How Hollywood's Autism Fantasies Undermine Autism Employment

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ASPartOfMe
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06 Dec 2017, 11:31 pm

Forbes

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In a recent Curb Your Enthusiasm episode (Season 9, "Namaste"), Larry David pretends to be on the autism spectrum to win sympathy from an African-American mechanic he has insulted. Of course, as widely noted in the autism blogosphere, this is insensitive and inappropriate. But there is more honesty (and humor) in this one scene than in all of the fantasy that Hollywood continues to put out on autism this fall — including through such high-profile shows as The Good Doctor and Atypical. Here's why we should take notice.

Over the past decade, autism has exploded in popular culture, so it is simply impossible to turn on the television or go to the movies without an autism reference or character on the autism spectrum. When I started in the autism community in 1991, Rain Man was the main and near sole autism reference in popular culture. In just the past five years, more than 20 movies and television shows have appeared with characters on the autism spectrum — to say nothing of dozens of memoirs, novels and young adult fiction. An adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon's popular 2003 book featuring a teen on the autism spectrum, is winning applause on Broadway.

This multiplicity of material is to be welcomed. There is no one autism story. As is often said, people on the autism spectrum differ widely in skills, interests, behavioral traits, activities — "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism," and so on.

Yet among Hollywood's main shows, the dominant autism narrative is a narrow one. It is primarily of autism as the quirky savant: the brilliant or near-brilliant person, whose autism is mainly difficulties in social communication. On The Good Doctor, Shaun Murphy, the character on the autism spectrum, is able to diagnose medical conditions that confuse and confound other doctors, including doctors many years his senior. On Atypical, 18-year-old Sam Gardener, who is on the spectrum, possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of penguins, rare fish and Antarctica.

The Good Doctor, on network television, is watched by a stunning 17.8 million viewers per week. The producers and writers understand the elements of successful medical dramas (as far back as Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare of the 1960s) and skillfully incorporate these elements. Autism is not the drawing card. Yet the show in its success significantly shapes how many Americans are being introduced to autism. So often today when autism comes up in a non-autism community audience, The Good Doctor and Atypical will be mentioned

Among autism family members, practitioners and advocates, the views of these shows are not all negative. Some see the heightened profile of autism, and its generation of autism discussion, to be a big positive. "What's the saying, any publicity is good publicity?" said Jan Johnston-Tyler, a Silicon Valley advocate and well-known autism job expert who nonetheless cringes at some of the surface understandings of autism.

A more common view is that these shows make the work of people in the autism community not easier but more difficult. David Platzer is an anthropologist of autism employment (profiled earlier this year) who is deeply involved in trying to create new employment opportunities for adults on the autism spectrum. Platzer explains:

"Pervasive popular culture representations of autism as entailing savant or savant-like skills, such as Atypical and The Good Doctor, can create real problems for those of us working to promote employment for folks across the autism spectrum. When employers or potential employers equate autism with genius and mild social eccentricity, they are not adequately prepared for the patience and dedication that working with a broader autistic population often entails. In many ways, the representations of autism we see in Hollywood are actually setting the community up for failure. And this is especially so for those who experience more significant challenges."

Silicon Valley, neurodiversity is gaining currency, and major tech companies are widely discussing autism hiring programs. But only a few new hires have been made this year, in part as firms have found that persons with autism are not all near-savants. While they often possess unusual skills and upbeat personalities, they also often possess other challenges that go beyond small issues like making eye contact.

As autism employment programs are evolving, we are understanding the key role of employer patience. This is not really different from patience that all workers benefit from in learning a job, in being allowed to make mistakes without immediately being fired. The autism employment programs that are succeeding are employers committed to giving time for mastering job tasks, for not panicking, for being in it for the long run. But who will provide this patience if they think they are getting the brilliant Dr. Shaun Murphy or Sam Gardener?

And what of the more severely impacted among the autism community? We say that there should be a place in the job world for people of all abilities. But as Jill Escher notes in a powerful recent commentary, the characterization on these shows makes this claim a joke.

us back to the recent Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. Larry David doesn't try to shoehorn autism into a 30-minute sitcom or lecture us about autism. The episode doesn't have a Hollywood ending in which Larry comes to a "teachable moment" or reconciles with Bridget's son, who we are told is on the autism spectrum. At one point, Larry's agent, Jeff, notes that most people he knows with autism are delightful people. But for the most part the show treats autism with the same irreverence as it treats all subjects. The episode is provocative and brings attention to the subject, without the didactic tone and self-congratulation of these other shows.

There is an earlier example of Hollywood getting autism right. This year is the 45th anniversary of A Child Called Noah. The book is part of a trilogy by Hollywood screenwriter Jeff Greenfield (Harry and Tonto) about his more severely autistic son, Noah. Noah's condition no more defines autism than does Dr. Shaun Murphy's condition or Sam Gardener's condition.

In these shows, the autism community is portrayed as a joyless place, where family members and others soldier on. In "Atypical," Sam's mother and father are portrayed as alternately whining about their lot and stoically bearing the burden of a family member on the autism spectrum. The other parents are shown as weary and beaten down, and both the support group leader and Sam's therapist are portrayed as smug and clueless. None of this captures the family or autism community dynamic as I've known it in Northern California for nearly 30 year


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CockneyRebel
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12 Dec 2017, 6:07 pm

I think Hollywood needs to get with the time and show many more examples of autism. I also think it would be helpful for employees, bosses and managers to go to workshops on autism in the workplace so that the doors will open for more people who are on the spectrum.


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Dvmartin24
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14 Dec 2017, 1:07 pm

I have been sort of on the fence with this. As a spectrum disorder, it is very hard to put a face on the ASD community. As the article points out, the danger is that through these shows tend to view ASD in a very one-dimensional light. The characters speak monotonously, lack empathy, and possess superior intelligence. While there certainly are people like this, there are even more people with ASD that are higher/lower functioning than that. I, myself, was able to hide many of the autism characteristics, and only gave myself away through my social awkwardness. I also work with kids who will most likely never be able to hold a job beyond repetitive task completion.

On the other hand, I know from first hand experience that shows like "The Good Doctor" provide an accurate picture into the workforce prejudice that those with high-functioning autism face. My hope is that the show's popularity could allow NTs to look at their personal hiring practices towards those high functioning people who merely possess social deficits, but have the talent and experience to succeed with support.



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14 Dec 2017, 4:00 pm

Dvmartin24 wrote:
My hope is that the show's popularity could allow NTs to look at their personal hiring practices towards those high functioning people who merely possess social deficits, but have the talent and experience to succeed with support.


It would be nice if people on this forum would also spare a thought for the other 70% of autistic people who don't qualify for the esteemed "high functioning" label when talking about employer hiring practices.

If there is to be an autistic community then we need to stop trying to justify that only high functioning people have a place in a future society. I suspect many so called "lower functioning" people (who are given up for only having the capacity to do "repetitive tasks") are actually capable of doing much much more but will never be given the opportunity. The jobs of the future will not rely on social skills but more on capacity to engage/apply in an online environment and for those with a sceric of imagination will realise that our brothers and sisters relegated to the lower rungs of the spectrum (sometimes too enthusiastically on WP) will blossom in an online job market where their untapped skills can blossom.



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16 Dec 2017, 9:32 pm

cyberdad wrote:
Dvmartin24 wrote:
My hope is that the show's popularity could allow NTs to look at their personal hiring practices towards those high functioning people who merely possess social deficits, but have the talent and experience to succeed with support.


It would be nice if people on this forum would also spare a thought for the other 70% of autistic people who don't qualify for the esteemed "high functioning" label when talking about employer hiring practices.

If there is to be an autistic community then we need to stop trying to justify that only high functioning people have a place in a future society. I suspect many so called "lower functioning" people (who are given up for only having the capacity to do "repetitive tasks") are actually capable of doing much much more but will never be given the opportunity. The jobs of the future will not rely on social skills but more on capacity to engage/apply in an online environment and for those with a sceric of imagination will realise that our brothers and sisters relegated to the lower rungs of the spectrum (sometimes too enthusiastically on WP) will blossom in an online job market where their untapped skills can blossom.


Does your 70% figure actually have a backing source? Also, maybe you are right and "we" were wrong, but I always assumed that those who leaned closer to the "high(er) functioning" label were the more common on average. I also figured recently that these "functioning" labels aren't so much having to do with esteem, but it sounds more like trying to figure out who needs higher support intervention, especially for independent living scenarios.



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16 Dec 2017, 10:10 pm

Hollywood_Guy wrote:
cyberdad wrote:
Dvmartin24 wrote:
My hope is that the show's popularity could allow NTs to look at their personal hiring practices towards those high functioning people who merely possess social deficits, but have the talent and experience to succeed with support.


It would be nice if people on this forum would also spare a thought for the other 70% of autistic people who don't qualify for the esteemed "high functioning" label when talking about employer hiring practices.

If there is to be an autistic community then we need to stop trying to justify that only high functioning people have a place in a future society. I suspect many so called "lower functioning" people (who are given up for only having the capacity to do "repetitive tasks") are actually capable of doing much much more but will never be given the opportunity. The jobs of the future will not rely on social skills but more on capacity to engage/apply in an online environment and for those with a sceric of imagination will realise that our brothers and sisters relegated to the lower rungs of the spectrum (sometimes too enthusiastically on WP) will blossom in an online job market where their untapped skills can blossom.


Does your 70% figure actually have a backing source? Also, maybe you are right and "we" were wrong, but I always assumed that those who leaned closer to the "high(er) functioning" label were the more common on average. I also figured recently that these "functioning" labels aren't so much having to do with esteem, but it sounds more like trying to figure out who needs higher support intervention, especially for independent living scenarios.


There isn't a lot of data but its generally thought 70% of ASD are intellectually disabled - the following University research team think it may be higher (75%)
http://www.intellectualdisability.info/ ... les/autism

The problem is the vast majority of people with ASD are invisible, probably locked up behind closed doors

So to answer your question - no - higher functioning aspies are not representative of the majority of people with ASD and I find it irritating when Aspies like John Elder Robison claims to speak on behalf of all people with autism. The fact is he doesn't.



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16 Dec 2017, 11:32 pm

Well, that data figure sounds very disturbing. :?

And how does John Elder Robison not speak for everybody with autism? You are the first person I encountered here online who said anything less than positive about him.



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17 Dec 2017, 5:17 am

Hollywood_Guy wrote:
Well, that data figure sounds very disturbing. :?

And how does John Elder Robison not speak for everybody with autism? You are the first person I encountered here online who said anything less than positive about him.

Prior to 2013 he was an advocate for fellow people with Aspergers, that's fine with me...
Since DSMV he seems to speak on behalf of all people with autism which irritates me because I doubt very much he knows what low functioning autistic people go through or what their parents have to cope with...



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20 Dec 2017, 7:35 pm

Okay. I understand that.



JosehAKA
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31 Dec 2017, 11:27 pm

cyberdad wrote:
Hollywood_Guy wrote:
cyberdad wrote:
Dvmartin24 wrote:
My hope is that the show's popularity could allow NTs to look at their personal hiring practices towards those high functioning people who merely possess social deficits, but have the talent and experience to succeed with support.


It would be nice if people on this forum would also spare a thought for the other 70% of autistic people who don't qualify for the esteemed "high functioning" label when talking about employer hiring practices.

If there is to be an autistic community then we need to stop trying to justify that only high functioning people have a place in a future society. I suspect many so called "lower functioning" people (who are given up for only having the capacity to do "repetitive tasks") are actually capable of doing much much more but will never be given the opportunity. The jobs of the future will not rely on social skills but more on capacity to engage/apply in an online environment and for those with a sceric of imagination will realise that our brothers and sisters relegated to the lower rungs of the spectrum (sometimes too enthusiastically on WP) will blossom in an online job market where their untapped skills can blossom.


Does your 70% figure actually have a backing source? Also, maybe you are right and "we" were wrong, but I always assumed that those who leaned closer to the "high(er) functioning" label were the more common on average. I also figured recently that these "functioning" labels aren't so much having to do with esteem, but it sounds more like trying to figure out who needs higher support intervention, especially for independent living scenarios.


There isn't a lot of data but its generally thought 70% of ASD are intellectually disabled - the following University research team think it may be higher (75%)
http://www.intellectualdisability.info/ ... les/autism

The problem is the vast majority of people with ASD are invisible, probably locked up behind closed doors

So to answer your question - no - higher functioning aspies are not representative of the majority of people with ASD and I find it irritating when Aspies like John Elder Robison claims to speak on behalf of all people with autism. The fact is he doesn't.



Actually prevalence rates of intellectual disability in autism are only at about 40% or less. In the US, for example, it’s 38% (https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrht ... ss6103a1_w).