So Netflix have a new series, Atypical, centred around an autistic teenager. I watched an episode out of morbid curiosity. It did not go well.
It still went slightly better than I imagined it would going in, to be honest. This is a show featuring a neurotypical actor cripping up, with no autistic people involved in the writing, production, or performances. That would, in itself, be an immense demerit on pure “nothing about us without us” grounds, but the problems with the production went further than that.
When questioned about this, the production team started talking about how they’d talked to the parents of autistic people. Not to autistic people themselves, but their parents. Now that in itself is a major problem — our parents *cannot speak for us*, and in many of the most vocal cases, the wishes of parents (that their children be “normal”, that their autism be “cured”) are diametrically opposed to those of autistic people ourselves. Of course there are many parents of autistic people who are nothing but good and caring about their children, and I count many among my friends. But there is nothing at all about being a parent of an autistic person that makes you any better informed about autism than anyone else, and talking to our parents is no substitute for talking to us.
(The argument made that some particularly nonverbal people, especially those with comorbid disorders, can’t talk for themselves has some validity, but doesn’t apply here, as the character in the series presents much the same at age eighteen as I presented at age thirteen or so. Whether one considers the autism that people who are unable to live unassisted, or who have an inability to communicate, qualitatively different from what I have or not, the character here is clearly one who has the same thing I have. And people like me can talk for ourselves.)
But they went further than that, and consulted with UCLA’s Center for Autism Research and Treatment. This is an organisation that views autism entirely in terms of “deficits”, and which brags on its website “Our Milestones: 1960s: Dr. Ivar Lovaas established behavior modification as the first effective treatment for autism.”
To be clear, “behaviour modification” is the exact same thing as “gay cure” therapy — punishing people for behaving in ways which are natural and comfortable to them, until they conform out of fear. Lovaas *tortured* children, giving them electrical shocks for daring not to make eye contact, or for stimming behaviours they used to calm down. Any organisation that considers this “effective treatment” and brags about it on their website is, by definition, not an organisation that anyone should be talking to about autism, or about anything at all.
(And it really *is* the same thing as “gay cure” “therapy”. Lovaas also wrote about his techniques in papers such as Behavioral treatment of deviant sex-role behaviors in a male child and The behavioral treatment of a “transsexual” preadolescent boy, with his colleague George Rekers. To see how well that worked out — and if you’re not triggered by discussions of homophobic/transphobic child abuse and suicide — click here.)
Lovaas was on the UCLA faculty until his death in 2010. His colleagues, the people he trained, the people he was in charge of — those are the people that Atypical chose to consult, rather than involving *any autistic people at all at any level whatsoever*.
Amazingly, given this, Atypical, from the one episode I saw, is *only* horribly offensive and perpetuating negative stereotypes, rather than being some sort of The Eternal Jew-style call for our extermination.
Again, I only saw one episode — I simply couldn’t stomach watching more — but the main character is defined solely by his autism. He has no characteristics other than autistic ones. To be fair to the series, those autistic characteristics are rather accurately portrayed, as far as they go — he has a special interest which he’ll talk about at any opportunity without realising he’s boring people, he isn’t very good at understanding non-verbal social cues, he has sensory processing issues which mean loud rooms are bad for him, he insists on 100% cotton clothing because anything else makes him uncomfortable and he has other sensory issues, he is extremely honest, and he goes into unnecessary detail in explaining things to people. He gets words stuck in his head, going round and round. These are all traits I recognise from myself, especially at his age.
But that’s *all* there is to him. He’s a collection of autistic traits without a person to hold them together. And this is a problem for a few reasons.
Firstly, his special interests are scientific in nature, and this is in itself a stereotype. I am, personally, a white cis male autistic person who had scientific special interests as a teenager, but not every autistic person is me. One of the reasons autism goes undiagnosed in women is that their special interests often tend in a different direction, and the media stereotype of autistic people isn’t seen to apply. (Honestly, Elle from Legally Blonde, with her special interest in fashion and law, seems to me like a perfect example of an autistic woman in fiction, though it’s been sixteen years since I saw the film so may be misremembering).
Autistic teen white boys who like technology and biology (in this character’s case, especially penguins) are boring. Why not an autistic black girl with a special interest in literature?
Then there’s the more disturbing aspect — the series is set up to be about his desire to have sex, and in the first episode we see him following PUA advice and “negging” women, as well as unthinkingly lashing out at one who touches him. These are both, in themselves, not implausible, but I think they were at the very least unwise. They were played as being understandable mistakes for the “character” (such as he is) to make.
The problem is, behaviour very like that but for wildly different motives is often excused, especially in nerd/geek spaces, on the grounds that the perpetrator may be autistic, even though the vast majority of the time he isn’t. This show *will* lead to more people being persuaded that it would be ableist to complain about harassment, stalking, or abuse, even though it really, *really* isn’t.
(Quick way to tell the difference — an autistic person may behave in an inappropriate or harmful way out of ignorance of unwritten social rules, but if told their behaviour is inappropriate or harmful, *will be mortified and stop*. If they don’t stop, that’s not because they are autistic, it’s because they’re an abusive prick. Of course, some autistic people are *also* abusive pricks, but in my experience the proportion is rather lower than among neurotypicals, not higher.)
But the biggest problem is the whole tone of the show.
It’s a semi-serious family sitcom, no different in tone or style from a million 90s US network sitcoms like Malcolm In The Middle. But the scenes with any members of the family *other* than the central “character” are played as straight.
There are only two sources of comedy in the whole thing. One is the main character’s workmate, who is “humorously” open about his sex life. The other is the main character getting things about the neurotypical world wrong, and upsetting either himself or the people around him. And in every one of these scenes, we’re meant to be laughing at, not with, the main character. Ho ho he has to use noise-cancelling headphones when on a date in a noisy room, because assistive devices are funny. Ha ha other people judge him for laughing to himself on the bus and having an odd posture, because accidentally forgetting to comform to other people’s judgmentalism for a moment is a bad thing. Hee hee he smiles too broadly at a woman and scares her off because he looks creepy, because someone failing to put on a perfect imitation of someone with a fundamentally different neurology is something that deserves mockery.
This must be that famous neurotypical empathy I’m told so much about.
And the thing is, you *could* do a really, really, *really* good piece of comedy about an autistic person in a neurotypical world, *by having the neurotypical people be the funny ones*. With an autistic character you could easily point out all the absurdities of everyday life that most people don’t notice. There is a huge amount of stuff that is taken for granted that is utterly nonsensical, on every level of society, and having a character who doesn’t understand those things could point out their absurdity. It would be a perfect lens through which to do a whole range of comedy, from observational comedy to social satire. It would be easy to write an autistic character who combined a genuine lack of understanding of social conventions with a sort of Tricksterishness — part Groucho Marx or Bugs Bunny, causing everything around them to collapse, while they remain a calm centre.
But that would involve treating autism as a perfectly valid mode of existence, rather than doing something that’s half-way between a freak show and Mr. Magoo — except that at least Mr. Magoo had a certain naive honesty about it and just freely admitted it was mocking a disabled person, rather than trying to pretend it had some redeeming social qualities and was an “important” piece of work.
There are autistic writers in the world (I am one). There are autistic actors. And these are careers in which autistic people are disabled by society, because more than most jobs they rely on networking, self-promotion, and other skills autistic people lack. So if you want to make TV about us, fucking hire us and let us tell our own stories. Don’t make a freakshow featuring a neurotypical cripping up, ask people who are proud of their involvement in torturing minority kids with electric shocks to give you advice, and then look for ally cookies.
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I recently wondered whether an aspie tele(m)path could make an interesting central character – knowing what someone else is thinking/feeling but not understanding those thoughts/feelings in the same way …
Is that an idea that might appeal to you, as either reader or writer ?
No. Two reasons. Firstly, because it would almost certainly be written by a neurotypical and would thus end up having all the problems that every neurotypical depiction of autism does.
Secondly, though, autism is a communication disorder, not a disorder of comprehension. The problem we have isn’t that we don’t think or feel the same way, but that we don’t read the signals the same way (and neurotypicals don’t read ours). It’s a sensory thing to do with how we parse visual and auditory information, not to do with the emotions themselves. So if you gave an autistic person telepathic powers, that immediately removes the interpersonal disability aspects altogether — it would effectively remove the autism as far as relating to people goes (the character would still have other autistic traits, but not the interpersonal ones), and so it would be self-defeating as far as the point of the idea goes…