Autistic Representation in Media

This is something that was crossing my mind a lot as I was editing and finalizing Shifting Paradigms, set to release on February 15, 2022.  I started out the character idea years ago as simply a genius who built spaceships.  At one point, I had this zany idea to use the development of this character to test if I truly was autistic (I’d been suspecting for a little while at that point).  I started writing down my own autistic character traits.  Eventually, I had to move it to its own document (which ended up being 19 pages long).  Suffice it to say, I am autistic.

I didn’t use all of those traits in my character, but I did use some.  I made her into her own person, and did my darndest to avoid any autistic stereotypes.  Sadly, this doesn’t happen very often in media, even when it overtly seems like those producing the content are attempting to do that.  The best example I can think of is The Good Doctor.

The Good Doctor… Or is he?

loved the first episode of this show, but my the end of about the first season, I was done with it.  I was fed up with the stereotyping, the lack of support he received (federally-mandated support, no less), and the confusing and inconsistent characters.

At first, I liked how the main character was portrayed.  I could easily spot things he did and say, “See, I do that, too!” But there were quickly things about his character that were clearly stereotypes (and harmful ones at that), while other parts of him made no sense whatsoever.  First, for the stereotypes.  You have an autistic savant (though I can’t really piece together the savant part) with wooden, robot speech patterns, who is constantly oblivious of social situations.  All harmful stereotypes.  One, he would not need to be a savant to be gifted as a doctor.  Just the autistic person’s attention to detail would benefit him greatly.  And an autistic person’s tendency toward forming narrow special interests and ease of retrieving factual data (vs. episodic memories) would mean the he would already have an advantage over other doctors.  Autistic people are not only capable of spending far longer studying subjects of interest, but they are also far better at retrieving that information when necessary.  Adding savant syndrome is just silly.  And two, why is he so socially awkward?  He’d clearly capable of learning as he does so during the show when prompted, but this was never addressed to him before this?  Really?  At the point in the show, he should be in his late twenties.  He’s had plenty of opportunities for teachers, friends or fellow students to comment on these things.  He’s also had plenty of opportunity to do his own research and realize these things are important, but he seems clueless when the show starts.  Why?

Because he’s a joke.  He’s a stereotype created by screenwriters who clearly didn’t think through the character in any meaningful way and didn’t understand autistic people in the slightest.  They didn’t understand that autistic people adapt and grow just the same as neurotypical people.  They assumed that if he was autistic, he would, on some level, remain the abused young boy he was in the flashback at the beginning of the show.

In addition to his convoluted portrayal, there are other things about the show that just don’t make sense.

  • Why are they still deciding on whether to hire the autistic doctor when he’s already here?
  • Why does his mentor not realize that pushing him on a subject that he clearly is resistant to will only lead to a meltdown if he pushes too hard?
  • Why are no legally-required (under the Americans with Disabilities Act) accommodations given to him?  Why aren’t the laws upheld?  Examples include:
    • Training or mentoring on teamwork and bedside manner
    • Limiting his work shifts and requiring frequent breaks to prevent meltdowns
    • Disciplinary actions for staff who engage in discrimination against protected groups (i.e. a person with a disability)

The Good Doctor is often lauded as positive representation of autism (that can be seen in https://functionalspeechtherapy.com/feeding-therapy/ site), and it comes closer than most, but it falls very short of “positive.”  He is treated as “other.”  He is portrayed as subhuman.  He is also portrayed as superhuman.  None of these are standards autistic people can or should have to live up to.  It’s nice being able to see real lived experiences on screen, but can we please remove the bullshit?

Music… is not music to my ears

I will be saying first and foremost that I have never watched this full movie, nor do I intend to.  I don’t need to.  The movie is so dangerous and insulting, just in small snippets, that I can’t imagine that the full context could redeem it.  Even neurotypical people comment on how terrible a movie this is, even without knowing much about autism and knowing nothing about what makes good autistic representation.  It is an ego piece for a musician who was not destined to break out into the movie business.

The important takeaways of this piece (with regard to autistic representation) are:

  • Never hold down someone as shown in the movie.  This can be fatal, causing the person to stop breathing.
  • I don’t know that ANY autistic person moves around the way the actress does in this movie (Not her fault entirely.  From what I gather, she wasn’t comfortable playing the role and got a lot of bad advice on how to portray the character).
  • Autistic people are not inspiration porn, nor are they burdens or props for showing the character development of another.

Shifting Paradigms

I’m not going to claim that anything I do is perfect representation, especially of autism.  It doesn’t exist.  Every autistic person is different so every representation is going to feel off to someone with the disorder.  I did my best to avoid stereotypes and I certainly made her the main character, with her own challenges unrelated to her autism.  In fact, major hurtles for other characters included accepting her differences and embracing them.  It was an essential part of the romance, and not even an “I’ve learned to accept you” bit I’ve seen before.  Surg really likes her passion, he likes how she goes off talking about those passions, sometimes for hours.  He finds balance in the periods where she needs space.  He doesn’t need her to be there all the time.

My biggest concern is that people might think I’ve created an autistic savant or autistic superhero-type because of her skills with spaceship design.  I don’t think she is.  I think she’s a person who has had little interest or patience in anything else.  It only takes about 3.5 years to be a master of something if you spend all your free time focused on it.  Imagine what an autistic person with a narrow area of interest could do in a lifetime.  And as for savant syndrome, while her area of interest may seem narrow, with a narrow range of skills, she doesn’t really have any of the skillsets commonly associated with the syndrome.  She also has a wide range of subjects she’s proficient in, including: computer programing, physics, chemistry, mechanics, 3D design, among others.

I hope to see more decent and good representation in the future, especially as autistic people are becoming more vocal in their advocacy.  We deserve representation and we deserve to not be treated like we don’t belong at the table.

Discover more from Danielle Forrest | Sci-Fi Romance Author

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