Autism in the Media
The text book definition of autism is a mental condition, present from early childhood, characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts. But what does that mean? Do we have a clear understanding of this problem? We may look to media to show us how a autistic person is "supposed" to act or feel. Is this a accurate picture of them, and can we group them all together in one group? Lets explore this issue together.
To understand if the media is portraying autism in a positive or negative light, you first have to know the symptoms or characteristics associated with this. The Autism diagnosis is often describe by being on the spectrum, almost like a umbrella. People who are diagnosed with autism may experience some or all these symptoms. Symptoms my include but not limited to; problems sleeping, repetitive behaviors, not making eye contact, poor social skills, poor boundaries, not understanding others feelings or opinions, sensory issues and many more. Again, where every person who has autism is different not one person experiences everything the same and may not ever experience some of these issues.
"Rain Man" was released in 1988. The character in this movie has a hard time putting a whole sentence together. He rambles off some facts here and there, but nothing really resembling a whole sentence. But, yet he can remember everything he read in the phone book. This characteristic may be true for some people who have autism but this is not a true statement for someone who is high functioning. This would give you the idea that every autistic person is the same and they all must act like that.
Autistic children in movies are sometimes depicted as being crazy and needing to be in a hospital. People did not understand what made these individuals act or look different. People tend to be afraid of different. In the movie trailer below for "Under The Piano" it shows the mom not understanding what to do with the child, and the sister wanting to take care of her. The mom did not understand the talents the child had. Whats so interesting about this movie is it was released in 1995. That was only 23 years ago. How could movies portray autism like this in the 90's but only few years later start to make these individuals look so different now.
People who have autism sometimes have a very hard time when change happens. When people think of this they normally think of the scene below where Max from the show "Parenthood" has a meltdown. Now this may be true for most people who have autism. Change is hard for anyone. Not every child or person for that matter acts in this manner though when something gets change suddenly. It does have a positive side to it, for families that do live like this. It shows the world what they experience everyday. However the negative side is what if your child does not act this way when they don't get what they want. This now tells the world that if you are autistic child, who does not get their own way then you will have a huge meltdown, and be uncontrollable.
The media also focuses on the inability of autistic people communicating their feelings clearly. Yes some of these people have a hard time communicating their feelings, but that does not mean they can't. In this scene from The Good Doctor. it shows the doctor getting really upset that he can not find the words to communicate his feelings. He hits his head repeatedly and runs away. This gives the impression that all autistic people cause bodily harm to themselves because they lack the skills to communicate. Although people in general have a hard time communicating the needs and wants and there's no movies of "normal people" acting this way. This again reinforces the idea that autistic people are uncontrollable.
A very positive characteristic for people who have autism is the ability to see things differently. In this scene from "The Good Doctor" it shows the doctor solving the problem that none of the other doctors could. Most autistic people have an remarkable memory. Which comes in handy for this doctor because he remembers everything hes ever read. I think this is one of the few characteristics associated with this disability that is not negative. However if they always highlight how smart these individuals are why is there such a stigma attached to the word autism. Why are we not celebrating their wonderful gift of memory.
Another character trait that media focus on is autistic people not liking to be touch. That is not necessarily true. Touching has to do with how your body interrupts sensory signals. This is different for all autistic people. Some people are sensory seekers, meaning they need to be touch to calm them down, and others are sensory avoiders meaning, they avoid being touch at all cost. This however is a normal characteristic for anyone. Not everyone likes to be hug or touch anyways. So why is this never highlighted in regular movies about regular people. Media also tends to show the worst cast scenario. They show someone flipping out like in this scene of " Grey's Anatomy" when someone hugs her.
One thing media loves to highlight is a conflict. I guess if there was no conflict then no one would watch it. Autistic people have a hard time with social interactions. in the movie "The Accountant" they highlight how the main character has a hard time making friends. In the movie trailer below for "the Accountant" it explains how he would like to make friends but does not know how. This is probably true for most autistic people. They sometimes have a hard time communicating with people in a appropriate manner. But, again this character trait is true for most "normal people" what makes them so different.
One thing that is true for any type of media is, it needs conflict, or no one would watch, read or listen to it. With that said, it makes sense why media highlights these problems in movies. This does not make it right just understandable. Media could do a whole lot better portraying these individuals. I have a son who is autistic and I can tell you from personal experience my son does not look like any of these examples, except for the memory, but i'm going to say that was good genes not his disability. This like normal kids he learns to adapt to the world around him by his family and his peers. He has some hard days and some easy day but everyday is not a battlefield the way media would make you think it is. He is kind and loving and can emphasize with you and feels what you do. Which I never see that highlighted in any show focusing on autism. I believe we as a society can do better, in trying to understand this disability and not look to media for our answers. Media can do better by showing are more diverse symptoms of this disability. We all could do better understanding each other.