So I saw that Parenthood comes back tonight. I won’t get to watch the new episode until tomorrow because I don’t have regular television; I watch everything online or not at all. So I can’t comment on how well this particular episode depicts Max’s Aspergers just yet. But I thought that mentioning it would be a good starting-off place to discuss the role of media in Aspergers’ awareness.
See, about a month ago, during Parenthood’s last episode, I was rather upset by the way Max was depicted. I was particularly offended by a scene where he came back in a police car after getting lost trying to take a bus to the museum by himself. (I’m not sure how old he is supposed to be but he seems to be middle-school aged.) About the only part of this whole scenario that jived with my experience of Aspergers at all was his reaction when getting overstimulated on a busy street and feeling lost, overwhelmed and frightened. I won’t rehash everything I found wrong with the scenario as depicted because it was a month ago and I don’t remember the details clearly anymore. Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook can find my original discussion about it. However, one of the things that was problematic about the sequence of events was that Max was depicted as selfish and unable to understand that anyone would worry about him, that he could have been hurt, etc. He also didn’t care about being brought home by the police. In short, he was depicted as not having feelings at all.
Now, I’ve been told by people who are more familiar with the show than me that I missed the point and that the scenes I found offensive were supposed to show that his family doesn’t know how to deal with a child who has Aspergers and that they wrongly assume he has no feelings. However, in my opinion this isn’t depicted very well, and it disturbs me because the mistaken belief that people with Aspergers don’t have feelings is harmful in many, many ways. Furthermore, showing this family as a family that is constantly in crisis because they have a son who has Aspergers suggests that Aspergers is something that is terribly hard, if not impossible, for parents to deal with.
Okay, so I did rehash it after all. Nearly a month later I’m still kind of offended, but since I’m coming from a calmer place, I’d like to offer some questions for us all to consider about the role media does and should play in people’s perception of those of us who have Aspergers syndrome.
One of the things that concerns me about shows like Parenthood is that there aren’t enough shows that show people with Aspergers in the first place. If there were more shows that featured children and adults with Aspergers syndrome, would it be such a big deal that one show sometimes gets absolutely everything having to do with Aspergers wrong? (Of course, that question presumes that other shows that feature people with Aspergers would get it right.)
I tend to think one show would not have as much of an impact if there were other shows, and if the other shows were more accurate, people would know that the show that got it wrong was…wrong. There might be more of a public outcry against shows that were completely off-base if people knew what off-base looked like. Having greater representation of people with Aspergers in the media would probably help that, again, assuming most media got it right.
This brings me to the question of how, exactly, should people with Aspergers be depicted? And that becomes a difficult question because there is so much variation between different people who have Aspergers. About the only thing we all have in common is a set of symptoms that gives us our labels. We are people who have our brains wired differently, but we are still just human beings, in all our glory and our splendor and our shortcomings and our failures, and therefore we share a diverse range of thoughts, opinions, feelings and behaviors. So there’s not going to be a media depiction of people with Aspergers that satisfies everybody. However, I do think it’s important to get the core symptoms right because that is what makes us people with Aspergers in the first place and not people with high-functioning classic autism or people who engage in random behaviors for no apparent reason.
Every time anyone brings up media depiction issues, someone who disagrees with the objection insists that the offended people are “infringing on the show’s right to freedom of expression.” I’ve seen this over and over in transgender communities too. So I want to touch on that point very briefly. I have three things to say about it.
1) Freedom of speech refers to government actions only. While large corporations, including media corporations, are gradually taking over our political system, they aren’t the government yet. So boycotting a show that is offensive or asking a writer to apologize for being offensive has little to do with freedom of speech.
2) Those of us who disagree have the right to freedom of speech too. We also have the right not to watch shows that we find offensive.
3) Words do hurt and sometimes they kill so those of us who are affected can and should speak up even if those who are neither affected nor offended don’t see a reason to be upset.
Now that I’ve established that, I want to compare my reaction to Parenthood to my reaction to one of my favorite shows, Monk. I always enjoyed Monk–even though he was supposed to have OCD he exhibited a lot of Aspergers qualities. The reason I enjoyed watching this show was that I could identify with Monk. I remember several episodes where he offended or hurt his assistant, Sharona, and he was bewildered and confused, wanting to make it right and not knowing how. That is how I experience having Aspergers, and whether Monk officially had the label or not, it was something I could understand and something I could use to try to explain to my neurotypical friends how the world is for me.
I’ve since heard that some people with Aspergers dislike Monk because they feel that the only media depiction of Aspergers that got it close to right involved someone with superhuman skills, which perpetuates the stereotype that people with any kind of autism spectrum disorder are like Rain Man–unable to function in most ways but having one very special skill. I don’t think Monk falls into that category because he’s shown as having many skills, but relationship skills aren’t among them. I think the depiction of his character (and also that of his brother Ambrose) does a good job of showing the unevenness that comes with Aspergers rather than the Rain Man idiot savant stereotype. (Ironically, in the pilot somebody dismisses Monk as being “Rain Man” because she is uncomfortable with his photographic memory and attention to detail.)
Anyway, the reason I bring that up is because it’s an example of what I was saying earlier about there being no easy answers to how Aspergers should be depicted. Even after writing this blog, I’m not sure what the answers are except for that there needs to be more media coverage of people with Aspergers, period. These are important questions for me personally because I’m working on a pilot for a television show about a family that includes a transgender boy who has also been labeled with a learning difference. I’m doing this project because I want transgender kids and kids who are “different” in other ways to see that there are people like them in the world and feel less isolated, but I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes or make things worse instead of better. So I am searching for the right answers to these questions. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to watching Parenthood tomorrow and hope that this is one of the weeks that they get it right.
If you enjoyed reading this blog and would like to hire me as a guest speaker for your Aspergers-related group, please contact me at my advocacy website or send me an email.