Autistic Moments – What’s Wrong?

Apparently I forget about my face. It’s there, I know, and I’m supposed to put more effort into it, but I don’t. I don’t get why I should, really. Smiling all the time hurts my face, and why should I put effort into my expression especially when I’m not in the middle of socializing? Sometimes I’m hyper focused on something, and that focus means that I don’t have the diverted brain energy going into making my face palatable to others. Sometimes it’s just nice to be alone and stare into space while playing fantasies about mythical battles, dramatic romances, and epic dragons. When my brain’s so busy with such wonderful things, why would I bother trying to make my face look like I want to be approached?

Part of my lack of effort in my face is because I get annoyed when pictures are taken and my face isn’t perceived the way I perceive it. What’s the point in putting effort into smiling if the smile I like isn’t the smile other people like? I’ve been told that pictures I think look really nice (usually with a close-lipped smile) make me look like I want to murder people with some sort of death glare. That I don’t look properly happy without a big, toothy grin that feels weird to pose with on my face. I just don’t see it. I don’t think I look as good, I feel like I see more of me the way I see myself when I don’t smile at all, or when I have a slight smile. I think there’s something delicate about my lips in that way, and big, toothy smiles make me think of comedy, clowns, and jokes – all bulky things in my mind that are heavy and take up energy, even if they take up energy in a good way. Those things don’t mean ‘happy’ to me, not really. They’re amusing, of course, and I can feel happy while experiencing them, but that doesn’t capture ‘happy’ for me. Happy to me is more about being content and comfortable, with pizza, soft clothes, and a good book/movie/videogame. I don’t need smiles to enjoy those things. The way I feel in my head doesn’t match up to what other people feel my face expresses, and it can be exhausting practicing and making sure I remember not to let the mask slip.

I think some of the reason I get comments is because of gender. There’s a thing about getting girls to smile all the time that I don’t quite comprehend. If someone sees I’m not smiling, wouldn’t they understand there could be a reason I’m not smiling? Or maybe no reason to smile? Smiling takes energy and I wish people would stop demanding I spend energy for no good reason.

Just as common though are well meaning people who think I’m always sad or angry or that something must be wrong for me to be sitting by myself and staring off into space without any particular expression on my face. They just want to help, and I get that. I even appreciate the concern.

But sometimes sitting there alone and expressionless helps me recharge my social batteries before plunging into the fray once more. A few daydreams, a little bit of watching the grass grow, playing bejeweled on my phone, or bouncing my leg up and down, and I can be good to go.

So, nothing’s wrong, thank you for asking. I get that you mean well, but I really am fine and you don’t have to look so skeptical when I tell you I’m fine. If I’m not fine, chances are that I just need some time to recharge. If you are a close friend who knows that I enjoy spending time with them without feeling drained afterwards, that’s cool and I’m probably okay with hanging out while I recharge. If I’m not, don’t be offended. But if you’re just a well-meaning passerby, please continue to pass by. Don’t tell me to come on out of my shell because socializing and smiling will make me feel better. It won’t. And even when I do recharge, don’t be too worried about whether there’s a smile on my face. If it happens, it happens. But I don’t think it’s worth draining my batteries to force it.

Autistic Moments - What's wrong.png

Image text:

Well-Meaning Person: Hey, what’s wrong?

Some Girl with a Braid: Nothing. Why?

Well-Meaning Person: You look upset.

Some Girl with a Braid: Huh. Weird.

 

What type of techniques do you use to recharge? I have a few go-to stims (fidgeting, rubbing my eyes, bouncing my leg up and down), and I like soft quite places, like my bed with a heavy comforter (or two) and possibly a million pillows. I’m curious how others cope.

Like, share, comment, or follow me here, on Facebook (Some Girl with a Braid), or Twitter (@AmalenaCaldwell) for future updates if you enjoy my posts!

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Autistic Moments – Talking Over Me

What is the correct way to refer to me and others like me? Let’s talk about talk.

When it comes to autism, there’s a lot of talk about talk. Mostly, in the form of arguments for or against one of two sides. One side promotes ‘person-first language’. Person-first language is calling someone a “person with autism.” This is because they feel that putting emphasis on the fact that we are people will help humanize us, and also often because they don’t want to see their child as a walking condition/diagnosis. Rather, they would like to see them as just their child.

The other side champions ‘identity-first language’. Aka: “I’m autistic”, “I’m an autistic”, or “I’m an autistic person.” This is because, since autism is in our brains and is a major aspect of our personality, we don’t see ourselves as separate from our condition anymore than you might see yourself as separate from your gender, sexuality, religion, race, or other intricate parts of your identity. We feel that separating autism from our personhood is dehumanizing in that it is trying to sanitize and change us to be more appealing to neurotypicals. As if we can’t be seen as both autistic and a person, that these things must be separate, because autism is not a person and the implication is that being neurotypical is the default onto which is added autism. Except that’s not the case. We cannot be without our autism, just like we cannot be without our gender, sexuality, religion, etc.

I’m female in the same way I’m autistic. No one ever stops me to say that I should say “No, you’re a person with female-ness. Put the person before the female.” The implication I get from that is that, somehow, females aren’t a type of people. Which is probably why no one says it, because females are undeniably people. But apparently, autistics are not?

If you can’t tell already, I prefer identity-first language for all the reasons I’ve listed, and probably a few more I’m forgetting.

The main point I’d like to get to isn’t the merits of one over the other. In fact, I think it’s just fine if someone prefers to be referred to as a person with autism (though as an English nut, I feel it’s a bulky, unnecessary phrase). If they do, then I’ll respect that and refer to them as such – though I should mention that the majority I’ve encountered and across the expanse of the internet prefer identity-first. No, the main point I’d like to get to has to do with non-autistic people getting all huffy and puffy over language. There are a lot of people online who claim to be autism advocates, parents, or professionals who flat out stamp on and insult autistic people for asking that their choices be respected. Sometimes a neurotypical posts something about “people with autism” and an autistic person corrects them, only to be virtually shouted at, berated, and belittled. Sometimes a neurotypical will seek out autistics and inform them that they’re being offensive.

However they make these comments, neurotypicals engaging in this behavior are disrespecting and offending the very people they claim they want to help. They are silencing our voices because we make them uncomfortable and they are accustomed to the stereotype that we cannot communicate. Sometimes they tell us that because we can speak, we don’t count (which is always amusing when this is told to someone who then reveals themselves to be non-verbal behind the keyboard).  It’s as if they want us to be silenced. They want to believe the stereotype that autistics cannot communicate. The advance of technology has made us more capable than ever before, and they don’t want us talking for ourselves, because then who will listen to them as the expert? We challenge their authority by existing and typing. You can’t have much more expertise and authority on autism beyond being autistic yourself and living it 24/7. I feel that these people talking over us are afraid that we’ll displace them and replace them as the ‘top dog’ in go-to autism related matters. They have a loud privilege at the moment in this society. Like all people with privilege, they’re afraid of losing it, even if it’s a sub-conscious fear. So they put us down and try to keep us quiet, try to make their voices the loudest.

No one likes being told that what they’re doing is hurtful. It’s a personal stab when someone accuses you of doing anything wrong, even if you didn’t mean to. But if you’re an adult, you should know to graciously accept comments and use them to better yourself. The proper response to an autistic person telling you, “Actually, I prefer being called autistic” is not “How dare you question me?! I have so many qualifications!” (or variations thereof). Instead, try, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I’ll try to do better in the future. Thank you.”

And as for other autistics out there… Don’t be afraid to correct people to whatever your preference is. If they don’t hear/read/see our voices and communications, then they’ll never change, never learn to respect our agency, and may not even realize we do indeed have our own agency. If you can’t emotionally handle the potential backlash, then do what’s best for your mental health. But if you can, know you have the support of at least this autistic. You do you, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong.

What are your thoughts on and experiences with person-first vs. identity-first language? Leave them in the comments below!

Autistic Moments - Talking Over Me

Comic Text:

Some Girl with a Braid says: … And that’s how I learned I’m autistic.

Blue Mommy Martyr says: Oh no, sweety, you shouldn’t say ‘Autistic’. Say ‘Person with Autism’ or else you’re insulting them. Put the ‘person’ first.

Some Girl with a Braid says: Can you not see us as people and autistics at the same time? I feel personhood is implied with any descriptive identity. And, as an autistic, I prefer identity-first language. Actually, the vast majority of autistics I’ve encountered within the autistic community prefer identity-first terminology because we feel that separating our personhood from our neurology is stigmatizing and vilifying a significant part of who we are. We cannot be the people we are without our autism. We cannot be people without our brains. Autism is also not something we can be rid of; it is not a cancer that can be cured or a purse that can be put down. It is always with us. It is who we are, for better or worse. It’s the same way you would refer to yourself as a female instead of ‘person with female-ness’. It’s a part of who you are and not offensive. If someone on the spectrum does prefer person-first language, then use it at their request, but by telling me how to talk about myself, you are policing and silencing the community you want to help, and insulting us by trying to rob our agency.

Blue Mommy Martyr says: How dare you! I know more about the experience of people with autism than you ever could because I’m a professional and I have a two year old nephew with autism!

Some Girl with a Braid says: …

Blue Mommy Martyr says: You obviously don’t know any better, so I’ll be offended by you on your behalf and attack you for you.

Some Girl with a Braid says: Are you serious right now?

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Autistic Moments – Faces

I’d always read about autistic people having difficulty with faces. Usually in regards to recognizing emotions and reading body language, but also in recognizing people. It’s called prosopagnosia, also known as ‘face blindness’, and is defined as the inability to remember faces, or sometimes even to differentiate a face from an object. I’d read about this often being something that autistics deal with, but always thought that was a symptom I just didn’t have. I can recognize my parents’ faces, my siblings, my cousins, grandparents, best friends, long-term classmates, and most teachers. If I meet someone I consider interesting, I’ll probably remember their face. Then I went to college, away from my small class of forty-two graduating students, some of whom I’d known for twelve years.

I started getting greeted by people I’d just met and completely not knowing why they were talking to me or why they knew my name unless they mentioned what class we had together, or how we’d met. I’d be unable to remember what name went with each person, and facebook (ironically named for this post) became a saving grace. I’d always had difficulty remembering names, but for the longest time I figured that was just because I knew too many people and that they only recognized me because of my unusual hair, so it was just natural some would slip my mind and I couldn’t be expected to remember everyone. Once in college, it was a jump into the deep end to try and keep everyone’s names and faces straight.

There was one particular class I remember that made it all crystal clear to me that perhaps I did have a mild version of this autistic symptom. I had a project I was supposed to present with a partner the next time we had class, and I was feeling fairly confident since she was a nice person and we’d done some good research. The day comes, and I go up to get ready to present. I’m pulling up our powerpoint presentation and realize I can’t spot her in the class. I start completely panicking, thinking that maybe she’s sick that day and I’d have to present her half of the project. I started frantically looking at the door, looking nervously at the teacher, reading over her half of the powerpoint so that I could practice at least a little and not bomb in front of the class… then at the last moment this girl walks up with a big smile and asks if I’m ready to go. Relief flooded me because I realized the only reason I thought she was absent was because she’d changed her hairstyle and that was how I’d been recognizing her up until that point.

I told this story to my fiance, and he just told me, “Yep, sounds like you had an autistic moment.” It took me a moment to realize, yeah, I had. And somehow, that felt really good to know.

If you’ve experienced moments like this, feel free to share them in the comments section, I’d love to hear all about it. Like, share, or follow me here, on Facebook (Some Girl with a Braid), or Twitter (@AmalenaCaldwell) for future updates if you enjoy my posts.

Autistic Moments - Faces

Comic Text:

Some Girl with a Braid says: See you tomorrow for the project presentation!

Girl with Ponytail says: Yep!

(Next day in class)

Some Girl with a Braid thinks: Oh no, she’s absent today, I’m screwed. Oh no, oh help, oh no…

Girl with Ponytail who’s hair is now open says: Hey! Ready to present our project?

Some Girl with a Braid says: Yep, all set up and ready to go!

Some Girl with a Braid thinks: Oh thank goodness, she just changed her hair.

The Manic Pixie Autistic Sidekick

Those of you who write or read may be familiar with the trope of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, a term coined by critic Nathan Rabin to describe the sort of love interest who exists only to teach young males how to experience life and make them better people. These girls aren’t real characters in a three-dimensional way. They don’t exist for themselves or their own happiness. They are creations whose purpose is only to support or provide a catalyst for growth for the man who spends time with them.

But what does this have to do with autism?

Well, think back to one of the most famous autistic characters of all time: Rain Man, aka Raymond as portrayed by Dustin Hoffman alongside Tom Cruise. I’m sure all of you are familiar with Rain Man. It’s not a bad movie, really, it’s just the public’s reaction to it has been… disappointing. Rain Man has come to represent all autistics (despite the fact that the majority of us are not savants) in the minds of many people, and the stereotypes about us have been reinforced by all the many portrayals trying to copy Rain Man as if it’s the only way to be autistic.

I don’t want to do a full review of Rain Man, or a full examination of the impact of Rain Man. It’s been reviewed by better minds than mine, been written about constantly, and there’s not much new to add to the subject. But I do want to address one fact about it, a trope that the entire plot is based on.

Rain Man/Raymond only exists to help the non-autistic character played by Tom Cruise grow as a person. He does not exist for himself or his own happiness. He is a creation whose purpose is only to support and provide a catalyst for growth for the man who spends time with him.

Sound familiar?

This is not an uncommon trope. There are tons of stories out there about characters with various disabilities ranging from mental difficulties (Rain Man) to physical ones (Me Before You – which also buys into the incredibly harmful and appalling “better dead than disabled” trope) that aren’t really about those characters, but the person next to them. Whether it’s a family member, friend, or love interest, these characters only exist to teach a non-disabled person a life lesson of some kind. Like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, this is a sort of objectification of our existences. We are turned into teaching props. Tools.

I don’t want to be a tool.

These sorts of stories are often (possibly always) written by non-disabled individuals, and similar tropes exist for essentially every sort of minority or perceived minority character. While I’m sure the creator’s intentions are mostly harmless (they may even think they’re doing good for the people they’re representing), using us as props to teach others lessons is dehumanizing. The problem with this is the same problem as with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – it portrays a group of people as supporting roles for others rather than the stars of their own story. It almost removes them from their own story by putting the spotlight on someone else, someone the directors and writers think is more ‘universal’ and whose perspective will sell more tickets. But the ‘default’ isn’t representative of the entire population, and a variety of voices is good for showing that those voices do exist. We need variety and diversity, representations of all types. Autistic people deserve our own stories that accurately portray us as the protagonists and heroes of our own lives, rather than as background and support for the non-autistic people in our lives. We are not teachers. If we teach people in our lives something, that’s incidental, not the purpose of our lives. That should be a side plot. The purpose of our lives is whatever we want to make of it, and to be happy for ourselves.

So, Autistic writers, keep writing. We need you in the world. Everyone with any disability who writes, keep at it. Put your perspective out there. Actors, keep auditioning. Directors, keep going. One day we’ll break in, and we can be the stars in our own story and maybe finally teach people that we’re not tools or props, but the main characters in our own stories.

I am the hero of my own story. And you are too.

A Focus on Atypical’s Moments and Characters – Is Sam Actually the only Atypical in Atypical?

Spoilers ahead – wait to read after you watch the show if you intend to watch it spoiler-free. If not, please proceed.

So, is Sam actually the only Atypical in “Atypical”? Maybe not – but that character I’ll save for last. First, I’d like to take a look at some of the things I found… aggravating in characters or specific moments.

Most of the characters in this show bothered me at least a little in one way or another, but two that ranked the highest on my list are the mother and the psychologist. They both have their good moments – for example, the psychologist encouraging Sam and the mom supporting him… which for the most part is good, but we’ll get to that. I’d like to start with the psychologist, Julia.

First of all, she starts the series off by asking Sam to donate his brain after he dies to be studied. What kind of psychologist asks a struggling teenager to donate his organs? While I don’t think it’s her intention, the insinuations I got from this request were as such:

  1. She sees him as an object to be studied.
  2. Even though she is older than him and therefore statistically unlikely to outlive him and get a chance to study his brain, she seems to really, really want it. Does she think that he’s going to die prematurely?
  3. I went to a psychologist for years… you don’t ask this of someone who’s struggling. Autistics are far more prone to depression than neurotypicals are, and as such the topic of death shouldn’t be brought up so casually, and she shouldn’t be so cheerful about the thought of him dying so that his brain can be poked at. Maybe Sam’s specific case it’s fine… but as essentially the only autistic character in the show (the only one that matters at least), it’s insinuating that this isn’t a big deal for autistics in general. It is – or at least it can be. The show doesn’t give a variety of autistics to show to the neurotypical audience that we’re not all clinical about the concept of death, and only provides one real autistic perspective in order to essentially represent all autistics. It’s not right, but that’s now media works.

She’s not the worst character in the series, and doesn’t even do significant harm to Sam. But one line really, really bothered me the most when I was watching this show, even more than the ‘can I have your brain’ zombie scientist moment. It’s in a scene where we get a few seconds of her teaching a lecture about psychology and autism to a class. She mentions special interests and how one of her patients figured out ninety-five ways to cook an egg. It’s not so much what she said, but how she said it. She said it like a punchline, like she was trying to get her audience to chuckle at how absurd such a thing is. But think about that for a moment. How many ways can you think of to cook an egg? Off the top of my head, I can’t even think of ten. This person came up with ninety-five? That’s brilliant. It should be shown as something brilliant. This specific autistic could go on to become an absolutely fantastic chef full of innovative new ideas. Instead, they’re a punchline.

Autistics often have special interests about which we are capable of memorizing lots of information or creating fantastic innovation. We’re not all savants, of course, and while cooking eggs in a new way isn’t going to vastly improve the world, our special interests can bring anything from advancement to joy to people in many fields ranging from technology, biology, medicine, literature, music, art, history, or really anything at all – as well as being fulfilling to us as people. Putting down a special interest stifles the autistic person, and anything they might have given to the world if they hadn’t been robbed of their confidence by a neurotypical who thinks eggs are hilarious.

This takes me to another point in this series: Sam’s special interest of penguins and all things Antarctica. He is constantly put down about this by almost everyone – his best friend, his girlfriend, his sister. His girlfriend tries to ‘train’ him not to talk about Antarctica, and the show seems to portray this as almost a good thing. His sister when setting him up with an online dating profile tells him not to mention anything about his real interests. His best friend tries to force him to either not buy or hide a shirt with Antarctic whales on it. This is all wrong. First of all, as far as dating goes, if you’re autistic you need to find someone who at least can appreciate your special interest, if they don’t have an interest in it themselves. The only person who seems to give Sam any real support with his interest (and with the right support, he could become a biologist studying wildlife in Antarctica one day) is his father. While the father is shown as not completely in touch with his kid, having a line about how he doesn’t have anything in common with Sam, there’s still a great scene where he takes him to a zoo and they’re sitting watching penguins together. His dad doesn’t get it, but he still supports it. Everyone else gets it, but they don’t support it – the first option is a million times better than the second. The dad’s honestly one of the better characters in the show because he has his flaws, but he treats Sam like a person and tries his best.

On to the mom. I’m on the fence about her, to be honest. I absolutely hate her for a lot of reasons (she flicks off Julia for saying that Sam has the same desires as other people, she doesn’t want to allow Sam to do anything on his own like dating or shopping, she wants to moan about how hard it is to raise an autistic kid and how he’ll never get to do any ‘normal’ things while actively trying to keep him from doing things even when he expresses an interest in them… etc.), but I think that perhaps I’m meant to as a character. For example, there’s a scene where Sam decides he wants to go to the mall to pick his own clothes instead of having his mom pick and buy all his clothes. She tries very hard to talk him out of it, but eventually relents. She calls ahead of time and asks the store to arrange for specific accommodations for Sam. Now, perhaps this can be seen as a good thing in some cases. This was not one of those cases. Sam expressed no desire for the accommodations. When she gets upset, he absolutely doesn’t care that things aren’t exactly the way she wanted them and goes on with trying on clothes, but she goes and makes a big problem out of it. She manufactures a situation of stress for absolutely no reason and gets herself kicked out, even though Sam was fine. I think that the show doesn’t mean to portray this as a case of her doing the right thing, I think they intend to show that she’s being punished for denying Sam agency, which is great. But she’s still a very, very aggravating overzealous helicopter parent. While she tries to advocate for her child, and that is good, she does so in a way that had me pulling out my hair and wanting to yell at her. And she has one more sin that’s far less easy to overlook.

Sam’s mother (and his father) fall into the trope of ‘autism will ruin your marriage’. Now, I understand that for a plot to move forward there needs to be conflict. And that’s great. However, writers need to be aware of the situations they’re creating in context of the real world. Certain organizations have tried very hard to demonize autism as some sort of curse that will destroy otherwise perfectly healthy marriages, driving parents apart. Sam’s father is revealed to have abandoned his family when the children were very young after Sam’s diagnosis. Sam’s mother has an affair with a bartender because the stress of her life gets to be too much. Even though the script has a moment where the dad says that it wasn’t the kids’ fault, the fact that it’s there is just reinforcing that harmful stereotype. If a marriage fails, it’s because the people weren’t ultimately good life partners. It has nothing to do with a child being autistic. There’s likely more stress involved because of that, sure, but a strong relationship and a good marriage can manage stress together as a team. A bad one won’t. And then ‘autism’ gets blamed by association. Putting these two together in fiction needs to stop. We need to see cases of parents of autistics who have happy, functional relationships. There could be plenty of other ways to insert drama without going the ‘parents relationship troubles’ route.

Sam’s girlfriend is another prominent character who deserves at least a few sentences: she claims to have read up on Sam’s condition once they decide to date, but when she’s in his room she starts messing with all his stuff. Then he locks her in the closet for it – which if you want to know my opinion on that, go back to my first post about this and apply “locks girlfriend in closet” wherever you see “acts abusive” or “breaks into his psychologist’s house”. As I mentioned earlier, she also tries to stifle his interest in Antarctica, proving that they should not be together. They’re a bad match, and that’s all I really want to say on her.

I saved the absolute best for last, of course, as promised:

It’s Casey, Sam’s younger sister. Generally speaking, she invades Sam’s personal space, undermines his agency, belittles his special interest, but also tries to help him when she can. I think that her flaws are acceptable in her being as a character simply because it’s a realistic relationship – though if anyone climbed over my laptop like that while I was working on it there would be a serious problem! Why I think she’s the most important character possibly in this show is that she could easily have Aspergers. As many of you may know, Aspergers/Autism/ASD can often present differently in females than in males, leading many psychologists to ignore, misdiagnose, or completely overlook it. Casey is very focused on and good at track and running – it could have been written as her special interest/focus (for those who say that Autistics can’t do physical things – yes I’ve actually heard that – two of the top fencers on my high school’s team were on the spectrum, myself and one other student. It is possible). She has difficulty controlling her temper such as when she punches a girl for being a bully (the first ‘mental condition’ I ever got sat down in front of a therapist for was anger management in elementary school, because I couldn’t stand when people would be bullies, and had lashed out physically at another girl for teasing and mocking me). She doesn’t think that the girls who pull a cruel prank on her by stealing her clothes are up to anything even though they’d been shunning her previously then suddenly switched on a dime to be fake nice (I had a terrible time navigating the social web that was middle school social systems and would take people at their word because I couldn’t read them well only to be taken advantage of or teased).

A fantastic storyline would have been if all the focus being on Sam meant that her entire family completely ignored that she too was on the spectrum. If halfway through the series, the focus shifted completely to make her the main character, with her as the newly discovered ‘Atypical’. Heck, imagine if they’d decided to make her a lesbian. We would then have a well-written autistic, female, lgbt character with depth and dimension that could do absolute wonders for representation and for the autistic community. It would show us truly as people who can be as varied and real as neurotypical characters. But the show doesn’t have that sort of imagination. It goes for the easy jokes, the easy storylines, the easy caricatures. All we get is the stereotype that is Sam Gardiner.

There’s more I could go into… but I believe I’ve covered all of the major points. Thus ends my analysis of Netflix’s Atypical. If they make a season two, I demand an autistic Casey.

 

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Netflix’s Atypical – Things it gets Right and Things it gets Wrong

This is the first in a series of posts about Autistic portrayals in fiction and media, and the first of a two part series specifically on the show Atypical.

Netflix recently released its new original series Atypical about an autistic teenage boy named Sam. It gets a few things right, and a few things wrong… so I’ll start with the good.

Atypical depicts a disabled character as non-asexual. While some people on the spectrum and with various disabilities can be asexual, it is often assumed by the public and portrayed by media to be a universal feature. So definite positive points to the show for going that route.

Also for doing a decent job of portraying things like stimming, sensory management (Sam, the protagonist, often is seen wearing noise canceling headphones, which are a truly beautiful invention), and other difficulties.

Perhaps the best thing that the show gets right is when it shows that Sam understands when he’s being made fun of. There are other portrayals in media and fiction that show autistic characters as completely oblivious to the cruelty of their peers. It’s good to show how it can harm and affect an autistic person, even if they don’t 100% get all the details. Making that empathetic connection to the audience can be a step towards stopping bullying. It’s difficult to stand up to a bully – if you’re under the impression the bully’s target doesn’t care about or understand what’s going on, then you might be less inclined to help. But when you know they are hurt just the same as anyone else, you’re more likely to step up.

Now… the things it gets wrong.

The most obvious is that it plays into the stereotype of the straight or asexual, white, autistic male. This is by far the most common depiction of autistics in fiction/media – at least, the most popular ones. I’m including in this characters who are implied to be or read by the audience to be on the spectrum, despite not necessarily being labeled as such. This includes Rain Man, Sheldon Cooper, Christopher Boone, Sherlock Holmes (technically a high-functioning sociopath, but for some reason audiences conflate the two conditions… I don’t quite get why considering how different they are), Dr. House, and Spock, to name a few. We need more diversity because we are diverse. Sometimes when I hear ‘You don’t look autistic’ I wonder if they actually mean ‘You don’t look like a straight, male stereotype.’ This has real world consequences. There are psychologists out there who refuse to diagnose girls. The color blue was chosen to represent autism by certain groups because they felt it was a boy’s club and blue means male. Aside from gender, race is also a factor. I’ve heard people say ‘black people don’t get autism’ which is just plain false and harmful to any child out there who gets overlooked as a result. Media is a reflection of how we see our world, and it can shape our world when it changes. If we include more diverse autistic characters, people will recognize more diverse autistics as valid. There have been a handful of these more diverse representations in recent years, but they’ll half to wait their turn for their own post, of course.

Next point: Humor. Humor is almost always at someone’s expense; that is a universal truth. In this show, which is meant to be a comedy, the expense is usually Sam’s. We are not meant to laugh with him, we are laughing at him. At how awkward he is when he sits on a bus and bursts out laughing for no reason, at how awkward it is when he doesn’t get something and everyone else does, at how awkward it is when he has a freak out in class and throws his jacket in the trash. We are meant to laugh from a neurotypical perspective. Once in a while it can be excused, but not whenever he’s on screen. I would pay money to see a scene where a neurotypical and an autistic are talking and the humor is played at the NT’s expense, and from the autistic’s perspective. For example, the following:

NT: Oh, you’re autistic? My father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate has a kid who’s autistic! I know all about it!

AT: … Goody for you then?

Or maybe:

NT: You’re autistic? But you don’t look like you’re autistic.

AT: Yeah, well, I peel off my scales every morning and tuck in my tail so I’m not too obvious in public.

But, in my opinion, the worst plot sin is in the episode where Sam is shown breaking into his therapist’s house at night because he has a crush on her. This is not okay. It is illegal, predatory behavior, not just an awkward autistic symptom. It’s stalking. Apparently contrary to popular belief, autistic people do understand the difference between right and wrong. We have empathy and can often understand that if we wouldn’t want to be abused or violated in some way (privacy, mentally, physically) then we shouldn’t do it to others because that will upset them just as it will upset us. Abusive behavior is not to be excused by a person’s neurology. I was in a class with someone once who told me that someone they’d had a sexual encounter with had gotten abusive, but that they weren’t going to press charges because the boy in question was autistic. This is bad for so many reasons. If someone who’s autistic is doing something illegal or abusive, they likely know too and are making a conscious choice to continue based on factors completely unrelated to their neurology. There may be one or two exceptions where someone genuinely has been socialized to believe abuse is normal and an acceptable way to behave (perhaps from a bad home, or with bad friends who normalize it), but that is not right. The media we consume (and that many people will use to educate themselves about autism) should not normalize this behavior as something quirky that just goes along with an autism diagnosis. It hurts both neurotypicals and autistics because people will expect and excuse abuse. Neurotypicals might be more tolerant of abuse, which hurts them, and autistics might be avoided/stigmatized despite not naturally being abusive, which hurts them. No one wins. Fiction needs to not portray autistics as abusive, or at least, not portray the abuse as a symptom of autism. That scene should have been completely omitted.

Not the last thing I have to say about Atypical, but one of the more important points that needs to be made is about research. For one, Sam is shown to have little empathy (in the last episode he claims he has more, but it’s almost the first point in the show where he seriously considers it. For example, he doesn’t consider whether or not his therapist might like him at all and how she feels, only focuses on how to steal her from her boyfriend and how he himself feels), which is an incorrect assumption NTs have about autistics. This shows that the writers of this show researched based off of other NT’s writing/work/experiences rather than talking to autistic adults. I did some reading up on their process for this show, and while they have good intentions, the only interactions they seem to have had with actual autistics is talking to autistic children. An autistic child’s perspective is not the same as a teen or an adult’s. They are making a show about relationships and sex: they needed to interview an autistic adult to understand that perspective. But they didn’t… I’m not sure why.

Here’s a note to all writers. If you are writing about a group of people you are not a part of, you need to be meticulous with your research. If you have a main character who is a race, gender, sexuality, religion, or other that you are not or has a disability that you do not have, don’t shove in stereotypes and call it a story. Don’t talk to people who know someone who’s a part of that community. Talk directly to people in that community, read articles by people in the community, learn about experiences they have that you don’t directly from them. Ask them for input, ask them to review your work, make the changes they suggest. Accuracy is key. We need visibility and diversity in fiction for all types of people, because absence is harmful. But possibly more harmful is inaccuracy. We in the community you portray will zero in on every inaccurate detail, while those not in our community will use those details against us.

This has been part one of my Atypical review. I’ll continue with part two hopefully soon, so stay tuned for more analysis!

I’m Acting

When it comes out that I’m both autistic and enjoy theater, I often get asked some variation of, “But you can’t even make a phone call without anxiety, how can you go up on stage in front of so many people and perform for them?”

My response: “It’s scripted, perfected, practiced socialization in which I can interact indirectly with people I can’t see easily due to the brightness of stage lights, and get praised for afterwards with applause. What’s not to like?”

Perhaps that’s what drew me to the stage. I was shy at first, but after singing the Star-Spangled Banner in third grade for a school talent show, I wanted more. People stood and cheered for me. I could socialize without socializing. I was accepted without needing to speak to anyone.

In middle school, I began acting rather than singing and dancing as I had been up until that point. The difference between the first two and the third is that singing and dancing are highly perfected, ideally the same for each performance. They are a person on their own or in a group doing something that, for the styles I was practicing, did not require anyone else. Acting is completely different – acting is reacting. Acting is learning how to be someone else, to be human in ways you are not. Acting is learning a script and putting on a persona, a mask, and being so in tune with that persona that if the person you’re reacting to messes up their lines, you are capable of adjusting in character as someone else without throwing off the performance. Acting is teaching yourself to think, react, speak, and move like someone you’re not.

I believe it’s likely that my six years of acting lessons attributed significantly to the delayed revelation of my autism (which no therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist suggested until I was nineteen years old and in the spiral of a shutdown). In some ways, I’m grateful for my acting ability. I can pass. I can be normal. I can be Amalena without autism if I need to be. She is a character separate from myself I can slip into. I can look you in the eye, smile and laugh at the right times, and make all the appropriate faces because I spent years studying mine meticulously in the mirror to get it to mimic normal people’s just right, without realizing that I was doing so much more than learning how to play a role on stage. For the most part, I know how to react to other people’s faces appropriately because I trained to react via a character’s reaction to another character’s reaction. There are a lot of good things in knowing how to pass as neurotypical. I can go to job interviews and act the way they expect someone to act, and no one knows I’m not ‘normal’. If I keep my mouth shut about it and don’t slip up, I will not be discriminated against due to outward signs of being autistic. Even if I decide not to keep up with it down the road, it can get me a foot in the door to start with. That’s a positive, considering the world isn’t necessarily a kind place to those who are different.

However, there is a massive negative that’s related to what my mom told me for years (out of good will and no malice, as we had no clue I wasn’t neurotypical). She would point out when I was around others that I should change my expression (“Smile more, you’ll look friendlier! You look like you want to murder someone. Don’t cross your arms, it makes other people think you don’t want to talk to them.”), and that when I was interacting with others, I should put on a persona just like in acting so that I could gain more confidence and be happier. She told me if you tell yourself something long enough, you’ll make it true. If I told myself I was a sociable, happy, confident individual for long enough, that would make it true. If I pretended. Acted. Lied to myself.

But it takes effort to maintain that persona. To be ‘Amalena’ instead of Amalena. It takes a constant emotional toll to act every day, day in and day out. Around family, friends, and acquaintances. To smile, laugh, and hug people I don’t want to. What happens if you wear a mask too long is that the mask starts to crack. Fractures form, the edges chip off, the paint peals back as if exposed to severe heat of the person burning alive inside.

And then you can’t take it anymore, and the mask shatters. And you have to learn what it is to be you without the persona, because you can’t take it anymore and the light shining in your eyes burns because you have no shield between you and the world. You forget how to be you because you’ve been trying not to be for so long. You have to relearn yourself.

I went to college and was alone for the first time while surrounded constantly by people I didn’t know. The stress of that situation and the pressure of maintaining who I was supposed to be according to everyone else caused the chronic depression from high school to deepen, and caused new debilitating anxiety. I often found myself trapped in my dorm on the eleventh floor with no motivation or too much panic to be able to leave the safety of being surrounded by my clutter and my blankets.

Then my psychologist suggested that I was Autistic, thanks to a casual mention of an apparent ‘symptom’ I hadn’t considered unusual. (Doesn’t everyone count their steps to make sure that they take an even number of them?) I read about Autism and how it presented itself – specifically how it presented itself in girls. It seemed so obvious. The terrible temper tantrums and anger management problems I’d inflicted on my parents weren’t just bad behavior. They were meltdowns. The nauseating hatred for the texture and smell of certain foods wasn’t just the sign of a picky, spoiled child – they were sensory overloads causing aversion, as was my sensitivity to loud noises in places like concerts and movie theaters. The way my brain worked wasn’t the experience everyone else had – it was autistic. And that was okay.

I don’t act as often anymore. I have the persona of ‘Amalena’ I can slip into if necessary, a metaphorical mask kept in a metaphorical case on a metaphorical shelf, but I don’t force myself to try as often as I used to. I feel free now, knowing why I am the way I am, and knowing it’s alright not to act. It might not be socially acceptable all the time, but I’ve learned not to care because it’s simply not worth the stress.

I think that acting is a good skill to learn for an Autistic individual, if they can handle the stress involved in taking some of the classes. It’s a handy thing to have in the back pocket and can be a sort of ‘foreign language’ course in tone, body language, and all those other things that elude so many of us. But it should never be used to make an Autistic person be a neurotypical person. Characters belong on stage, not in your life. Be yourself instead of pleasing people who don’t want you to be. Ultimately, I believe that is the key to being a happier, well-adjusted Autistic.