Recently Netflix produced a comedy-drama series titled Atypical, about an autistic teenager. I tuned out after two episodes, deeming the American high school coming-of-age tale just not for me, but what I also disliked was that I found the protagonist (whom Keir Gilchrist is admittedly quite good as) rather dull.
Basically, the main character, Sam, loved penguins, a topic no one else found fascinating. I’m not an ornithologist so I certainly didn’t find it an endearing character trait, but as my mind drifted to documentaries like March of the Penguins and Life, as well as animated films like Happy Feet and Surf’s Up, I realised an autistic teenager could have grown up enchanted by penguins. They’re cute, flightless birds that live in the coldest place on Earth for six months balancing eggs on their feet, and dive in the sea like tiny missiles.
The show’s writers clearly picked an interest they felt many did not share to show the difficulty Sam has engaging with others. But they don’t convey why he is fascinated by them, so his characterisation fell flat. For example, is he concerned by the impact climate change will have on them? Filmmakers want to make autistic people sympathetic, but they can’t make them empathetic until they really engage with their world.
As someone with Asperger’s syndrome, I genuinely love movies, TV shows, books and video games, and use them to help start or propel conversations about the arts, history, mythology, politics, and philosophy. Literature and cinema shows me the lives of others, people from other countries, of other races and religions, and what it’s like to be from a minority or to be a white woman, today or yesterday. I can use I Am Not Your Negro to bring up James Baldwin, or the music in Blade Runner or The Terminator to recommend bands like Chvrches. I don’t believe Sam is really fascinated by penguins, rather than just diagnosed with a magical illness that makes him rattle off inane trivia about them.
Film and TV creators are great when conveying the passions and obsessions of nerdy non-autistic people: like there’s a lot of science I don’t get when watching Orphan Black, but Tatiana Maslany absolutely sells the expertise of Cosima so enthusiastically that I utterly believe she’s a genius. Similarly, Jurassic Park conveyed their characters’ fascination with dinosaurs so well you believe Sam Neill is a paleontologist. And let’s not forget the animated segment in that film that taught audiences so much more about cloning than Michael Crichton ever could.
As always, we must look to literature to inspire great media. Now, I have a love-hate relationship with Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, partly as I found the twist unbelievable, and because at school all my friends assumed I shared all the problems as the book’s main character, who for the record, is also named Christopher.
However, the novel is brilliantly written; Christopher adores math, a widely despised subject for many, but he talks about it with such love that you come to appreciate his love of it. He, like his favourite character Sherlock Holmes, is ultimately trying to find logic in an often chaotic world.
The stage version of the book does a lot to convey Christopher’s mind and the beauty of what he sees, so it’s no excuse that naturally low budget film productions should be overly austere. We need to progress beyond Rain Man’s then groundbreaking depiction of autism. Cooking’s another passion some may not share, but remember the 2D part of Ratatouille enabling the audience to almost taste Remy’s obsession? That’s the kind of inventive, resourceful storytelling that productions about disabled people need.
Since beginning this attempt to unravel why media about autism were so boring, I began watching a BBC drama called The A Word*, about a northern family with an autistic 5-year old. Little Joe is too young to truly be the protagonist of the show, but his love of pop music is utterly infectious and makes the storytelling absolutely dynamic. It gives me hope that someday, other shows or films which are actually about autistic people will be as engaging or fun to watch.
*Editors Note: The A Word has been called out by other autistic writers and critics have called it exploitative, tokenizing and othering.
Editor: Trianna Nguyen