AUTISM STEREOTYPES

AUTISM STEREOTYPES IN TV SHOWS AND MOVIES

Many of us might have felt that there’s an increase in the exposure of autism awareness in films and TV shows over the past decade. You might have seen more TV shows and movies that introduce and tackle autism-related scenarios and with it a number of autistic characters that seem to show the viewers what autism really is about. While this is indeed a reason for autism communities and families to be happy and grateful, it isn’t all fun and good if we delve into the deeper context. That’s because most of these flicks and motion pictures are injecting autism stereotypes that are causing a schism in the real plight of people on the spectrum. The sad thing about this is, many viewers, especially children who are more susceptible to mental conditioning, can easily absorb these misconceptions about autism and exercise these wrong beliefs in real life scenarios. If we are not careful and concerned enough in dealing with this issue, we would only encourage the making of bullies and ignorant people in the community. With an upsurge of autism visibility in the media, so must be the corresponding autism awareness that must come from our societies. Eliminating these stereotypes must be our priority to start building a better world for autistic people.

Autistic people have incredible memories.

While there are cases of autistic people with above average human intellect, it must be pointed out that not all persons on the spectrum share this same special characteristic. These exceptional cognitive abilities can manifest in many facets, and that includes having excellent memories. As a matter of fact, what is featured on the films and real-life documentaries are actually rare cases when compared to the overall population of autistic individuals.

The misconception that most autistic people have incredible memories has been fed to people through the media. The British drama series ‘The A Word’ for instance, depicts a typical family whose lives changed after receiving the news that their 5-year old son is diagnosed with autism. In the series, young Joe is seen to be capable of remembering the details of his father’s favourite records, including the lyrics, names of the composers, and even the release dates of each song.

If this extraordinary ability possessed by a few autistic people is being misinterpreted as a common scenario for the whole autistic population by most TV and cinema viewers, it would pose negative implications to every autistic person in the community. It is not hard to think of a scenario where an autistic individual is pressured to impress the people around them with great memory recall, only to end up being ridiculed and belittled if they failed to do so.

Autistic people can’t crack and understand jokes.

This misconception probably stemmed from the more common features of autism in relation to social challenges. People on the spectrum find it difficult to read facial expressions, understand social cues, and follow the intonation of the person speaking and the overall mood in a specific situation. Autistic people also tend to understand phrases in the most literal sense, which makes idioms and figures of speech a hard thing for them to decode. Still, it wouldn’t be right to stereotype autistic people in a way that summarizes all of them as without a sense of humour.

If you look at the Scandinavian crime TV series ‘The Bridge’ for example, the main protagonist Saga Noren is portrayed as a poker-faced and unsociable police officer with Aspergers Syndrome who somehow has that brilliance that is showcased as an asset by her team. Stereotyping autistic people as unfunny is undeniably wrong and not helpful for the autism community, especially those who are trying their best to mingle with their neurotypical peers in every possible way they can and that includes understanding the humour in social interactions. As a matter of fact, there are actually many individuals on the spectrum who are able to make and understand jokes and humorous remarks, even when they’re just kids.

An autistic person has all the features.

Autism isn’t just officially described as a Spectrum Disorder without any good reason to it. With the current medical definition of autism, one can easily point out the fact that there are more than just one type of autism disorder, and these classifications are made in relation to the different specific features exhibited by people on the spectrum. These features include sticking to routines, difficulty understanding sarcastic remarks, obsessive preoccupation to certain interests, a strong sense of competition, lack of empathy and being an autistic savant. Different types of autism are characterized by a variety of autism features, but not all of them at the same time. However, this is exactly what the US TV sitcom series ‘The Big Bang Theory’ is trying to tell its viewers.

One of the top TV shows in the US by the number of viewers, The Big Bang Theory tells an unusual friendship between a group of nerds with a neurotypical girl named Penny. However, the autism stereotyping can be seen in one of the main characters, Sheldon, who seem to exhibit most, if not all, of the common autism features in the medical definition. Not all of the people on the spectrum are like Sheldon, as a matter of fact, Sheldon may be a rare representative of the disorder.

Autistic people are born geniuses.

This is what the 1988 film ‘Rain Man’ tried to portray to the viewers, or at least that’s what the movie enthusiasts thought of after watching that film. In the movie, the main character played by Dustin Hoffman is an autistic savant, believed to be a genius in his own right. He can do speed reading, and remember everything he read and saw in the news and television as if he’s just accessing data from a computer.

It is true that there are autistic geniuses in real life, but being savants, these people are not representative of the whole autistic community. It is not proper to treat all autistic individuals like Rain Main or any sort of genius for that matter, because like normal people, not all of them are the same.