Last year I watched The A Word and did a review for each episode, but this year I have not even caught up on the first episode of series two yet. This is in part due to me being busy and having a lot of other things to watch, but it is also due to the fact that I find it quite hard and cringe-inducing to watch shows/films that seek to portray autism. That’s also why I never got around to watching Atypical, despite thinking that I should write something about it. So why have I been avoiding shows with autism in them? And should I keep doing so?
There has been a bit of patten in recent years with The A word, The Good Doctor, Atypical and the Accountant among others all being released to media praise, and a backlash from autistic people. It normally goes something like this: The show/film comes out and gets widely praised for having an autistic character, autistic people let themselves hope it will be done right, watch the show/film only to find out it`s been badly done and is mostly just stereotypes, and react badly to it. We write blogs and post online about why the film/show is getting things wrong, and urge people not to take what that program is showing them as a realistic image of what autism is, then the show`s/film`s creators respond by saying that the show/film is not meant to represent everyone with autism, and can not tell everyone’s story, and that’s the end of it until the next show/film.
Firstly to address some of those points: of course each show and film can only tell one story, and is not meant to represent everyone, but some of the stories we see in film and T.V. do not seem to represent anyone; they are just stereotypes brought to life on screen. Plus you only have to look at the Rainman effect to see what power films and T.V. have over how people see autism and autistic people. Even now, well over twenty years since its release, it is still one of the first things some people go to when they think of autism. It`s not that it`s a bad film, it`s just that lots of people don’t want to look any further in to a subject once they have seen one film or T.V. show on it. They think they understand it now and can talk about it like experts. The truth is autistic people understand that one show or one film is not going to show everything there is to know about autism, but sadly a lot of non-autistic people do not seem to understand this. Therefore those shows/films have a power that most others do not; they will help shape and create non-autistic peoples` views and perceptions of autistic people for years to come.
So when a new T.V. show comes on the air autistic people tend to have a mix of feelings; we want it to be good – why would we not after all? But we also worry that it will be bad. If it is bad then some of us will feel we have to react to it; to keep watching through the cringingly bad attempts to show how autistic people talk, think and feel, to keep watching even if it passes the point of being offensively bad. And sometimes it is worth doing that – you can`t write about something or hold it to account if you have not watched it. You can dislike an idea, but to call out a show or film you do have to sit down and watch it. You have to think about why it`s bad, write that down, edit it and post it somewhere, and that’s the thing – sometimes it just does not feel worth while doing that.
It is always worth autistic people speaking up and challenging poor portrayals of autism on T.V. If we do not do this then who will? And like I said those portrayals, if left unchallenged, will dictate how non-autistic people view autism. But still, having to watch through them can sometimes be trying. It`s hard enough to have to watch bad films and T.V. without falling asleep or drifting off to find something better to do, but when you have to watch bad TV/films that also try and fail to show autism it becomes even harder to get through. It`s hard to put the feeling in to words; it`s not always that things are offensive, although sometimes they are, it`s more that it can just be downright painful to watch sometimes. I am sure we have all seen a film or T.V. show that got stuff badly wrong when showing autism, and if you have then you will know the feeling I am talking about.
It can feel like autistic people are having to say the same things over and over again when talking about how autistic people are shown on T.V. We pick up on the same issues time and time again, and talk/write about them, and yet not much seems to change.
So is it worth watching and reviewing these shows/films?
It`s always worth talking and writing about how autism is portrayed in film or on T.V. Even, or perhaps especially, if it is a bad portrayal. Of course anyone can review anything, but the views of an autistic person must hold more weight when talking about autism on screen. That being said no one is ever obligated to review a show or film. Once you start writing about things like that it can start to feel as if you need to watch everything to keep up with what’s going on, and give your views on every new T.V. show that comes out. But you might not want to; you might be fed up of watching TV/films that frustrate you, but also you might just not have time to keep up with everything. Right now autism is a pretty big deal on T.V. There are new shows coming out about it all the time, and it would be hard for anyone to keep up.
In short yes it is important for autistic people to speak up if we see a bad, negative, or flawed image of autism on T.V. and also to say when people get stuff right, but it`s also totally understandable if we need a break from doing this from time to time. I will try and catch up on The A word, and despite my talk of bad portrayals of autism on T.V. I will keep an open mind going in to it. And while I can`t watch and talk about every show that deals with autism, I do try and read as many reviews of these shows by autistic people as I can.
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