Autism on TV

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The problem with a spectrum condition like Autism is that is very hard for anyone to get a true grasp on what it actually is. Autistic Spectrum Disorder is currently one of those diseases whereby a few conditions with similar traits have been bunged together. And that is problematic.

I’ve always been very open about my condition with people, because I consider it something to be a need to know thing. I don’t want people seeing some of my behaviour and tarring me negatively for some of my less than stellar traits. I am proud of being autistic, because I know why I am how I am. There’s an explanation for my traits.

And some people take things the wrong way about the condition. The amount of times I’ve heard the phrase ‘but you’re not a retard’, or ‘everyone has a bit of autism in them’ annoys me. Autism and its associated conditions on TV really bug me sometimes.

Autism is a spectrum, I understand that everyone has a different version of the condition, and it affects them in different ways. My issue with autism on TV is that clouds perceptions. If a character has autism on TV, that is portrayed as the definitive version of Autism for that show.

Bad portrayals of autism

A show I particularly bashed was The A Word, which aired in 2016, and had a second series in 2017. I watched a little bit of it, and I was not impressed. Not because of the quality, it is a well made show, but how it didn’t really discuss Autism, and put unlikeable main characters at the forefront, rather than the issue itself. That annoyed me.

It wasn’t even the portrayal of the condition that particularly annoyed me, but the execution. If you’re going to have a show called ‘The A Word’, have the show about Autism. Not dickheads with a son who has autism. Another recent portrayal of a condition I have is from Doctor Who, where one of the new companions has Dyspraxia. This condition I also have.

The problem here is that the portrayal is being used for a political point, and not as a plot device. If anything, it made people with my condition look bad. Some critics of the show used that character to further their Political Correctness argument online. That’s not what should be happening. 

Good portrayals of Autism

There are some portrayals of the condition I actually don’t mind. The Good Doctor, a medical drama my Mum watches, has one of the better portrayals of this condition. I don’t know why this is. It isn’t the most accurate portrayal of it on TV, but I think having a good story behind it is beneficial. Autism is the driving factor of The Good Doctor, not a sideshow, and the character is likeable. I like to see Shaun Murphy develop, rather than focus on the behind the scenes aspects.

Personally, what I particularly love is when a character on a show shows traits but isn’t stated to have the condition, or has similar struggles to me. Lieutenant Commander Data on Star Trek is an android, but I find him so much more relateable as he tries to become more human, compared to the dyspraxic character on Doctor Who. I feel that kinship because Data struggles with basic concepts that I sometimes do. That, to me, is the sign of a great portrayal of an Autistic Spectrum Condition.

Conclusions

These days, we live in a much more open society. LGBT people are coming out and are living their lives openly, and people are more open nowadays about their personal issues.

I believe in the rush for representation, we are losing sight of why we put these things in. Why do we want to have women better represented on TV? Why do we want more ethnic minorities in leading roles? Why should any Autistic Spectrum Condition be the backdrop for a show? Our culture has lost sight of that, and we need that sight back.

The BBC has a five-year plan to encourage diversity on its shows. Mandates for diversity are the wrong way to go. We need to fix that.


Related Posts and Extended Reading

Living with Autism

Advancing Through Autism

About the author

Ben

Since 2012, Benjamin Attwood has written for the If you Ask Ben blog.

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