Here’s How TV Gets ASD Wrong, and Why It Matters

It’s probably a sensitivity to the subject, but characters that seem written “on the spectrum” pop out at me. Shows that make ASD a hook pop out even more. Every time I find one, I have to watch at least a little to see if they really know. And every time I watch, I find that the writers do an amazing job of editing the reality of autism to be okay for the rest of the world. That is wonderful for dramatic effect, but I’m afraid it’s fostering unrealistic public expectations.

The most popular example I can think of, aside from “Rain Man**”, is Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory.” It’s a prime-time sitcom centered around four guys with genius-level intellects and less-than-stellar social skills who live next to a girl who is as pretty, suave and shallow as they are intelligent and unique. Sheldon is the most unapologetically ‘different’ of the group. I don’t think the writers originally intended him to be autistic, just socially awkward, but enough people noticed and commented on his tendencies that they started writing towards it. In contrast, I saw a few clips of “Young Sheldon” (a prequel centered on the childhood of the title character, of course) before I knew what it was, and the traits were obvious enough that I said, “That kid is autistic!” out loud.

I watched about three episodes of “Atypical”, when it first came out. The show played from the teenage ASD protagonist’s angle, so the awkward social bits were more sympathetic than jeering, but the dating hijinks rarely got more than a sad chuckle from me. I found the “best friend’s” vocabulary off-putting not just personally, but because the ASD main character would have either gotten in trouble for emulating it, or been offended by how it differed from the acceptable vocabulary he’d been taught. The show was good for situational comedy, but I kept waiting for a real meltdown from the main character.

The mom did me in. S1E1, at about 7:50, she tells her husband, “Do you know that every time the phone rings, I jump? Every time. I think: he’s crossed the street again with his eyes closed, or he had a freak-out in a store, or… He’s hit a police officer. Every time the phone rings.” I cried when I watched it because I completely understood. And then, the show wasn’t about the kid’s experiences anymore, it was about watching the mom trying (and failing, just like me) to cope. Eventually, I couldn’t watch anymore because she just hit too close to home.

Tonight, I found “The Good Doctor”. I do love medical dramas. Going in to the series knowing the protagonist is an autistic savant was added tension for me – and added expectation. “Why were you rude to me when we first met, then nicer to me, and now you want to be my friend? Which time were you pretending?” Shaun, the protagonist, asks that of the show’s pre-designated sympathetic interpreter. “Boom,” as my sons would say, “You just got burned.” Refreshing and sympathetic. Hideously sympathetic. I’m still watching this show, and rooting for Shaun until it gets too painful to do so. It’s elegantly and sensitively done, but not even remotely realistic. Autism just isn’t that clear-cut. 

In the scene when “the bunny dies,” the viewer is supposed to remember the violence and blur out the confused, conflicted, burned-out parents. I couldn’t help but recognize that scene. A variation thereof has played out in my own house too many times. Exhaustion, stress, frustration, anger. “They can’t handle him. I don’t blame them, ‘coz obviously we can’t handle him either.” The dad’s not thinking about the rabbit, he’s trying to get his son’s attention, to connect with him… “What did you do? What happened?! Stop petting that stupid rabbit!” Pay attention to me, I’m trying to understand. No one else sees that, of course, because Shaun is our protagonist and the story has to move.

What worries me about all these shows is the threefold assumption:

  1. that autism can be explained in an abusive backstory, 
  2. that all autistic people have a “savant” specialty in which they are truly genius, and
  3. that you, the savvy bystander, will be the magical interpreter: the autism-whisperer. 

Abuse-the-Autistic-Kid Backstory

If you are close to someone on the spectrum, you know: autism is a lens. It’s a very specific, highly specialized prescription that only one individual can see through. They see, think, feel and act on what is important to them, based on their unique set of rules. That exclusive focus leads to a tremendous amount of friction, stress, heartache, frustration, anger, and yes, even abuse from caregivers who are trying to normalize that child to society, and the society that doesn’t understand that kid.

He’s looking, but is he seeing the same things you are?

“Children with disabilities are 3.4 times more likely to experience abuse.” (Sullivan & Knutson, 2000) If you have ever been the caretaker of a child (any child), you know they’re incredibly difficult to deal with. Every single one is “special”. However, most of them eventually understand why they should not play in the road, or not make Lego-and-olive-oil soup on the stove, or not go out to shovel snow in their underwear in -2F.

Autism-spectrum kids just don’t see the world you see, so they don’t act like you think they should. And no one can give you the prescription for their particular kind of “glasses,” either – not doctors, not experts, not other caretakers of autistic kids, not even the kid themselves. There is no chapter in “What to Expect the First Years” for special needs kids.

Probably not.

All you can do is try to see things from their perspective, try to interpret the world through their view. It’s like trying to adjust a microscope with no knobs, using a banana and an IEP, and not knowing for sure what you’re supposed to be seeing. No one can tell you how to do it, or what it will look like when you find it, or even whether or not your child will still be there when you arrive. You are navigating blind with a fighter pilot who seems bent on suicide. All of this is terribly, terribly exhausting. And yeah, if you’re stressed, poor, under-educated… Hell, even if you’re incredibly intelligent and have plenty of time, money and support… Frustration will happen. Anger will happen. When tension is that high, abuse can be a spider-web-thin line that no one knew they crossed. But, it’s never all of the backstory.

Just Find Your Savant

Every parent wants their kid to have a stand-out talent, of course.  When your child struggles with daily life, the hope of discovering a hidden wealth of talent is that much more poignant. I’ve been guilty of saying of my son, “I wonder what his savant will be?” A savant is someone with profound or extensive knowledge of a subject, gained over years of study. (Savant)  What I am imagining, though, is the idiot savant. The “condition in which persons with serious mental disabilities, including autistic disorder, have some ‘island of genius’ which stands in marked, incongruous contrast to overall handicap.” (Treffert, 2009) He may not be able to navigate a salad bar or a bus station, but he can speak to birds, play achingly beautiful clarinet, perform flawless neurosurgery, or fix anything electrical.

Every single example of a character “on the spectrum” that I have seen in movies/TV has been either very, very high functioning, a savant, or both. Now, granted, no one would be very interested in a show about someone who flicked his pinkie incessantly, watched endless hours of lawn mowing videos, and only spoke to demand a peanut butter sandwich at full volume. However, I think an expectation is being fostered that will guarantee heartache and disappointment. Statistically, the odds of an autistic person developing a ‘savant’ ability is 10%. In contrast, in the general population, the likelihood is is less than 1%. (Edelson) The hope seems pretty strong, despite the statistics, that every autistic kid has an amazing talent lurking under the surface, just waiting for the right person to tease it out…

The Autism-Whisperer

In “The Good Doctor,” you saw the neatly cut backstory and are empathizing with the weird guy when he’s standing in the hospital lobby yelling about echo-cardiograms. You see how all it takes is a little re-framing from the right person to get the lead surgeon to stop calling for surgery and start calling ultrasound. You vilify the security guy who was tasked with keeping the weirdo out. Why do you see it that way? Because you have all the information. I am afraid that unconsciously spoon-fed insight translates to an assumption that anyone, with the tiniest bit of intuition, could be the next Autism-Whisperer(TM).

“Why were you rude to me when we first met, then nicer to me, and now you want to be my friend? Which time were you pretending?” She never really answers that question in the show, because it wasn’t meant to be answered. It was meant to pull the viewer out of their comfort zone and remind them that what our protagonist was seeing and what we were watching were two totally different things. It reminds us that we want to see things his way. It makes Shaun stand out to Claire, and you can see her decide that he is going to be her project. That kind of information just isn’t available in real life.

If you walked into a public place, like your local supermarket, and saw a grade-schooler having a screaming, kicking, crying meltdown in the fresh fruit section while an adult woman pushing a cart filled with an infant car seat and a few groceries stood helplessly nearby, your thoughts would probably run along these lines: What a brat. He is way too old for that behavior. And who lets their kid get away with that in a public place. She could at least take him out to the car or something… If you’re a parent, you might add: Poor woman. Thank God that isn’t my kid. Then, you would most likely file away your judgement and hurry off so you didn’t have to take responsibility for whatever scene may follow.

The dramatic writer would have you notice that the lights over the fruit were turned to a shade of blue that reminded the kid of when his grandma went to the ER and never came back, and help you know that he always bought bananas here with her, but today there were no bananas. The dramatic writer would also equip you, the Good-Samaritan-in-waiting, with the courage and insight to approach a stranger. You’d crouch down beside him with a plantain in your hand, calm him down enough to get him up off the floor and away from that woman, and then guide him off  to a future of classical clarinet and talking to birds.

Inventing Your Own Backstory

Last summer, I was walking through the grocery store parking lot when I saw a petite, nicely-dressed woman struggling with a boy who appeared to be about eleven or twelve. She was trying to lift him into a shopping cart, despite his being nearly as tall as she was. He was keening his disapproval, stiffening his legs, and not struggling, but definitely not cooperating. I could tell by his posture and affect that he had some sort of mental disability. My eyes met hers briefly, and I saw an embarrassment and resigned frustration that I wholly understood. I didn’t need the whole story, because I’d been there. 

She needed to get something from the store. She couldn’t leave him in the car. There was no way he was going to walk along with her willingly. If she could just get him into a cart without too much of a scene, she could do what she needed to and move on to the next crisis in her day. I wanted to go up to her and hold the cart still, say something understanding, maybe even help her lift. I knew that if I did, she would be tremendously embarrassed. I did not know the boy or what his triggers were. There was at least some chance that the boy would see me as a threat and de-compensate, possibly hurting himself or her in the process. So, I put as much sympathy and understanding as I could into a momentary smile and shrug, and kept walking.

In the time it took me to walk across a parking space, I made a tremendous number of cascading judgements and assumptions. I used my own knowledge and experiences and built that woman and boy a backstory as convincing as the dramatic writer’s, with his tight scripting and flashbacks. The conclusion I came to was, “Keep walking.” Someone else will build a different castle of assumptions, and maybe have a different response.

10 years later: new glasses, same kid.

Despite my reservations about some of the shows’ messages, watching characters navigating the maze of autism on-screen is a wonderful privilege. I worry right along with the families, and recognize the big, big challenge behind a little triumph. The best moments are when a scene cuts so close to reality that I laugh, or cry.  That’s when I know that out there in Hollywood somewhere, there’s a writer who has been in the cockpit with that bespectacled kamikaze pilot, and survived to write a sparkling, witty episode about the journey. That’s when I know I’m not alone. But…

The story of someone’s real autism journey is always more complicated and makes less sense than you think it should. Scriptwriters cherry pick the moments they show us. They take what can be a messy, emotional, sometimes very random diagnosis, find the story thread, and put a human face on it. The result is something much cleaner than reality. Your autistic nephew is more likely to paint with the mashed potatoes at dinner than he is to paint like Salvador Dali. Put a plastic cloth on the table and invite him and his exhausted parents over, anyway. Sit down and talk with him. If he talks your ear off about the inner workings of your blender or doesn’t talk at all, you’ll be playing your important part in contributing to a real family’s real story.

References

Edelson, S. M. (n.d.). Research: Autistic Savants. Retrieved from https://www.autism.com/understanding_savants

Savant. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/savant

Sullivan, P. M., & Knutson, J. F. (2000, October 24). Maltreatment and disabilities: A population-based epidemiological study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 1257-73. doi:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11075694

Treffert, D. A. (2009, May 27). The savant syndrome: An extraordinary condition. A synopsis: Past, present, future. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 364(1522), 1351-7. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2677584/

**I have never seen Rain Main, and don’t intend to seek it out. The highlights are ingrained enough in our culture that I don’t feel like I need to.

Very special thanks to Jessica Heichel for her suggestions and encouragement.

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4 Responses to Here’s How TV Gets ASD Wrong, and Why It Matters

  1. Excellent essay, Molly. Pitch this to major media. It should be read by several million people.

  2. Laurie Kast says:

    I thought so too. It needs to be published.

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