The Latest TV Trend: Autism

It's great that diversity is extending to the neurological, but there's a danger in portraying those on the spectrum as inherently miraculous

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Brian Bowen Smith / FOX

Kiefer Sutherland and David Mazouz in the new show Touch

I know plenty about people on the autism spectrum. Communication and social skills present them with considerable challenges. They attach great importance to predictability and routine. They have highly specific tastes and preferences and become intractable when these are not met. They have difficulty understanding and processing human emotion, including their own. All of them are male, and all but one of them are young. And they have the ability to perform superhuman feats of memory and mathematics. I know all this, of course, only from popular culture. So maybe I don’t know as much as I think I do.

Given the current prevalence of autism in the real world it’s not surprising to see it reflected in current entertainment. In fact, one might go so far as to say that autism is “hot” right now. Last month, Fox previewed a new series, Touch, about a seemingly uncommunicative boy; the dramatis personae of SyFy’s Alphas include a character who self-identifies as autistic; and the title character of BBC’s popular series Sherlock displays the emotional detachment often associated with those on the spectrum. These characters have another trait in common: they are, effectively, superhuman. Sherlock Holmes of course possesses those famous powers of deduction; Alphas’s Gary can pull and interpret electromagnetic signals directly from the air; and Jake from Touch, while communicating solely in number clues, has a seemingly divine ability to trace and even manipulate the invisible patterns of causality that supposedly connect us all (the show’s utterly fanciful premise is beside the point).

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It’s great that the growing diversity of characters is extending to the neurological, and I’m sure it contributes to greater understanding of some of the issues these individuals face; consider whether Charlie Babbitt’s cruel, ignorant treatment of his brother Raymond in the first half of 1988’s Rain Man would be considered redeemable by today’s audiences. The danger is that it may also lead to a more widespread perception of those on the spectrum as inherently miraculous. Spike Lee rightly derides the storytelling trope of “magical negro,” in which a beatific black person helps a privileged but struggling white person discover the true meaning of whatever, as in The Legend of Bagger Vance or as Touré recently pointed outThe Help. Applied to those on the autism spectrum, it’s easy to see how a continuation of this trend may result in their further marginalization. “What’s wrong with him?” is a hurtful question, but “What can he do?” isn’t much better. Perhaps a more realistic portrayal of a character with Aspergers is that of Max Braverman on NBC’s Parenthood, an often challenging boy who doesn’t exist to solve problems for his neurotypical counterparts and doesn’t have superpowers to do so in any case.

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I admit that I haven’t come into contact myself with a lot of individuals who are on the spectrum, but one of them was Zev Glassenberg, who competed on two seasons of CBS’s The Amazing Race with his neurotypical best friend, Justin Kanew. After Glassenberg identified himself in his introductory interview as having been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, some viewers may have assumed that they already knew everything about him they needed to know. But in a globetrotting game show environment where unpredictability is the one constant, Glassenberg performed with humor, empathy and (usually) poise, displaying a frustration threshold higher than many other competitors. And when I briefly met him in person after his first season aired, I discovered his conversational skills to be no worse than mine (admittedly a low bar).

It all comes back to the word I’ve used before in this article: individuals. There has been speculation that The Big Bang Theory’s alpha-nerd, Sheldon, has Aspergers Syndrome, but the show’s producers have refused to corroborate the theory. That’s as it should be. Sheldon is one of the most unique, well-realized characters in prime time, and reducing him to a simple neurological diagnosis would be a travesty. That’s something we should all keep in mind.

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