When was the last time you saw a mainstream portrayal of autism?
Confused? Good, now we’re getting somewhere.
Let me elaborate; when you often see a portrayal of autism, be it in a film or television series, they’re often ‘autism-centric’, in which case an autistic condition is at the centre of a plot or plays a significant plot point.
I mean, let’s be honest, how many of these films/shows would you say have ‘mainstream’ appeal? I had a look at autism portrayals as part of Autism Awareness Week (see here) and found that for the most part, many of the films were independent, known in limited circles. We’re not talking Marvel or Star Wars levels of notability. Hell, even I only know about some of those films after a thorough Wikipedia search. Yes, you have a few limited exceptions like Rain Man (always ends up coming back to Rain Man, every time!), but for the most part, autistic portrayals are outside what you’d consider ‘mainstream’. When was the last time you saw an autistic Marvel or DC superhero. (I am aware that David Haller/Legion has autism, but the TV show focuses on his schizophrenia so that doesn’t count!)
But that looks set to change. Media franchises embedded in pop culture have started including autistic characters, often as part of an ensemble in which even though their traits are explored, it is nowhere near the focus that you would expect of films like Rain Man or Mercury Rising that put autism front and centre.
And that’s part of the challenge; putting an autistic character into focus, noting that they have autism without reeling off a clinical description. In short, a piece of popular fiction featuring autism that isn’t about autism. Recent events have revealed a few examples highlighting these changes and a
The first recent example led me on a trip down nostalgia lane; The Power Rangers film. Now I can assure you I saw the film because I was interested in their portrayal of autism and NOT because I wanted to satisfy my 14-year old self.
Did I say 14? I meant… 8. Yes, that’ll do.
Anyway, rebooting and retooling the franchise in various ways, the filmmakers were looking to widen the appeal of the franchise and the characters, expanding the ethnicity, sexualities and hidden conditions. I’m guessing rather than the TV show’s ‘recruiting teenagers with attitude’ (might be a bit spoiled for choice on that one!), they revamped it as ‘recruiting teenagers with issues’.
Billy Cranston the Blue Ranger, played by RJ Cyler is shown and then stated to be on the spectrum. Listen carefully to the wording.
Shown, then stated.
We first meet Billy as he is arranging his pencils in an orderly fashion, which attract the unwanted attention of some bullies (AKA scum of the earth) who label him a freak. When we later see him interact with Red Ranger Jason, he is shown to hate being touched by anyone (yes, a hug can set your teeth on edge), and speaks rapidly in long-winded sentences. Finally, he states that he is on the spectrum and that his mind works differently from others. And that’s it. No one draws any attention to it afterwards. The characters and the audience just take Billy’s character at face value. It’s just Billy being Billy.
We are introduced to certain traits that are applicable to autism, but individual to Billy and give us the briefest of explanations for those traits and that helps us understand Billy without allowing his autism to define him. But we see elements of him overcoming several social barriers, culminating in a heartwarming moment where he returns a hug.
Of all the examples I’ve looked at for this blog, the second one really touched my heart.
When I see a puppet show, I do sometimes end up looking down at some them for what I perceive as clichéd dialogue, but it’s easy for me to forget that small children are the main audience. After all, we can’t watch every TV show expecting the next Breaking Bad(!)
Despite my mum’s insistence that I was a huge fan of Sesame Street, I had little to no knowledge of the programme, requiring a fair bit of background research on the programme. My ears pricked up when I heard that Sesame Street would be introducing an autistic character called Julia on April 10, 2017. Given that Sesame Street has a reputation as an educational programme, I was interested in how Sesame Street would broach the mildly complicated topic of autism to a group of five year-olds. But this is Sesame Street which seldom puts a foot wrong with education. And the fact that Julia was operated by a woman whose son has autism meant that at the very least, they weren’t going to stereotype the condition. I don’t think I can stand another human calculator.
I sat down and watched the 10-minute clip, watching as Julia was very focused in her own little world, focused on her painting which she went about in a delicate manner compared to the finger painting that Elmo and Abby are doing. She is shown to be quite artistic, doesn’t frequently respond to queries, bounces while playing tag, and is easily spooked by loud noises like sirens, being calmed down by her stuffed toy, Fluffster, which is very much a comfort blanket for her to help her cope with anxiety. Not an actual comfort blanket, otherwise I’d be traipsing an entire quilt around wherever I go.
Watching the show’s presenter Allan speaking about her point of view and helping her get involved with her friends, all of which readily accepted her differences. It wasn’t exactly Waterwork City, but I felt quite emotional watching the clip. I have never seen a portrayal of autism targeted at children this young. But for so many children who are likely to be diagnosed around the target audience’s age range, I feel Julia will make a huge difference to them. It made me wish that someone like Julia had been around when I was a kid.
Due to the increased notability the characters of Julia and Billy possess, they have the capacity to reach wider audiences, giving young autistic people a role model that they can look up to, and for younger audiences, better understand their conditions. Both characters are part of an ensemble cast and granted, Power Rangers is one of those superhero wish fulfillments we’re always eternally pining for (the powers, maybe, but personally, I could never get used to the spandex). These two examples still shows people with autism socializing, breaking down barriers. And for some people who are so uncertain of themselves, that’s the biggest reassurance of all. To know that for all their differences and eccentricities, they can still function as part of a social circle.
By the way, in regards to the Marvel comment earlier, that does NOT mean we need to put in a call for Aspie-Man (or Woman) for the net Avengers film(!)