Opinion: Why accurate representation of autism is so important in film, TV

Photo courtesy of Variety

Story by Dakota Green / Contributing Writer 

It’s April 2, which means that it is once again Autism Awareness Day. In honor of the annual and internationally recognized observance, it is important to reflect on the topic of autism with a form of communication we all know pretty well: movies and TV.

In that respect, we’ve seen some major progress recently for the autistic community. “Sesame Street” officially premiered the introduction of Julia, their first autistic character. “Power Rangers” became the first blockbuster film to feature an autistic superhero. And shows such as ABC’s “The Good Doctor” and Netflix’s “Atypical” feature autistic leads, showcasing life for people with autism.

It’s weird when you think about it. Back in 1989, “Rain Man,” a film about a man who discovers he has an autistic savant brother, was released and later won Best Picture at the 61st Academy Awards. Dustin Hoffman played Raymond, the autistic brother, and even earned the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal. Audiences had a story about a man and his autistic brother bonding and being happy that they are brothers. It’s interesting to see how far we’ve come.

Hoffman’s portrayal of an autistic character definitely broke some ground, but over time, I think too many people completely associate the character with autism as a whole. It’s not the worst thing in the world, especially since there are many autistic people on Raymond’s side of the spectrum. But that’s the thing: it is a spectrum.

Too often, I think people associate autism with those who are low-functioning and non-verbal, which is ironically the minority of those diagnosed with autism. Most of us are high-functioning, and yes, I mean “us,” as I am on the spectrum as well. More specifically, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. The long and the short of it is that I have difficulty in social conversations. I ramble on about certain subjects. I miss verbal and nonverbal cues from other people in conversations, and I don’t always catch humor or sarcasm.

I was diagnosed at age 11, and I didn’t really know what that meant back then. Now that I’m older and wiser about my condition, I am in strong support of autism awareness, a lot of which I think comes from how autism is portrayed in film and television.

In a time where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 68 children are on the spectrum, I think that there is a better understanding of autism now than in 1989 when “Rain Man” came out.

A show that contains an example of how far we’ve come is “Girl Meets World.” In the second season episode “Girl Meets I Am Farkle,” one of the show’s main characters, Farkle Minkus, is confirmed as a genius by a school IQ test. But upon further testing, he and his friends discover that he may have Asperger’s syndrome, to which they react in disbelief. One of Minkus’ friends even tries to affirm that he doesn’t have it. However, his friends do some research on Asperger’s syndrome and find that he showcases many of the traits. Despite their attempts to say that Minkus doesn’t have Asperger’s, Minkus tells them they have to accept that he may indeed be on the spectrum.

I feel that this is important for a reason. Aside from the fact that a show aimed at pre-teens on the Disney Channel is doing a good job addressing the issue, the reaction to the possibility of Minkus having Asperger’s is notable. Upon initial viewing, I felt that Minkus’ friends were trying to affirm that nothing was wrong with their friend since they do not want a label attached to him. However, it was pointed out to me that it’s also possible that the reaction was due to the stigma that surrounds autism. It’s never directly stated what the intention was, but it is worthy of notice.

What’s also worthy of notice is that Minkus is not diagnosed with Asperger’s. This asserts that it doesn’t matter whether or not he was diagnosed, since, as Minkus puts it, “I am Farkle.” However, it turns out that a friend/rival of Minkus’, Isadora Smackle, is on the spectrum, with her diagnosis of Asperger’s being discovered at age five. Smackle only reveals this when Farkle and the others directly ask her about it. Despite this, they all show support and compassion for her, as should be the case.

Personally, I feel that “Rain Man,” despite its good portrayal of autism, unintentionally helped increase the stigma. However, whereas the connection between “Rain Man” and stigma was completely unintentional, some portrayals are so inaccurate and even offensive that it seems pushing the stigma was all that was ever going to be accomplished.

To that end, let me introduce you to Sugar Motta, a recurring character on the popular musical comedy-drama series “Glee.” From the first line she said, I knew there was going to be a problem. Her first line is just obnoxious and rude. However, her excuse for her comment is inappropriate and, I would dare say, horribly offensive. Her excuse is that she has “self-diagnosed Asperger’s,” which she claims lets her say whatever she wants without consequence. She even follows up some of her obnoxious comments with the phrase, “Sorry, Asperger’s.”

When I first saw this scene in 2011, I felt offended. This fantasy she’s created about Asperger’s is not only inaccurate, it is deeply offensive to those of us who are diagnosed with Asperger’s. The worst part is that all it would have taken for me to forgive the scene, even just a little, would have been for someone to explain that’s not at all what Asperger’s is. The idea that this character creates is that self-diagnosing yourself with Asperger’s will let you get away with being obnoxious and rude. This doesn’t even consider that the whole issue of Asperger’s is difficulty in social situations, and many, myself included, want to improve that. Personally speaking, it’s the thing about my Asperger’s that I hate the most.

This was a humongous misstep for the show. It seemed completely out of place for the show to have that attitude, especially given how much of the show speaks positively on progressive issues, such as the LGBT community. For them to push this stereotype, whether the intention was to do something with it later on or not, was mind-boggling.

The trait of “self-diagnosed Asperger’s” was dropped pretty quickly, as it was never mentioned again after the season’s fourth episode. However, this was a missed opportunity and a failed chance to rectify the mistake. They could have done a subplot where Sugar actually learns what being on the spectrum is like.

I loved this show when that episode aired. It was my favorite TV show. For the show to display an offensive portrayal of a neurological disorder that I have felt like a slap in the face.

Therefore, the story in “Girl Meets I Am Farkle” is one that tries to understand what it’s like to be on that spectrum. Sugar Motta’s trait of “self-diagnosed Asperger’s” is one that acted as an offensive stereotype and something of a slap in the face to those, like me, who are on the spectrum and loved the show. This is why I push for better portrayals of autism. I don’t want to see more Sugar Motta characters. I want to see more “I Am Farkle” stories.

This is why I am happy about the inclusion of an autistic character on “Sesame Street.” For this character, the team behind the show worked with experts and organizations to determine what traits to showcase. They created the character with the understanding that there is no one definitive story for autism, but that you can help children learn to spot the traits in others and learn how to work with them. To take it a step further, Julia’s performer is a mother to an autistic child.

Coincidentally, the same week that Julia’s introduction to the show was announced, “Power Rangers” made history in the film industry by becoming the first blockbuster film to feature an autistic superhero, Billy Cranston, the Blue Ranger. This is an especially good choice since the color for autism awareness is blue.

In the film, when Billy reveals that is he is autistic to his new “friend,” Jason Scott, Billy describes it as being on the spectrum. Jason then makes a joke about the spectrum being a workout program, but Billy doesn’t catch it. When Jason says that it was a joke, Billy says that’s pretty much the point. Billy explains that he doesn’t always catch the humor or sarcasm that others use in conversation. It’s not a perfect summation, but it’s not that bad. The rest of the movie has him showcasing certain autistic tics: a desire for some kind of order, a dislike of physical contact, talking to himself, rambling, etc.

The film tackles the little tics that many of us with autism do without realizing and shows how having friends can help people overcome some of those tics. Trust me when I say that I speak from experience. Making friends and working with others can do so much good for someone with autism.

Last year the Autism Society of America announced the first annual Autism Film Festival, or AutFest. The film festival is meant to be dedicated to films about autism or films made by autistic filmmakers. The festival gave out special honors to Ben Affleck for his performance in “The Accountant” as Christian “Chris” Wolff, a character with high-functioning autism, and to Pixar Animation Studios filmmakers Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera for their work on the 2015 film “Inside Out.” The animated film was praised by the autism community for helping families have conversations with their children about emotions. This year, honors will also be given to two shows that feature autistic leads: ABC’s “The Good Doctor” and Netflix’s “Atypical.”

The Autism Society of America’s website announcement regarding AutFest reads,

“AutFest International Film Festival’s mission is to further advance the well-being of all with an autism diagnosis, as well as to educate our nation about autism and the important need to fully respect and value each person with autism. We wish to celebrate films that promote autism awareness and that have the power to enhance the lives of our community. We also wish to honor and support Autistic filmmakers and artists that have chosen film as their profession.”

Personally, I think this is a good step forward. We don’t see that many films featuring autistic characters, let alone films about autism. I honestly can’t even name that many filmmakers on the autism spectrum. I think that this will do a lot of good for the autism community.

From the offensive Sugar Motta stereotypes to the more accurate portrayals in “Power Rangers” or “Rain Man,” there is still a lot of room for further representation. With Julia now showing up on “Sesame Street,” I think we’ll see an even bigger step forward in autism awareness. We need the support now more than ever. There’s always going to be people who don’t understand what being autistic is actually like. We can’t stop ignorance. What we can do is get the population more informed about what it’s actually like. We’re not all Rain Man, but we’re not all Billy or Julia either. It’s called a spectrum for a reason. Every case is different in its own way.

It’s not a disease. It’s nothing to be ashamed of anymore. When we have beloved actors like Ed Asner, Joe Mantegna and Sylvester Stallone, who are all parents to autistic children, helping to spread awareness and beloved filmmakers like actor-writer Dan Aykroyd, who is on the spectrum, there is nothing to be ashamed about. So, join us in the autistic community or those connected to the autistic community by helping raise awareness. Keep raising awareness for autism. The more we know, the better we can all become.

This is an opinion, written from the perspective of the writer and does not reflect the views of Sidelines or MTSU.

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To contact Editor-in-Chief Brinley Hineman, email editor@mtsusidelines.com.

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  1. […] assistant news editor, I’ve edited a lot of stories throughout the semester. Here is an opinion piece that I edited for. One change I made was changing what was originally “Asperger’s […]

  2. April 21, 2018

    I’m utterly confused by this article and wonder if you’ve connected closely with the #actuallyautistic community yet? AutistFest is NOT supported by us — or good doctor or many of the things you say don’t seem like you’ve found your people yet. Please look up #lightitupgold and find us. Autism is no a disease, Aspergers is Autism and no longer a dx, beyond the misinformation spread — I’m concerned by this article and some of the flavor of aspie elitism … hope it’s not the case.