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Atypical: autism on TV

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  • Atypical: autism on TV

    Premium

    How television is finally waking up to its autism problem



    All too typical: Atypical, on Netflix
    CREDIT: NETFLIX

    FLORENCE LESLIE - TELEGRAPH - 27 DECEMBER 2019

    This is a familiar story: as a teenager, instead of being diagnosed as autistic, I was told I was “quirky."

    When I was finally diagnosed at 21 years old, the world tuned into the same wavelength. A drama about a family adjusting to a child’s autism diagnosis, The A Word, debuted on BBC One. Pablo, a children's series about an autistic boy who draws imaginary friends with magic crayons to help him navigate everyday life, aired on Cbeebies. Sesame Street introduced an autistic muppet. And Atypical, a Netflix original series described by Netflix as “a coming of age story that follows Sam, a 19-year-old on the autism spectrum as he searches for love and independence” launched all eight episodes of its first season in August 2017.

    ‘Atypical’ means not representative of a type, and while Atypical’s creator Robia Rashid said “the theme is no one’s normal” in a Netflix featurette, it felt typical. In the show’s opening minutes, Sam lists his traits before the camera reveals his therapist sitting in the opposite chair, who cheerfully asks if he would donate his brain to medical science. He struggles with social skills, talks at length about his obsessions, has never had a girlfriend and can be blunt to the point of rudeness. And he’s a man, of course.

    According to figures on the National Autistic Society website, more men are diagnosed than women. Anecdotal evidence suggests women are often diagnosed later because they learn to camouflage, leading to mental health problems like anxiety and depression.

    After being dismissed as different, I learned to “mask”, a term used by the autism community that refers to covering up difficulties, often due to social pressures. I couldn’t understand why I felt so different from my peers no matter how hard I tried to fit in. I ticked a box on a form saying I struggled to understand facial expressions when I finally sought help and someone referred me for an assessment. I stayed up at night, hopping from webpage to webpage, checking out books from the library. I read the same story: male maths genius. Finally getting a diagnosis was a relief, but in what was supposed to be a groundbreaking cultural moment, I was still struggling to see where I fit in.

    As media about autism was gathering momentum, so was the movement of autistic people criticising stories about their lives. The hashtag #actuallyatypical emerged on Twitter, highlighting the divide between the real life experiences of the autistic audience and Atypical’s portrayal of autistic characters, which people tweeting under the hashtag felt lacked nuance and understanding. "Sam is a DSM checklist, not a person. Yikes" tweeted Sara Luterman, a writer on disability. "I wanted to like Atypical but it feels like it was made by people who have read a lot about autism and not lived it" tweeted young adult fiction writer Kay Kerr.

    I asked Campaigns Officer at the National Autistic Society, George Stanbury, why similar portrayals of autistic characters are recycled by media portrayals.“You look at fairly big moments on TV around autism,” he said. “I’m thinking about Rain Man in particular, which at the time was seen as really groundbreaking.

    “But we know that it’s a stereotype that’s quite lazy and actually modelled on someone who wasn’t even autistic. I think people see the celebration of those kinds of moments and want to emulate them without really engaging with whether that representation is authentic.

    “It’s difficult when you don’t necessarily have that understanding of how times have changed or how autistic people want to be consulted or represented. If you don’t have that kind of inkling, it’s really easy to go off of something that was previously celebrated without engaging with whether it's still relevant today” he added.

    As part of his role, Stanbury provides script consultancy to help make stories about autism as authentic as possible. He is also autistic himself. He said calls to the charity’s helpline increase when autism is given a big profile on television, and although historically autism has been considered “a man thing”, as greater knowledge filters through, the diversity of the autism spectrum will start to be reflected in culture. “Because of the way that autism can define a person’s experience and their identity, it’s only right that a person feels like that identity is reflected properly on screen” he said.

    Autistic characters are improving and becoming more rounded, which provides balance to more stereotypical portrayals such as Shaun Murphy from 2017 drama The Good Doctor – yet another autistic character with “savant syndrome.”

    Each episode of Cbeebies’ Pablo, for instance, is written by autistic writers and voiced by autistic people, featuring characters such as Llama who repeats words (echolalia) and Wren, who flaps and is very sensitive to emotions. Sumita Majumdar, a writer on Pablo who voices Wren, said: “All of the writers on the show are quite different as people, with different experiences of how being autistic affects us. We relate to autism in such different ways, yet still there’s so much we can relate to in each others’ scripts – that’s really exciting to me.”

    Teenagers can also look up to Talia Grant, who plays Brooke Hathaway in Hollyoaks and is the first autistic actor and black autistic woman to play an autistic character in a UK soap. As young people watch after school and college, Brooke’s character – who is written into several storylines – shows that autistic people can face the same challenges in everyday life as those without autism, rather than centering the narrative solely on what makes them “different” to their non-autistic peers.

    In a recent teenage pregnancy arc, for example, watching Brook face a barrage of questions during a checkup and becoming overwhelmed may be the catalyst for autistic people, potentially undiagnosed, to recognise their own reactions – and more likely to be taken seriously by professionals as understanding increases.

    Atypical is also becoming less repetitive. The professional consultant for its first season was Michelle Dean, an assistant professor at the UCLA Centre for Autism Research and Treatment. In season two, Atypical hired autistic writer David Finch as a consultant and introduced eight autistic cast members from diverse backgrounds as Sam’s high-school peer support group “for as much involvement from the autism community as possible,” the creator said in a featurette. It’s a step in the right direction.

    A major theme in Atypical is gaining independence, and in the most recent series (released in November), Sam and his friends transition from high school to college. The show has softened some of its gimmicks, although this can feel cursory as it allows the autistic characters little screen time to develop. Atypical has one foot in its college dorm, and we can only hope it continues to learn.

    When television sells similar narratives, it can contribute to autistic people being overlooked. With more autistic people working to create media about autism or creating autistic characters, perceptions can change. What’s more, autistic people can be taken seriously by professionals, access support and, as many people feel socially isolated, finally recognise themselves.

    Note: This is a 'Premium' (subscription only) article, so has had to be copied.
    Last edited by Maurice; 29 December 2019, 07:40 AM.

  • #2
    Autism is a very wide spectrum of diagnoses. We're all somewhere on the Autism spectrum

    Steve

    Comment


    • #3
      Brilliant series recently on ABC (Australia) TV - Love On The Spectrum

      "Seven singles take their first steps into the world of dating; this uplifting four-part documentary follows young adults on the autism spectrum as they explore the unpredictable world of love and relationships."

      Funny, entertaining, enlightening.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8PJq8GccJQ
      Last edited by arthur linden-jones; 29 December 2019, 09:23 AM.

      Comment


      • #4
        Originally posted by Steve Crook View Post
        Autism is a very wide spectrum of diagnoses. We're all somewhere on the Autism spectrum

        Steve
        All of us? Really?

        Comment


        • #5
          A couple of years ago there was a very good, well acted, drama treating the subject of autism. IIRC, the programme advised against the use of the word "autistic" which was never explained. The noun was fine not the adjective.

          Comment


          • #6
            Originally posted by Shirley Brahms View Post

            All of us? Really?
            It’s a phrase that is bandied about quite a lot and while technically there may be some truth to it, to be diagnosed as autistic requires very specific symptoms and a set of behaviors that inhibit or distort the way a person functions.

            My daughter is Asperger, which is on the spectrum, and there is a lot more to being autistic that been a little pernickety or focused, which is what most people mean when they use the phase ‘we are a little autistic.’ It’s an expression that is unfair to genuine sufferers and very misleading.

            I saw an NHS report a few years ago which estimated that there were around 1,000,000 people in the UK on the spectrum.

            Comment


            • Shirley Brahms
              Shirley Brahms commented
              Editing a comment
              Thanks for the explanation, Pax.

          • #7
            Originally posted by Shirley Brahms View Post

            All of us? Really?
            Yes, people who aren't at all autistic are still on the spectrum.
            Even if they're like a car travelling at 0 mph, that isn't moving. They are still measuring their speed

            Steve

            Comment


            • #8
              Originally posted by Steve Crook View Post

              Yes, people who aren't at all autistic are still on the spectrum.
              Even if they're like a car travelling at 0 mph, that isn't moving. They are still measuring their speed

              Steve
              I'm afraid that doesn't sound at all logical to me. It's contradictory. A car that isn't moving, isn't travelling. You can't measure speed when there is none.
              You might as well try to measure how much water there is in an empty bucket.

              Comment


              • #9
                Originally posted by Steve Crook View Post

                Yes, people who aren't at all autistic are still on the spectrum.
                Even if they're like a car travelling at 0 mph, that isn't moving. They are still measuring their speed

                Steve
                Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) effects about 1% of the population of the UK, slightly less than the figure I suggested earlier. As mentioned, suggesting that we are all on the spectrum is misleading and frankly unhelpful to those dealing with or trying to understand the nature of ASD

                Comment


                • #10
                  Originally posted by Paxton Milk View Post

                  Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) effects about 1% of the population of the UK, slightly less than the figure I suggested earlier. As mentioned, suggesting that we are all on the spectrum is misleading and frankly unhelpful to those dealing with or trying to understand the nature of ASD
                  I agree Paxton. Frankly what Steve is saying is nonsense and I speak as someone who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome.

                  Comment


                  • #11
                    This link may be helpful to understand. Hope this opens okay, I am on an iPad, so not quite up to speed

                    https://autisticandunapologetic.com/...tism-spectrum/


                    Comment


                    • #12
                      Originally posted by Tigon Man View Post

                      I agree Paxton. Frankly what Steve is saying is nonsense and I speak as someone who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome.
                      My daughter suffers, and suffers is the right word, from Aspergers too, Tigon Man, and it’s difficult as a parent to watch her being so misunderstood by friends and associates. It’s not the worse thing in the world, for sure, but it is a greatly misunderstood affliction and I feel for everyone who has to function in a world where there is little, if any, cognizance.

                      Comment


                      • #13
                        Originally posted by Shirley Brahms View Post

                        I'm afraid that doesn't sound at all logical to me. It's contradictory. A car that isn't moving, isn't travelling. You can't measure speed when there is none.
                        So what’s the good of a speedometer in a parked car?
                        The speedo doesn’t disappear every time the car stops

                        You might as well try to measure how much water there is in an empty bucket.
                        Easy, “None” is a perfectly valid measure

                        Steve

                        Comment


                        • #14
                          Originally posted by Paxton Milk View Post

                          Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) effects about 1% of the population of the UK, slightly less than the figure I suggested earlier. As mentioned, suggesting that we are all on the spectrum is misleading and frankly unhelpful to those dealing with or trying to understand the nature of ASD
                          Misleading? Unhelpful? Autism isn’t a Yes/No decision. There are degrees, that’s why it’s defined as a spectrum or scale and zero is a perfectly valid number on that scale if you don’t have any autistic traits. Saying that you are on the spectrum doesn’t mean that you have any autistic traits.

                          At least, that’s what my autistic acquaintances agree with.

                          Steve

                          Comment


                          • #15
                            Originally posted by Tigon Man View Post

                            I agree Paxton. Frankly what Steve is saying is nonsense and I speak as someone who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome.
                            Nonsense? That’s brutal, and a tad insulting.

                            ASD is usually taken to mean Autism Spectrum Disorder. A Spectrum implies a scale. You score zero on the scale if you aren’t affected by it. But you’re still on the scale even if you score zero. Zero is a perfectly valid number.

                            Steve

                            Comment

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