The Curious Incident of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” – A Literary Review

Spoilers ahead.

The book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is an award winning book by Mark Haddon, famed for its depiction of an allegedly autistic protagonist.

It has been hailed by some as textbook on Aspergers, and some people even claim that it helped teach them how to interact with people on the autism spectrum. This is terrifying. Part of the problem is that some of the problematic aspects of the book are subtle, and in being so are possibly more damaging than something blatantly offensive because the reader doesn’t realize what they may be internalizing by reading the novel until it’s too late, or perhaps even never.

The main character is Christopher Boone, a teenage boy with an unspecified mental/social disability. His character reads as if someone googled ‘What are Asperger’s syndrome’s symptoms?’, took the first list they found off Autism Speaks’ website, and made a character based on that. It reads like a neurotypical person trying to understand the thoughts of a neurodiverse person rather than the actual thoughts of an autistic. This is in fact similar to the reverse of the personal experience I had in my own writing – most neurotypical people reading my work could tell something was off, that maybe I was not really one of them but rather was pretending. With Haddon’s work, most neurodiverse people can tell something is off, that he is pretending (as I noticed in reading reviews by other autistics). Instead of creating a real character, Haddon instead created another “Rain Man” – aka a stereotypical portrayal of a white male autistic savant mathematician.

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Image is of a blurred out white male behind a glass plane, writing mathematical equations on it.

Not all aspects of Christopher’s character are negative or inaccurate – a fact which helps cover up the insidiousness of other aspects of the book. He has a fixation with the color of cars indicating what his luck for the day would be, stimming, and a few other realistic things along those lines help to build realism and potential understanding of such behaviors in neurotypical readers. However, his main flaw is his lack of humanity. Many people don’t understand that autistics do indeed have the capacity for empathy – in fact, quite a few have too much empathy to the point of being overwhelmed and not able to handle it, as I’ve written before in my review of Netflix’s Atypical. Sometimes autistics do not identify situations that require empathy, or do not understand them – but that is completely different from not being capable of empathy at all.

Christopher does not care about anyone or anything other than himself. The catalyst for the beginning of the book is Christopher discovering a dead dog and deciding to try to solve the mystery of who killed it, but even that is not done out of a sense of empathy for the murdered animal. It is entirely out of his fandom for Sherlock Holmes and his desire to solve the mystery itself. He does not care for his mentor, his neighbors, or his father, and his only reason to care about his mother comes across as a sense of selfishness – which the book ties into some of the problematic issues with their relationship, and is in and of itself problematic.

Christopher is also a consistently violent character, and not just in a triggered out of control meltdown way (it should be noted that the description of his meltdowns in the book are pretty accurate, though obviously not universal). He thinks about wanting to stab someone in response to anxiety induced by an important math test, which is not at all a realistic response to anxiety over a test. Some autistics can be violent in response to overwhelming sensory input, or even in a self-defense sort of way to overwhelming social contact, but most are not naturally violent. The natural thought to being in an uncomfortable situation is want to avoid or escape the situation or to think about a place that makes them feel safe that they would prefer to be in – the natural reaction is not to wish to brutally murder someone. Christopher even has that ‘flight’ response towards another uncomfortable situation, when he learns that his father killed the dog from the beginning and had lied about his mother being dead.  Christopher’s response is to escape. Yet for the test, he casually wants to murder someone. One of his favorite fantasies is that everyone in the world has died, leaving him alone. He could have easily thought of simply being someplace alone, but wishing death on everyone on the planet seems to be overkill.

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Image is of a man standing alone on a rocky beach.

In presenting him like this, the book plays off of the stereotype that all Aspies are just a hair away from deciding to go on a shooting spree. It is a harmful stereotype because of the way it leads to neurotypical people sometimes treating ASD people. Their initial response in learning that someone is an Aspie can become one of fear and suspicion fueled by the paranoia this stereotype produces. It does not matter whether or not they know anything about the individual in front of them: automatically they assume that anyone with Asperger’s is dangerous, leading to more social problems for those who already have enough.

Another example of something a little more subtly horrifying in this book is the way that the people around Christopher interact with him and treat him. His father is abusive, his mother abandoned him, and the other people he encounters look down on him. The two that stand out the most are of course his mother and father. His father drinks and hits him hard enough to bruise him – and no one seems to care. It is almost as if, because he is autistic, it is alright. Christopher has a mentor/psychologist who even asks him about the bruises, but he does not feel like talking about it so she never investigates into the possibility of abuse even though that is her job. His father also threatens him and lies to him, telling him that his mother died a year and a half previously even though she was alive and writing to him. Christopher hardly reacts to the abuse, except for when he learns about his mom still being alive. It’s almost like background noise whenever someone insults him. By portraying an autistic character as not truly harmed by abuse, it makes it seem almost alright to abuse real autistic people. Because if someone doesn’t care or feel harmed by something, then why stop? Even now, violent electric shocks are being legally used in the USA as a way to punish autistics in institutions for doing harmless things like stimming. Because if autistics aren’t bothered by abuse, then where’s the harm? (Please note, that was sarcasm.)

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Image is of a teenage boy in a hoody sitting in a semi-fetal position.

The mother is barely any better. She blames Christopher for ruining her marriage despite the fact that she is the one who had an affair – sounding like an Autism Speaks promotional video using autism as a tool to scare couples. This is another trope/harmful stereotype about autism, that having a child who is on the spectrum means that a couple’s marriage is doomed. As if the trials that come with having a special needs child are the child’s fault if the marriage was unstable to begin with. And no one, not even Christopher himself, cares about any of this. The only things Christopher really cares about is that his father lied about his mother’s death, and that his father killed the dog in the beginning. But even these things – things that are very important – no one else in the book cares about. The fact that the father got drunk and literally murdered an animal in cold blood is never prosecuted or seen as indicative of violent tendencies. Perhaps the worst part is that the book itself doesn’t care. It pretends that because the father apologized at the end and bought Christopher a dog (because a man who gets drunk and murders dogs and hits his son should totally be allowed to buy a dog and keep custody of his son) that it’s all okay. Somehow, that’s supposed to be a satisfying conclusion to the whole novel. Overall it’s a terrible example of humanity.

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Image is of the cover of the book “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” by Mark Haddon

Some interesting facts I uncovered while researching the author’s understanding of the condition he was writing about came to light in the form of direct quotes from Haddon himself. While he originally described Christopher as an Aspie, even putting “Asperger’s” on the cover of his book as a description of his character and story, he has since retracted this and has had this to say about the subject of autism:

“I have to say honestly that I did more research about the London Underground and the inside of Swindon Railway Station, where some of the novel takes place, than I did about Asperger’s syndrome.”

“I know very little about the subject. I did no research for Curious Incident (other than photographing the interiors of Swindon and Paddington stations). I’d read Oliver Sack’s essay about Temple Grandin and a handful of newspaper and magazine articles about, or by, people with Asperger’s and Autism. I deliberately didn’t add to this list. Imagination always trumps research.”

Except that imagination does not trump research when an author is addressing something so based in the real world, that affects so many real people. Certainly imagination is key if creating a fantasy world where rivers float through the sky and mountains are inhabited by dwarves, but not when describing a condition many people actually have. Such a work by its nature requires extensive research or personal experience, or it risks creating harmful work full of information that will harm people and society in real life with its influence. If I were to ‘imagine’ that all gay people were obnoxious, promiscuous, sex-obsessed, riddled with STDs, and incapable of romantic love in the way heterosexual people are, then that would be inaccurate and extremely offensive and harmful to a lot of people. That’s essentially what Haddon has done.

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Image is of  the interior of Paddington station, referred to by Haddon

Part of the harm taken from this book is that, despite Mark Haddon’s admission that he knows very little on the subject, this book is being used as a teaching tool. One doctor, Dr. Alex McClimens, read Curious Incident and went so far as to say, “The magnificent essay in communication is compulsory reading for anyone with the slightest interest in autistic spectrum disorders.” Except that it should not be, for all the reasons listed above. Without accuracy and research, paper becomes poison.

Intentions matter when you write. Haddon did not intend to write an award winning, widely read book to be turned into a musical and used as a textbook on a subject he did little research on, yet he did. His intention seemed to be to write a semi-thriller/mystery using mental illness as a prop to draw in readers (as unfortunately many writers do). If he had considered the impact his work could have on various communities, perhaps he would have sharpened his intentions and decided that imagination is not better than research. Perhaps he would have written a novel whose character could help the autistic community in visibility and their treatment rather than creating an un-sympathetic, un-empathetic mathematically inclined stereotype.

 

If you like what you’ve read, like, share, comment, and/or follow to show support! You can also find me on facebook as Some Girl with a Braid, or on Twitter @AmalenaCaldwell.

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Image is a promotional picture for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” musical
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New Autism Magazine – Masking, Issue 1

Recently, I was in contact with the amazing Olivia Armstrong to do an interview for a new magazine, Masking. It’s all about showing autistic voices talking about issues that matter to the autistic community. This is great for everyone to read – whether you’re autistic yourself, have a family member or friend who is, or just want to be more informed. It’s well put together and well written, highly suggest a read!
Here’s my contribution, a section about gender bias in diagnosing autism:

“It took 19 years for someone to suggest that I might be on the spectrum, after years of therapy and obvious symptoms, such as meltdowns, growing up. These were labeled tantrums, and I was considered to have anger management problems. Girls are socialized differently, so if you’ve got a social disability and are being judged against criteria set up for a group of people who are trained from birth to socialize differently from you, there’s going to be a difference and people won’t pick up on it. You don’t fit their mold.”

“There’s theories out there that being autistic means I have a male brain. I don’t see how that’s possible, since I feel female and am very happy as a female. It feels kind of dismissive of my identity as a female to say that I must be male in some way to have the neurology I do.”

“For a while I was told I was possibly bipolar. This didn’t stick because I didn’t get the right sort of mood swings, but suffice to say it took a while and several bad theories before realizing that ASD fit me perfectly and explained everything.”

That’s just a small portion of the amazing autistic voices in this magazine, and I highly suggest giving it a read to support this emerging journalist! To show her you want an issue 2, show your support by voicing it on social media and liking her magazine’s twitter page (@MaskingMagazine)

issuu.com/maskingmagazine/docs/maskingmagazineissue1

 

 

If you like what you’ve read, show your support with likes, comments, and shares. If you like it so much you want more, follow me here on wordpress, on facebook at Some Girl with a Braid, and/or Twitter @AmalenaCaldwell.

Fantastic Autistics and Where to Find Them

(Spoiler Alert! There are a few limited spoilers concerning the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in the following post!)

Anyone who knows me at all knows that one of my greatest and most passionate literary loves is the Harry Potter series by J.K.Rowling. I know every spell. I know every character, even the minor ones. Every location, every little piece of trivia, and every scrap of information having to do with books 1-7. I grew up with the series, aging as Harry did and learning alongside him all about Hogwarts and the wizarding world it was a part of.

So when Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was announced as a movie, I was jumping up and down with excitement that the journey wasn’t over, that we got to see more of Rowling’s world beyond Hogwarts.

The first thing I loved about this movie is that while the original Harry Potter books and movies taught us about what magic was and how to use it from the perspective of adolescents coming into their power, Fantastic Beasts showed the adult world. These characters knew how to cast spells without making themselves vomit slugs and apparate without splicing themselves. It was a great addition on that front alone.

But even better were the new characters essentially invented for this new movie without anything that solid to work off of from J.K.Rowling’s original writing beyond a few names and technical details like “This person wrote a textbook.”

So let’s discuss the main character, Newt Scamander. His goal is to write a textbook. It’s such a dull premise on the surface if you just say it aloud, but think about what he wants to do. He is a compassionate individual borderline ‘obsessed’ with learning everything he can about magical creatures so that he can document them and categorize them in order to save them, while finding beauty in beings that his fellow wizards and witches might be afraid of or seek to destroy. He sees the world differently from they do. He even walks and moves differently, as if he’s not completely aware of the space his body takes up and is more focused on the purpose behind his movements than how someone watching might perceive them. He struggles to make eye contact with people, and even has the following lovely exchange:

I annoy people

Jacob: Oh, well, I’m-I’m sure people like you too, huh?

Newt: No, not really. I annoy people.

I think a lot of autistics out there can relate to internalizing that sentiment.

You can see where this is going.

While never flat out stated to be (possibly because of the time period, or maybe the wizarding world doesn’t have a lot in the way of mental health? Harry Potter would have been seeing a psychologist if he’d gone to a muggle school by the end of book one), the way I ‘read’ Newt Scamander is as an autistic adult. But he’s not the typical autistic male white adult that we see in so many adaptations, despite being all those things, and that makes him amazing.

While most autistic characters gravitate towards science, technology, and math (in the wizarding world, perhaps potions and arithmancy would be the equivalent?) with savant like perfection, Newt Scamander does not have this stereotypical characteristic. For one, I wouldn’t classify him as a savant. He has a special interest which he’s extremely passionate and knowledgeable about, but that in and of itself does not make someone a savant. Just passionate and knowledgeable. And it’s noteworthy the choice of focus: animals. I’ve heard that autistic girls are said to commonly have a passionate interest in animals, aspiring to be veterinarians and the like. Girls like horses and dolls, boys like cars and computers. For the character of Newt, this is flipped. He goes against the stereotype by adopting a trait I’ve most often seen described in lists of “symptoms” associated with female autistics. And I absolutely love that.

Related to his passion for fantastic beasts (and where to find them), one of the most important aspects of Newt’s character is that he does not at all struggle with empathy. In fact, I’d say it’s his biggest strength. He’s even far more empathic than most of the presumably neurotypical characters surrounding him, as exhibited by this bit of dialogue:

Newt: I’m writing a book about magical creatures

Tina: Like an extermination guide?

Newt: No, a guide to help people understand why we should be protecting these creatures instead of killing them.

He shines in every moment he’s with these creatures, and seems to understand them more than he understands people – not an unheard of autistic trait. He understands them so well that he even can perform an erumpent mating dance to placate the large rhinoceros like creature, and keeps a plant-like bowtruckle in his pocket because the poor thing had a cold and needed body warmth – also because he had attachment issues. This sort of understanding and empathy towards different creatures isn’t exhibited by anyone else in the film. Indeed, others are afraid of the erumpent and when the bowtruckle is revealed, it’s desired by other characters for its lockpicking abilities without thought for what it wants or needs.

But an even more striking an example of Newt’s empathy and goodness are the moments just after he’s been arrested, and then again when sentenced to death. When arrested, his immediate concern isn’t for himself, but for the creatures in his care. He begs that they remain unharmed, emphasizing that nothing in his menagerie is dangerous over and over again even as he’s taken away in shackles. When sentenced to death, his first concern isn’t begging for his own life, but worry that his companion, Tina, might also be punished.

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(Image dialogue – Newt: Please, you don’t understand. Nothing in there is dangerous.)

This is such an incredibly powerful portrayal of an autistic individual when compared to other autistic and autistically implied characters in media. They often have little concept of empathy, or have to truly struggle to learn or become aware of any form of recognizable empathy, thanks to lack of empathy being an trait inaccurately assumed to go hand in hand with autism. For a prime example, see my previous post about Atypical’s main character, Sam. In contrast, Newt shows autistic empathy. He feels deeply for everyone around him, including those that his society looks down on such as magical creatures and muggles (I refuse to use the term ‘no-maj’, sorry JKR), those he’s essentially been told not to feel empathy for. Note though, it’s not sympathy or just compassion Newt feels – something I think a lot of neurotypicals conflate with empathy. It’s true, full-blown empathy. He feels for himself what the creatures he studies feel. When the erumpent is happy, he is happy. The music played during the scene when he confronts the giant beast is whimsical and light, a beautiful piece of piano and strings indicating how they both feel. When other creatures are causing trouble or in trouble, he knows how to find them and deal with them because he can put himself into their minds and feel what they feel.

Finally, I’d like to point out one more thing about Newt that makes him an absolutely beautiful example of an autistic character. He has friends. Not a roommate who begrudgingly learns to put up with him, not coworkers who learn to see his brilliance and accept him on that basis alone. Over the course of the movie, Newt is shown becoming friends with Jacob, Tina, and Queenie through their shared struggle. They genuinely like him as a person not in spite of his differences, but because of them. There’s even hints that there’s romantic tension with Tina by the end (curse you sequel bait, I wanted a kiss!) and mention of previous love lost in Newt’s life. All social things that autistics struggle with, and in media are often portrayed without.

Overall, Newt Scamander is fantastic. He is intelligent, capable, brave, giving, and unashamedly empathetic. He is also autistic, based on the traits I mentioned above. And while I will always love Harry, Hermione, Ron, and all the wonderful characters introduced in the Wizarding World created by J.K.Rowling, Newt Scamander just might be my favorite.

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Image dialogue –

Jacob: Hey, Newt, why did you keep me around?

Newt: Because I like you, Jacob. Because you’re my friend.

What were your thoughts when you saw the movie for the first time? Agree, disagree? Feel free to engage with your opinions in the comment section!

 

This particular fantastic autistic can be found on facebook on the page ‘Some Girl with a Braid’ or on Twitter @AmalenaCaldwell. Like, share, comment, and/or follow to show support!

Guest Post at ‘The Geeky Gimp’: Autism and the Virtues of Single-Player RPGs

And now for something completely different! Well, not completely…

I direct your attention to the amazing Erin Hawley’s blog at The Geeky Gimp, where she’s given me the opportunity to do a guest post about gaming and autism. Enjoy!

“As an autistic individual, there’s a special place in my heart for single-player role-playing games. I started with Skyrim, fell in love, and have since added other games such as Mass EffectDragon AgePortalDiablo, and Assassin’s Creed to my computer.”

Check out the link to read more!

https://geekygimp.com/autism-and-the-virtues-of-single-player-rpgs/

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!