Home Diagnosis

Issues

Experience Lifestyle Resources Community Neurodiversity

B-ASS

asperger's syndrome information and features

         

Cause Treatment Cure Discrimination Bullying Gender Crime Media

Introduction

Film

Science Fiction

Drama

Comedy

Soap Opera

News & Documentaries

Introduction

I should start by making clear that this is not going to be a critical analysis of the portrayal of autism in films. Neither will it be a list of every character, real or fictional, who I can think of who seems a bit like an Aspie is some way or other, as fun as that can be. This article is just a summary of some of the various ways that autistic traits have been portrayed in film and television.

I should also say that I am not in any way suggesting that the characters portrayed are realistic or reliable sources of information about what autistic people are like. By and large the media portrayal of autism is highly inaccurate and possibly even damaging in some cases.

I think though that is important to make a distinction between the portrayal of autism and the portrayal of autistic people. Autism the condition is often just part of the plot, and the character has no need of any other sort of personality than the autism itself. People with autistic traits on the other hand (lets remember they are fictional characters and cannot actually go to a doctor for a diagnosis) generally come across a bit better. Sadly, because they do not wear the 'autistic' label, people do not make the connection.

Film and television are art and entertainment, and I don't think it will ever be an easy task to use them to raise autism awareness and tolerance of neurodiversity, even if anyone ever takes the job on. I think for now people will have to get their autism awareness elsewhere.

Film

Apart from the small number of films (mostly movies made for television) that are based on true stories or which have the 'autism is a tragedy' agenda, most of the time autistic children usually only appear when the plot requires an innocent who is withdrawn, gifted, and difficult, and autistic adults only appear when they need someone who is retarded. Films featuring recognised autistic characters have not been abundant with role models for autistic people.

The film about autism which everybody can name of course is Rain Man. While based on a true story, the character of Raymond is far from average, if there is such a thing. A lot of autistic people can identify with certain aspects of the film, but just as many dislike it because, despite raising autism awareness considerably, it has left a lot of people thinking that is what we are all like. What Rain Man does have going for it though is it breaks the mould. For a start it features an adult, where the vast majority of autistic characters in film and television are children. Also, it does not spread the myth that autism is caused by emotional trauma and can be miraculously cured or recovered from, which sadly is something that a lot of films have done.

More recently, as awareness and understanding of autistic spectrum conditions has increased, autistic characters in films have begun to move away from stereotypes and be more than just cynical plot devices. Mozart and the Whale is a comedy/drama based on the true love story of an Asperger's couple from Arizona. One of them is a Math Savant and the other is a Music Savant, and the story is about the relationship difficulties having Asperger's causes. Snow Cake is the story of an adult high functioning autistic woman and the friendship she develops with the man who was driving the car her daughter was killed in during a road accident while hitchhiking.

There can also be characters that are never called autistic, and who the writer never thought of as autistic, but who have so many autistic traits that autistic people can identify with them. They can take one of two forms... they can either be a real person with a very autistic personality, or they can be a fantasy creature or being which is symbolic of the autistic personality, like a robot or an alien. Because these characters are so usually by their very natures at odds with the world, the plot usually ends one of two ways... Either the autistic personality changes to fit in with the world (i.e.. dies, hides away, or gets over their 'problems'), or the world and the audience comes to accept the autistic personality and what they have to offer, the latter being by far the rarer of the two outcomes.

Science Fiction

Science fiction is a genre popular with a great many Aspies. Virtually any story that involves an alien struggling to fit in with human society is something we can identify with. It's a popular plot, and one that is used time and time again.

Star Trek is the best example to give, having presented many such characters over the years. The alien race of Vulcan's, (who we were first introduced to through Spock in the original series), are serious and logical and favour the control and mastery of emotion. While they have to make an effort to get along with humans, they are accepted for what they are and have no need to change. The more recent android Data and cyborg Seven of Nine on the other hand are supposed to be learning to be me more 'human'. I think this shows how attitudes in society have changed over the decades, going from an acceptance of the diversity that benefits society to demanding that everyone strive to achieve this invented, fantasy ideal of what it means to be human.

Drama

The Lost Prince was recently shown for the first time on the BBC. It is based on the true story of Prince John, who was autistic and epileptic, and hidden away from his family and the public. We witness his life against the back drop of the First World War and it's impact on the Royal Houses of Europe. It is very good in that it celebrates his life and very sad in that he dies at the end. That can't be helped of course because it's what really happened, but I really hope it doesn't add to people thinking that all autistic people die before they reach adulthood. That view is already too common.

In the Children's drama series Grange Hill, based in a secondary school, there was a character called Martin diagnosed with Asperger's's Syndrome. I never saw it though so I can't comment on what the portrayal was like.

Comedy

I read somewhere that Rowan Atkinson based Mr Bean on an autistic relative of his. Frank Spencer of 'Some Mother's Do 'Ave 'Em' is a similar character, as are Alan Partridge, Rimmer from Red Dwarf, and Gordon Brittas from the Brittas Empire. I laugh at them as much as anybody does, but I don't like to think about it too much or risk being reminded that these awful people are often exaggerations of the way I can be sometimes. Having said that, all comedy characters are exaggerations of some type of person or other. exaggerated neurotypical characteristics are funny too. I think everybody should be able to laugh at themselves.

US detective show 'Monk - Obsessive Compulsive Detective' could also fall in to this category. Adrian Monk is a cop who we are told was always a bit 'odd' but who has become obsessive compulsive since his wife was murdered. If there ever was an unidentified Aspie on TV this man is it. His observation skills, his attention to detail, his memory, his unusual way of thinking, his puzzle solving intelligence, his encyclopaedic knowledge of bizarre subjects, and his communication style are not connected to him being OCD after all.

Soap Opera

Roy Cropper from Coronation Street is considered to be very Aspie like by many. First introduced as some kind of creepy pervert, he has come to be presented as a sort of anti-hero over the years, much loved by other 'residents' of the street. Personally though I fear the day his transsexual partner Hailey announces to him she thinks he has Asperger's syndrome, if that day ever comes, because then the anorak wearing, plastic bag carrying, creepy weirdo image will be with us forever.

News & Documentaries

Autism news stories are nearly always about research into causes, people fighting for autism services, or autistic people who have committed crimes. A few years ago they were still referring to autism as a childhood disease, but thankfully this sort of thing has improved considerably lately. In the UK I am sure this is largely down to the efforts of the National Autistic Society, who provide a very good guide for journalists on their website... What to say (and not to say) about autism.

Documentaries covering autism come along every now and again. I can only comment on those I have seen on British television.

The latest offering has been from Channel 4, and was part of a series of human interest stories called 'Only Human'. The episode about autism was rather offensively titled 'Make Me Normal'. The program featured a small selection of pupils from Spa School, one of Britain's largest state schools for autistic children, and they expressed themselves very well and did a really good job of trying to explain to people what it is like being autistic. I think the program makers however failed to produce something that was fair, balanced, or representative, and made little or no attempt to explain to viewers what they were being shown or to put it into context. With conditions like autism and Asperger's syndrome that are so easily misunderstood when taken at face value, it is simply not adequate to lazily string together a few emotive images to the sound of someone beating out a playschool tune on the xylophone. Basically I think they missed an opportunity here and I was very disappointed.

The Autism Puzzle has been shown at least a couple of times on the BBC in the UK. It looks at autism from the earliest days of its classification right through to the more recent classification of Asperger's Syndrome and current research. It is interesting, but I didn't enjoy it. I felt the whole thing was the televisual equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders. The programme makers clearly just wanted to have a whine about autism and passed over several opportunities to say anything constructive or positive. I may be judging it too harshly, I'm prepared to admit that, but I've watched it twice and it has made me feel this way both times.

More recently the BBC put out My Family and Autism, which was in my opinion one of the best pieces of programming on autism that there has been. It focuses on Luke Jackson and his large family... all his brothers have some form of autism. It is aimed at and for the benefit of a neurotypical audience I think though. Maybe it is because I am autistic, but I get no pleasure from watching human interest stories presented in that way that NT's like. They bore me because they are low on facts and information. Despite that though I can appreciate that it has been put together thoughtfully and intelligently and makes no claims to be anything it is not. In that sense I think it is balanced and not misleading, so this would be the documentary I would recommend above all others I have seen so far.

What I think would be good to see in the future would be a programme for autistic people presented and put together by autistic people, covering the news and issues that we would find relevant, talking to us and not about us. There was a programme like this on the BBC for deaf people, so I don't think it is beyond imagining that autistic people could have something similar.

DVDs available from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk  

Fiction Books available from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Cause Treatment Cure Discrimination Bullying Gender Crime Media
Home Diagnosis

Issues

Experience Lifestyle Resources Community Neurodiversity