Representation of Neurodivergence in Media

“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.                                                       

Safer Internet Day

As a millennial, I can say that I have been in two different millennia; that I am part of a generation that is currently the largest demographic; and most impressively, I can tell you that I have seen the days before the Internet and after the Internet and it isn’t all rosy. The Internet has changed the way we live our lives and more importantly, it is changing and evolving at a rapid rate. Sometimes, even the younger ‘Internet’ generation is caught off-guard with new innovations. Gone are the days when the Internet was restrained to computers and hand-held devices. From everyday kitchen items like microwave ovens, fridges to lighting, air-conditioning and even the plumbing, showers and taps are now ‘smart’. Each of these innovations has been enabled by the Internet and has already been adopted into our lives without realising any of the potential risks involved. How can we ensure a Safer Internet in this environment of rapidly evolving risks? The answer is to practice the key aspects of our basic defence to any unknown risk – Awareness, Mindfulness and Literacy. 

 

We have become so conditioned to instant gratification, that most of our everyday actions are to satisfy a need without ever analyzing the potential risks involved. True, the possibility of facing the risk might be low but having never even considered it in the first place can make us severely ill-equipped to handle a situation. We scroll through pages of privacy agreements without ever perusing a single sentence and accept the risks. We use delivery services without realizing the demeaning conditions and the meagre pay that workers are dealt on a daily basis. We support causes on social media that are trending for meme-worthy reasons and never factually analyze the situation. This is because we never ask the hard-hitting questions. “Who are the people behind the screens that are affected by your actions?”, “How are they affected?”, “Why is this important?”. Becoming aware of the effects of your actions on the Internet is the first step to ensuring a safer Internet.

 

Since technology is advancing at a faster rate than our ability to handle or fully grasp the risks, properly educating yourself and others can seem like an onerous and uphill task. As part of my course on Computer Networks, the professor used the analogy of mail to explain how the Internet works. It is a little difficult to use this with your children, who don’t know about post offices and mail in the first place but my point is that stories and examples are great tools to get started. Use exercises such as tracing the data from your smart device to how a request is satisfied, giving great detail to where the data is processed and how. This can gradually lead to a conversation about the privacy of data and the risk of exploitation.  

 

… That brings me to my next point, having open conversations. Putting in place child-locks, restricting the use of the Internet or taking away their phones might seem to cull the problem but only until an alternative that you haven’t thought about springs out. Having the conversation about the risks can alleviate and help children try to understand the reason behind your protective measures. It is always advisable to have the requisite protection in place. As teens, young adults or adults, ensure that children are protected against malicious content, disclosure of details to anonymous persons, porn and content which is violent or disturbing. Most devices allow you to parse the data through a firewall and it is money well-spent to invest on an Internet firewall software system for your home.

For the young users of the Internet, nothing can seem more validating than to be part of an Internet trend. However, know the import of your actions before posting a harsh hate comment, sharing negative content or generally promoting online abuse. Know that it is never okay to hurt someone or to be rude. Anonymity is a double-edged sword. Online abuse can happen to anyone and hiding behind a blank profile makes the comments no less hurtful. Do not take part in online hate culture. Be respectful, Look to the positive, Collaborate, Create and share positive content, Build up others. It is important to realize that critique can also be kind and respectful.

There are many other ways to promote a Safer Internet. Bring the conversation to the physical world. Create awareness campaigns and get policy and decision makers involved. Campaign for institutions and government alike to invest on fostering a Safer Internet. The risks of the Internet sure are multi-pronged and more dangerous than ever. Perhaps, not unlike a mythical creature of yore, the Hydra, which sprouted five heads in the place of one cut off. While the task of providing a Safer Internet might seem Herculean, it is not impossible as long as we remember and practise the greatest tools at our disposal – awareness, mindfulness and literacy.

Exploring Media and Mental Health

The world can seem to be really cruel sometimes. Nothing might go your way and the things and circumstances that we experience might make us believe that nothing good will ever cross our paths again. Discussing openly about the demons that we fight takes a lot of courage and vulnerability and it is a hard thing to do. However, sharing the pain would ultimately sought to only do more good to us. Awareness about various mental health issues is also a need of the hour and a key aspect of exploring mental health issues and its reach is through media. There is absolutely no doubt that media has the biggest influence and reach today. Everything from entertainment to information is at the click of a button and with it comes the problem of regulation. With regards to mental health issues, there is a slow rise in shows and movies that explore them yet there is always the question of if they are being portrayed the right way. A lot of thought and delicacy has to be put into making these shows and movies that will ultimately be shown to a large audience. Responsibility must be taken by those who write the script so that the issues sought to break the taboo of talking about mental health and breaking the stigma surrounding it rather than just using them as a commercial marketing gimmick. So this week leading up to the Suicide Prevention Day on September 10th, we hope to explore some of the aspects of modern pop culture that have portrayed mental health issues. Some of the content might contain Trigger Warnings so please be aware of them. Do take the time to read through them and let us know of your own thoughts on how and if modern pop culture does its job of dealing with mental health issues well. 

 

The Romanticization of Mental Health

I want to kill myself is pretty much the response to every slightest inconvenience that happens in a day of the life of the current generation. Talking about Mental Health to parents is still an ‘awkward’ topic for discussion and very few people attempt to even take a chance to start a dialogue about it with their parents. So, that leaves people with only a few options when it comes to looking into and searching about mental health issues, and at the top of it is social media. 

The wide social media presence of today is not a joke. Social media platforms act as tools to get to know a person’s life; their likes and dislikes, their opinions on every issue, where they are and what they’re up to at the moment. And amongst all these bombardments of information on social media platforms about friends, family, celebrities and events, over the years, the awareness with regards to mental health has also increased but has managed to give room to a lot of myths and misconceptions.

The worst of everything is that nowadays, the idea of romanticising depression, anxiety and other mental health issues is trending.

How? As humans feeling of belongingness is one of our primary needs, it is always better to be in the company of people who feel the same way as we do, to connect. But, here’s the thing. Are we sharing the stigma?

We are finding an increasing amount of content on social media, of normalising mental health issues to the point where these issues have become “slangs” and everyday words to express dramatic exasperations. And the result, the slowly accrued seriousness and awareness built up on mental health issues shatter in a second to being viewed as something normal and unimportant.

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We all know how important and powerful stories can be. Millions of people have found their sense of belonging and community by sharing their stories with the world, stories that others can relate to, stories that others can connect with. So, it is very important to realise that there are many who are battling mental health issues and are struggling to cope up with it and the things we carelessly put out there on social media for the world to see, can affect those who are genuinely suffering.

Even in films, the supposedly “depressed” and “brooding” character is looked at as being mysterious and attractive as their romantic interest swoop in as cheerful and oblivious people who then go on to “mend” and “fix” the said “brooding” person’s heart as they then ride into the sunset. People do not seem to realise the issue with these stories and films and content. It will only serve to silence those who are actually suffering from mental health issues as they can begin to downplay their suffering and start viewing themselves as being dramatic or worse, silence themselves because others might not take them seriously. It can begin to form a vicious mentality that mental health issues are “normal” and not something to seek help for to feel better and that these issues somehow will make them “special” to stand apart from others.

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Suffering from mental health issues is not a joke and is not attractive.

It’s planning for your best friend’s surprise birthday party for a week and not wanting to leave your bed on that day. It’s in the gloomy weather when you thought you’d feel peaceful if you travelled alone away from the crowd, but end up sobbing in front of strangers solemnly because they’ll never know or ask you what your problem is. It’s when someone compliments you, tells you that you look pretty, but how you find every flaw in your body each day before you step out of your house. It’s a beautiful family dinner with all your loved ones sharing jokes, revisiting the memories, escaping busy, restless lives and just once, just once the memory of you before depression flashes and how you silently feel your heart sinking amongst the laughter, controlling your tears. It’s when you find someone you really admire, but secretly punish yourself because you know you’ll not be good enough and doubt they’ll also leave. It’s about how you tell yourself each day it’ll get better because it always does, but slowly get exhausted because of how awfully long it is. It’s the disappointment that shakes your world and opens a door of gazillion questions asking if you were ever good enough. It’s always about needing a mask but never wanting to wear it again.
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I’m not trying to underestimate or belittle anyone’s feelings or experience BUT it’s very important for us to understand the level of intensity about the words you’re referring to.

1) Feeling anxious does not mean you have anxiety.

2) Feeling sad, low, dull does not mean you’re suffering from depression.

3) Not wanting to hang out with people, initiate a conversation with friends, enjoying social situations does not mean it’s social anxiety.

4) Panicking or feeling nervous does not mean you’re having a panic attack.

If you feel like you might be genuinely suffering, please do not hesitate to reach out for help and consult a professional to diagnose the condition and get better. But if not, then please do your bit to raise awareness about these issues using your social media platforms but most importantly, do your bit to stop the romanticization of mental health issues.