The “Cute” Syndrome: A Survey Of Autism In Popular Culture
I don’t remember how we got there, except that it had come after several bonding sessions, nights drunk on each other’s companionship, telling truths that we kept close to our chest. Utterly remarkable, watching a friendship grow, but simultaneously banal; it was like any other day. All that matters for this story is that we had gotten to the point in the friendship where I felt it was time I told them, I’m autistic.
This sort of thing, while meaningful, is also par for the course. I know how people respond, I know what to expect, but this response surprised me. People generally weren’t candid about their previous expectations toward autism.
“That’s so strange that you feel the need to hide that part of yourself,” they told me, “Autism is sort of the ‘it’ syndrome right now.”
They paused, searching for a better way to say it. I was trying to wrap my head around the idea.
“I don’t mean to say a disorder can be fashionable, but… it’s like, the cute syndrome.”
I wasn’t sure how to react to this. It still floats up in my mind and I still have mixed feelings. It bothers me that people can diminish the struggles of my disorder by considering it the “in” thing to have. I imagine people rushing off to their name brand psychologist to get their name brand diagnosis. But also, I like being told I’m cute. The simple fact is that I, as well as many others, struggle with how the public perceives this disorder and how it is portrayed in popular culture, because that deeply informs others’ reaction to me, whether they know about my identity or not. There’s me, and all my nuances and personal traits, and what I look like to my peers, and there’s the floating idea of what autism is, and what it looks like, and the two seem impossible to separate.
Autism and popular culture have had a complicated relationship for a long time. In 1988 the film Rain Man introduced the disorder to the general public. After its release diagnoses in the United States skyrocketed, and so did the presence of autistic characters in pop culture. In the 1980’s there were only two films starring autistic characters. In the next decade there were thirteen. The older the movie or book or show, the less autistic the characters often seem, some of them carry the label ‘autistic’ but with very few symptoms. Instead, the characters are inflicted with some generic mental disability, which when labeled as autism sells more tickets.
Rain Man, however, was nuanced. I’ve always appreciated the story, not just on a personal level, but also as a writer. It told a story set in a time when the common way to deal with a diagnosis was to send it away, to a mental institution. The filmmakers show the institution as a welcoming, safe, comfortable place for the character Ray, but in reality, these places were often run terribly, and kept up worse. A real life Ray would have found his handicap intensified by such a place. Many autistic children born in this era grew up to have severe mental deficiencies because so little of their nature was understood. Dustin Hoffman showed immense respect in his performance, painting a multifaceted character that felt human, but because of his place on the spectrum he is often a nuisance to the story, or worse, a vehicle solely there to move the plot forward. I don’t mean to bash Rain Man, which I consider a great first step, but it’s just that; the first step.
Today autistic characters are everywhere. Many works of fiction feature characters, central and less so, on the spectrum. Their presence on television, in film, on stage, and in literature keep the disorder in the public eye, and relevant to the lives of those unaffected. I should preface this by saying I mainly focus on television characters for this column, because the hours of narrative give an opportunity to paint the most complex images of these people, and because we are a society that has a television in every home. In many ways, when we watch these shows, we welcome them into our living rooms; we live with these characters.
Some of these characters are notable. In Parenthood, young Max Braverman is diagnosed in the first episode. The show isn’t necessarily about Max, even when it tells one of Max’s stories, but it is as honest and fair a treatment of the character as it can be. Max feels real, like a person even. When the show first began to air I was still in high school, and Max’s story mirrored my own experiences with diagnosis so much that it was sometimes painful to watch, and so I had to stop. I’ve since gone back through much of it. The show’s creator, Jason Katims, wrote from his own life, his son being diagnosed with Asperger’s, and the show’s perspective of the parent observing autism from afar is clear. After all the show was called Parenthood. Katims put a lot of work into making a realistic autistic character. He brought in a behavioral psychologist to help. Because of this, almost all of Max’s stories center around his autism, and his struggles to connect with peers. When he finally makes friends they too struggle with their own disabilities. As real as he feels, It’s still impossible to color Max as a completely real person, his identity is so engulfed with the diagnosis. Nothing seems to happen to him wherein Asperger’s isn’t at the center. While I want to criticize the show for taking a somewhat medical approach to Max Braverman’s autism, opposed to an experiential or personal angle, I can’t completely. Watching Max’s father struggling to connect with his brash son during an adventure to a theme park, I couldn’t help but think about my own relationship with my parents, how much work I was growing up. Max feels real and heartfelt, and in an era where everyone is still figuring out how to handle these issues, that is enough.
The other commendable bit of storytelling I have to mention is the character of Abed on Community. I’ve been a big fan of Dan Harmon, the showrunner, for a while. My interest peaked when he unofficially diagnosed himself with the disorder. Harmon talks about autism extensively in a podcast episode he recorded with the author of Neurotribes, and you can see his complex understanding of Asperger’s in how they discuss it. I highly recommend looking it up. Harmon’s character of Abed struggles with social conventions but he is also, as another character puts it, a Shaman. His high intelligence isn’t portrayed as if he were a savant, simply a smart guy. He’s self aware, aware of the camera, aware the way the show’s world works, in a way none of the other characters are. Most importantly to me, he has a strong, close knit, supportive group of friends. The most adversity Abed faces comes from the way the world reacts to his oddities. In a pivotal episode, his peers find out a girl likes him, and jump at the opportunity, acting like it’s rare or special for a girl to be interested in someone like him. They try to force him out of his comfort zone to talk to this girl, while saying comments that, unknowingly, could be hurtful to someone on the spectrum, usually along the lines of “You might never get another opportunity [for a normal life] like this!” They try to train him, to fix him. All the while Abed goes along with his pals, without a protest, or an expression of discomfort. The narrative concludes with the realization that Abed knows what he’s doing. He’s aware of the subtle charm of his goofiness, and that really, he just prefers the girls come to him. I haven’t seen an autistic character portrayed with such competence and humanity since Abed, and other creatives should take a page from Dan Harmon’s book.
Simultaneously, we have narratives from shows like TheBig Bang Theory, which I recognize is a beloved show filled with beloved characters. Every time I visit my parents their DVR is loaded with episodes. But I can’t get on board with it. When I was a kid, my parents would lovingly compare me to the most on-the-spectrum character, Sheldon. I would cringe at this, and it took me a long time to understand why. It’s not that the portrayal of Sheldon is unfair to autism–it’s a parody, he’s an amped up version of a real person, played for laughs. And I strongly believe that it’s okay to laugh at autism! The problem is his peers. In a show where the nerds are usually the butt of the joke (seriously, try watching it without a laugh track, it feels mean.) Sheldon is the at the bottom of the totem pole. His friends can’t stand him, they barely put up with him. You can hear a palpable distaste for his antics in their voice, which they keep subtle so as not to perk his untrained ears. It brings back memories of bad interactions with less than understanding neurotypical people, who don’t mind laughing at a real person’s symptoms. Previously, I’ve dismissed it as just a television show, but the problem is these prominent bits of media define culture, they define people’s expectations of each other, and they define how we should and shouldn’t react. According to The Big Bang Theory, autistic people are obnoxious and unbearable, and should be treated with subtle hostility and contempt. At least it’s funny.
There’s lots of examples of bad autistic characters out there, many I don’t feel the need to list. They suggest false and unrealistic images of autism. They suggest autistic people are defined by their disability, not the other way around. They suggest autistic people can only connect with other autistic people, and can only find love with other “odd” people, because they are too weird for anyone else to be interested. Characters yell and fight with each other when someone suggests their loved one has autism, as if it is some horrid accusation. The problem with most media portrayals of autism isn’t that it’s unfairly stereotyped, it’s that it’s usually too sympathetic, opposed to empathetic, and through that it fuels society’s problematic tropes and anxieties about autism. The autistic character is trying, look how hard they are trying. The autistic character wants to fit in, but they can’t and they never will because autism. Don’t you feel sad? Don’t you feel sorry for them? You know there is more to you than that. From this angle, pop culture is caring and compassionate, but it lessens us, it makes us look weak and in need of charity.
We are not at the mercy of our label, this is not how the world has to look at autism. The label is defined by those who live under it, not the other way around. All characters, not just those with autism, need to be portrayed with empathy, not sympathy. A good friend once told me you have to love every character you write, because that’s the only way you’ll get them right. Autistic characters need to be shown outside the light of their disorder, in just as complicated and nuanced a way as neurotypical characters are written. We shouldn’t be consulting doctors and studied experts on the disorder to get these people right, we should be consulting the real life people who live with the diagnosis themselves. This is how you love a character. That is how you make them a real person.
If you want to see this change, get involved in the creative world. If you write, write autistic characters as you’d like them to be portrayed. If you act, fill autistic roles, the same way Hollywood should cast Pakistani roles to Pakistani actors, and trans roles to trans actors. Simply put, represent your people. We already have great examples of this. Though in my own experience, these have been minority cases, they exist. We have writers like Dan Harmon out there, making good work. The creator of Wrong Planet, our very own Alex Plank, consults for a show with an autistic character, FX’s The Bridge. I’m no regular viewer, but I can say honestly that he seems to be doing right by the label.