“If you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism”
This is a common saying when talking about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), precisely the reason why it’s known to be a spectrum; different people experience the symptoms in different ways. But when it comes to the media, movies and tv shows, is it represented the way it should be?
Imagine the last time you saw a character with Autism in a movie or tv show, it could be the character of Shaun Murphy on ‘The Good Doctor’, Sam Gardner on ‘Atypical’, or even Sheldon Cooper on ‘The Big Bang Theory’ (although the writers have never confirmed it). Now, most people would think that this is amazing, that having positive representations of Autism would be a good thing, but is it really?
The answer is neither in black nor white.
When we first think about Autism, we think of characters who are socially awkward, avoid eye contact, maybe are hypersensitive to stimuli, but at the same time are all geniuses in their field. However, only around 10% of people with autism have Savant abilities. Every person on the spectrum experiences it differently, some might be verbal, some non-verbal; some might be able to mask their symptoms well, while some might not. It doesn’t reduce the impact that Autism has on their lives. And the problem is, while one side of it is represented, calling for stories and dramatization, a whole other side of it isn’t.
Even though Sheldon is never confirmed to be Autistic, why does everyone categorize him as being on the spectrum? Why do we think so, when it is not really accurate? Well, for most people, exposure to Autism comes only from the media and we associate the stereotypes portrayed in the media with our belief systems about Autism. The more number of times a character is portrayed with the above-mentioned attributes, the more these beliefs are strengthened and voila! People now have a fixed perception about Autism.
While media representation can help end stigma and can lead to a positive attitude about Autism, it can also have negative effects, such as propagating stereotypes and inaccuracies.
Yes, this might not be a deliberate move, but in the whole process, it can make people who, “Don’t look like they have Autism”, difficult to access services and care, when in reality, they might just be better at masking the difficulties that they have. This causes them a lot of stress and anxiety. Even parents may ignore symptoms that their child has, just because they don’t display these stereotypical behaviours. This becomes a classic case of, ‘good intention, bad execution’ and, ‘negative effect’.
So what can be done? Do we stop portraying neurodivergent characters altogether?
Well, no. First things first, film makers and scriptwriters must talk to the people that they want to represent; those on the spectrum. The neurodivergent community has been asking for accurate representation for a very long time, and according to them, neurotypical (individuals who do not have a diagnosis of Autism or any other developmental disorder) actors portraying neurodivergent traits reduces something so complex, nuanced, and beautiful, into a trait that anyone can imitate on screen, which isn’t the right thing to do. Also, if we look closely, there are close to no female characters with Autism being represented. This is a result of a deeper phenomenon (Our article coming out next week, explores this in greater detail.)
The argument that might rise is, ‘Hey, isn’t it only acting?’
Yes, but it must be kept in mind that while the community is having positive representation in the media, they are still being portrayed through a neurotypical lens. They are also constantly being left out of opportunities and underrepresented in real life. Disability has a 2% representation rate in the popular media, and out of that tiny figure, only 5% of disabled characters are played by disabled actors. So in the long run, isn’t this doing more harm than good?
Filmmakers and scriptwriters must understand the responsibility that they have and the impact that their films can make, and realize that having large audiences that watch them having a neurodivergent character just for the sake of token diversity and comic relief, won’t work. Stories need not be dramatic but that doesn’t mean that everything must be an educational booklet about Autism. Creativity in human beings is limitless and beyond boundaries, and the right stories can definitely be told in the way that they deserve to be.