I’ve been thinking a lot about how Autism is reflected on television lately. Not necessarily documentaries or movies based on the subject, but characters with Autism who are part of a bigger cast. Generally, they’re portrayed as the outcasts, the weird-o’s, the freaks. Often, they have nervous tics, exaggerated mannerisms and a unique ability to see through the facade most of us are enshrouded in. And for some reason, it doesn’t bother me.
Two of the biggest Autistic characters in recent years that comes to my mind are Abed, from Community and Gary, from Alphas. I’m not sure if Community has ever come right out and called Abed Autistic (my wife claims they did on the “flashback” episode, but I don’t recall), but it seems rather obvious to me. He’s part of the study group, but separate, constantly lost in his own little world made up of bits and pieces of television, movies and pop culture. Everyone likes him until he goes a little too out there and suddenly, he’s too different and why can’t he be like everyone else? Of course, in the end, he’s right, having subverted the egos and selfishness nobody else even realizes they can’t see through.
Abed is quirky, intelligent and has excellent recall. All of these traits and more made me highly suspicious he was Autistic, before the show runners ever confirmed it.
Gary, on the other hand, is a little more blatant. He’s mentioned he’s Autistic himself several times on the show, even bringing up his CARS score. He’s very much aware he’s different, and he recites it to people, like it’s something that’s been drilled into him by his mother (as a side note, I don’t think they’ve ever made mention of his father; this strikes me as realistic given the number of marriages with Autistic children that end in divorce).
Of course, Alphas is a show about people with unique abilities and Gary’s is that he can see electromagnetic wavelengths, to the point where he can read people’s texts, hack into cameras and generally do all the cool stuff you’d normally expect someone sitting at a computer could pull off (assuming, of course, it’s television). But the rest of the Alphas also have their unique abilities, so it’s really Gary’s Autism that sets him apart. He repeats things several times, hates his food items touching (don’t even try to get him to eat a burrito) and he’s a stickler for things being the way he thinks they need to be.
I’m sure there plenty of parents out there who cringe when they see characters like this on-screen. After all, they’re not an accurate representation of *their* children. They’re certainly not anything like my daughter, Natalie. But the spectrum is so broad, it’s really hard to define. These characters do remind me in more ways than one of a few kids I transport. The kids who are just amazingly smart and who know just about everything there is to know on subjects that interest them. They’re also the kids who don’t mind getting in other people’s faces, asking loud questions and repeating themselves over and over until given a satisfactory answer. In other words, they’re smart, gifted kids, who lack social smarts.
To me, they’re the very definition of the face of Autism (unlike when a waitress looked at my daughter a few years back and said, “She doesn’t look Autistic.”) They’re not as independent as their TV counterparts (although Gary does still live with his mother) and they lack a lot of the scripted charm, but there are some definite similarities. And it’s nice to see Autism portrayed a little more realistically than, say, the movie “Molly” starring Elizabeth Shue (and I say this as a long-time fan; I mean, who *didn’t* want her to be their babysitter back in the day?) I cringe just reading about her portrayal as an Autistic and I fear this is society’s view in general of what a person with Autism is like. Of course, it also has to do with her character becoming *normal*, which is a whole other level of WTF altogether.
I suppose that’s why I welcome Abed and Gary with open arms. They may not be wholly realistic, but they’re much preferable to the alternative. They’re not striving to be normal, but rather, they embrace who they are, unapologetically. When I transport the kids on my bus, I don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed, like I know their parents do (they sometimes ride with their kids and spend the whole time telling them to calm down, be quiet, stop asking questions, etc.). I feel hopeful.
My daughter is five now, and just barely starting to communicate with us. I’ve long since given up on her being Ms. Social Butterfly, but to be able to talk, freely and passionately about something she cares about…that is my dream. When I see these kids, I realize that someday, she might be able to talk to me like that.
It gives me hope. Hope for her future. And when I see these shows, these characters, it gives me hope someday, the general public will have a much better idea of what it means for my daughter to be who she is.
And if they want to believe she has some kind of super power, who am I to argue? 🙂