Representation of Autistic People on TV: A Need for More Involvement by Autistic People

Representation of Autistic People on TV: A Need for More Involvement by Autistic People

Old school television set

Television. It’s that flat screen (or standing box) attached to a hinge bracket on a wall (or standing in the middle of the room. Either way, you know what it is.

To think that technology has evolved as such that they now come with remote controls…

“I remember back in the day when people didn’t have remote controls. We had to stand next to the TV and press a button to change channels.”

Just let that fact sink in!

In this month’s blog post, I delve into the world of television, and in particular, how autistic people are represented within dramas and comedies.

TV. We all watch it, consume it, binge it, in whatever form we prefer – be it light entertainment, drama, comedy, reality, etc. But have you ever considered how we in the autism community are being portrayed?

On performing a web search (I won’t name the search engine but I’m pretty sure you can guess) I came across a frightening fact – not one of the so called 30 characters on TV who would identify as being on the spectrum are from an Australian TV show! Most of the fictional characters coming from American shows, with two from UK TV shows.

…not one of the so called 30 characters on TV who would identify as being on the spectrum are from an Australian TV show!

A further search on a free encyclopaedia website informs me that we’ve appeared in 66 movies. In stark contrast we’ve only appeared in 37 TV shows in total. Out of those, 6 were set in the UK, 2 came from NZ and the remaining 29 came from the USA. We, as Australians, haven’t got a single entry.

One of the UK characters is in a well-known soap opera, and the other appeared in a comedy about an IT department. Only one drama featured a character on the spectrum who was a computer hacker (isn’t that always the stereotyped way?). 

‘The Code’ aired on the ABC in 2014 and no reference was made to autism even though those within the autism community could spot the traits a mile away.

Are we not worthy?

Do script writers not know how to write for us?

Do they need a hand (If so, I’m available!)?

Or is it that television networks don’t want ‘us’ on TV?

We're not worthy

Is it easier for scriptwriters and producers to create a drama about a flawed doctor or crooked cop and think to themselves that;

…if we make the character autistic it’s going to be more trouble than it’s worth when it comes to writing the script… besides we’ve covered every other trait that we can think of so let’s not give ourselves a headache.

Or do they think;

Great now we have to consult with every autistic organisation out there to make sure we don’t offend anyone?

Which in turn causes them to flip their hands up in the air, exasperated and give up?

To aid these producers and TV networks I’ve come up with some concepts of my own which I’m willing to discuss further (shameless plug I know but you got do what you got to do!).

CATHY:

Cathy started life on the beat, where she walked the mean streets of Burns Beach with a two-way radio, content with her in and out box tray. Life was good. That is until one day after someone steals a toy giraffe from a baby’s pram and she gives chase. As the criminal runs up some stairs to the fourth floor, Cathy is pushed. When she awakes after being in a coma for 2 years, she’s arrested for killing that crim and her partner. But she can’t remember a thing…

DIAL D FOR DATA:

Set against the backdrop of Perth’s CBD, Sam works alone as an intelligent analyst in a cubicle, happy and content within his role as a data entry clerk until one day when Sam uncovers a series of codes which implement a government cover up within the funding sector which he decides to make public via his investigative journalist brother who works for the Burns Beach Bugle, a renowned publication. But danger is just around the corner…

THE DETECTIVE:

Harry is a private investigator working out of his dilapidated mobile home (which doubles as his office) in a parking lot on Burns Beach. He rarely carries his colt detective – his special revolver – for which he has no permit, preferring instead to talk his way out of trouble. He works on cold cases, missing person’s investigations, and low-budget insurance scams.

6028 MUSICAL AVENUE:

A comedy about a group of kids who meet on a regular basis and through hard work and persistence dream of making it big on Broadway. As they sing and dance their way through life’s up’s and downs – either down the school corridors or outside in the playground – they can combat any issues they face! In the first episodes, Marcia isn’t happy that she’s been left out of the group text messaging system, so she decides to fight back the only way she knows how – by staging a sing off. Who will be crowned the winner? Or will someone realise that they’ve written down Marcia’s number wrong?

THE SNOW GLOBE (A KID’S SHOW):

Sally’s parents are both hard working folk. During the day they leave Sally with her Grandma. One-day Sally discovers a box and when she opens that box she finds a snow globe inside. When she shakes it, something magical happens as Sally shrinks and is transported into a magical land – one fuelled by her imagination and creativity.

THE REFERENCE LIBRARIAN:

Tim works as a reference librarian in Clarkson. When he’s asked for help to search and locate a book, little does he realise that love will strike and a relationship will form between him and library card number 065437363.

Ok, so all of the above are made up but I think I’ve illustrated what can be achieved when writers such as myself put their minds to it and create.

I would say in conclusion that once a character has been pegged by the autism community, the writers may find themselves squirrelling even farther away from labelling that character. It would mean added responsibility to straddle the fine line between mockery and mirth. Definitively labelling a character with Asperger’s requires a new layer of sensitivity.

I’ll leave you with this sobering thought. Sesame Street’s Julia, the newest puppet to join the show, apparently took 5 years and a consultation with over 250 autistic organisations before she finally made it on screen.

Wow. Just wow.

 

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