I watched Rainman with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise way back when I was in high school, long before I was diagnosed with autism myself. Back then, autism was diagnosed far less frequently and I would probably not have been seen as autistic, but just quiet, socially awkward, or later as having “Aspergers Syndrome.” More recently, there have been a spate of TV shows and other media about autistic people, but still often with the idea of something that makes the autistic person a “savant” or “extraordinary” in other ways. I’m thinking specifically about the shows “The Good Doctor” and “The Extraordinary Lawyer Woo.” But I think there are some serious problems with these depictions.
First, let me say that I was originally charmed by both of these latter shows. I was so happy to see autism depicted positively (such as it is) and with something of an attempt to show that this is a different way of seeing the world, not just a disability. The first two episodes are great, but as I kept watching, I have gotten increasingly frustrated at two things:
1. The need to make the audience believe that autistic people are valuable to humanity — but only if they are truly extraordinary in their abilities.
2. A needle-focus on the strange habits of autistic people, either sexually or in terms of inability to connect to others or their physical ways of moving in abnormal ways.
Certainly, there are extraordinary autists out there. I’ve talked about my own extraordinary autistic abilities on more than one occasion. But the problem is that I end up feeling like we as autists are begging for scraps. Please, treat as almost human. See, we’re giving so much of ourselves to society, and we’re super, super useful and so we can have good jobs and get paid and you can put up with a few strange habits, right?
The problem is that just as is the case with the neurotypical world, most autists aren’t this kind of extraordinary. Most autists don’t have super high IQs. Most autists are going to need help from parents, government, and from the rest of us in order to find any place at all in society where they are seen as human and as deserving of basic kindness and treatment as fully human. Most autists may not be able to hold a full-time job. Most autists aren’t going to make discoveries that change the face of…