Representation matters. This is a fact we all know. Positive representation tells a person that in the public eye, they exist and matter. Negative representation tells a person they’re lesser and deserve scorn. It matters big time that Love, Simon is in theaters depicting a gay teenage love story that doesn’t end in tragedy and it matters that Black Panther is a monster hit.
Sadly it also matters that The Good Doctor exists. It matters that Atypical exists. It matters that Autism Uncensored exists. It matters that To Siri With Love exists. It matters that counterexamples aside from the imperfect Abed Nadir (who is an atrocious representation of the highly underrepresented Palestinians) don’t exist. It ABSOLUTELY MATTERS that Sheldon Cooper exists. Autistic people are extremely poorly represented in mass media with little signs of change.
So what would be good representation? I was challenged on twitter today by Alex Haagaard to answer this question. This is my best attempt at answering that question. What would a portrayal of autistic people that would recognize and respond to look like?
For starters, autistic people would be the point of view character of the material. This seems so simple but it’s really not as common as it should be. Most works about autistic people are told through the perspective of the parents or their cohorts. This bedevils even the best works such as the fantastic manga With The Light. For good representation, we need to be the ones telling the story. Colin Fischer does this quite well actually.
We need to have an inner life. Again, this seems so obvious but it’s not to makers of this material. Autistic people are shown as at once closed off yet all of our issues are right on the surface. We don’t seem to think. We’re all process. No! Give us personalities no different from anybody else.
We’re emotional. Yeah you won’t see that in any media about us. But we’re actually highly emotional people even if we don’t express it that well. Good representation would depict us having moods, just a bit off.
Give us a sense of humor. I love Spock but we’re not actually like that. I love comedy no different from anybody else. My sense of humor isn’t that weird either. Honestly most of us laugh at pretty ordinary stuff. Weird Al is our saint too after all!
Show us as frustrated by the neurotypical world. We’re always commented on but never get to comment on others. And we do. We absolutely have thoughts. Let us vent! It’ll help make us real when we can snap back.
We should have our interests but surprise us! Give us unique interests. They don’t have to be cliched ones like criminology or medicine. Give us a thoroughly useless interest and let us laugh at it. Our interests don’t have to be only good because they have value in mainstream society. Tell us it’s fine just to be us.
Speaking of society, it would be great if we were shown as social. We’re always asocial. Untrue. Sure, many of us are but a lot of NTs are. Show us being social! And don’t just show us tragically wanting to have friends. We have friends in real life and it would be nice to see that in the media.
That correlates to relationships. I’m married with a daughter. I’ve never seen that in the media. Show that! But while I’m at it, show us as gay/lesbian/trans/asexual. I know people who are all of those things and autistic too! I realize intersectionality is a nightmare for media producers but please try.
Give us flaws too. Give us real flaws like anybody else would have. Make us rude not because we’re autistic but because we’re assholes. Mae us greedy. Make us selfish. Make us vain. We can be broken. Autism doesn’t make us pure. We hurt people because we’re people.
But here’s the big one: vary us. I’m so sick of seeing autistic people falling into the exact same trope. We’re cold. People confuse us. We’re sad. We’re superhuman. Almost always STEM geniuses (I’m sooo not.) Give me an autistic screwup alcoholic. Give me a highly social wisecracker. Give me more than Sherlock Holmes!
Will we get this? I think so. We’re creating more. We’re getting heard. We’re enraging publishers. It’ll take time but I have hopes in time we will eventually see ourselves in a way we like.