, as a potty mouth. Once the public views the autistic character like this they might think all people with Asperger’s are the same. Anyone who is verbal and on the spectrum, tends not to use profanity because it is imprecise, illogical, and emotional. Therefore, Sheldon being a potty mouth is the disinformation part; that aspect of his characterization paints an inaccurate picture of Asperger’s.

Christina: The creators see some cool traits in real autism, then mix and match to make a good story. But they hurt Aspies and autism in the process.

Ken: So: Autism—Asperger’s Syndrome in particular—as a plot device: To use it or not to use it, that is the question.

Christina: My vote would be that anyone wanting to use it MUST get a real Aspie as a consultant and listen to what he or she says. I know a few of the newer films have done that—so that’s great. Because if they don’t, they’re probably going to mess it up and hurt some people out there. Some parents. Some kids.

Ken: In any case, I surmise that, as people on the spectrum, we have, are currently, and will continue to be used as a plot device. We were being used as such even before Asperger’s Syndrome was even known. We will continue to be used because it works; people like to see differences—to marvel, to gawk, to wonder about. And certainly, those with Asperger’s fit that bill. We see things differently, we live differently, we think differently, we respond differently, and we behave differently from non-autistics. The status quo finds difference fascinating.

Christina: I agree. Funny sometimes. Sad, other times. So, you agree with my view?

Ken: Yes. I would say that we should not try to get it stopped. Instead, we should encourage more diligent and responsible work. More filmmakers should make people with Autism part of the process so that we can ensure that the information is a correct and accurate representation of us.


Next post: Are autistic people aware that their behavior is ‘autistic’ and in order to fit in, are they putting on a show? Performing?