Wednesday, January 2, 2013

"_____ has autism/Asperger's/ASD" - the media

I admit it - I watch television shows. More specifically, I've always been a fan of procedural crime dramas for some reason, namely NCIS and Dexter, provided Dexter counts as "procedural."

NCIS is a great show - it must be, since I have over the last year or so (maybe less) watched every single episode from season 1, episode 1 to the most recent season 10, episode 10. NCIS is also a successful franchise in that it spawned a spin-off (NCIS: Los Angeles) despite being a spinoff itself (of a now-cancelled CBS show, JAG).

So last night, I was watching NCIS: Los Angeles season 4 episode 3, entitled "The Fifth Man." It didn't take long for the thought to cross my mind that one of the characters was possibly autistic in some way. Not a main character, just a major character in this particular episode.

The basic premise was that some people were playing an online game meant to predict how individuals or groups would act in carrying out a terrorist plot on American soil. There were five "exemplary" players, four of whom were murdered in the opening scene. The fifth was suspected to be a man with a gambling problem, but was actually his daughter.

As the episode progressed, the girl was brought in for questioning. Watching one agent's unsuccessful attempt to communicate with the girl, one of the main characters (Sam Hanna, played by LL Cool J) proposed the idea that "maybe she has some form of autism, Asperger's Syndrome."

At the end of the episode, "the doctor diagnosed her with Asperger's Syndrome."

That wasn't exactly central to the plot, but I found it interesting nonetheless. She was portrayed as not just withdrawn, but practically anti-social. An agent asked how old she was, and she responded with the number of years, days, hours, and seconds, counting the few seconds after she spoke. She said a few times that she "didn't have friends" and asked at one point "is this what friendship feels like?" She was portrayed as tactless and unable to relate to "normal" people.

Essentially, she was a high-functioning but socially-impaired autistic savant. There wasn't anything particularly offensive about the character or her portrayal. It's not like she was a broad caricature - well actually, she was, but not necessarily in a bad way.

The media thrives on stereotypes, whether they mean to or not. The gay guy is always sassy and fashion-aware, a good cook (or else very domestic in some way), and so on; the Asians are always either smart, brainy types or gangsters; you get it.

Neuro-diversity advocacy dictates that those with any form of mental difference ought to be treated with the same respect and afforded the same dignity as those without. There are differences, however.

It's one thing to say that a white male, a black woman, and an openly gay person should be considered for a job position equally and based solely on their respective qualifications.

However, there are some jobs for which people with Asperger's and other forms of autism are simply not cut out.

I would just hate to see people with autism portrayed in the media as either end of an unfortunate spectrum - on one hand, they could be depicted as "deficient" or in some way "less than human," or even as retarded! On the other hand, they could be depicted as geniuses, unusually gifted savants, with seemingly super-human mental capabilities, but otherwise seriously impaired such as to make them "freaks."

Neither of these scenarios (each an extreme end of the media-portrayal spectrum) is ideal and in no way would show the autistic community in a "good" light.

But for some reason, I struggle to find a decent way to represent us in a relateable form! Perhaps there is none. Perhaps that realization only serves to further strengthen the case against painting the autistic community and neuro-atypical individuals as objects of study to be "understood" or "deciphered" by everyone else.