(Un)intentional Autistic Representation in Media: How I See It

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Hello again my dear readers,

In this batch of installments for the How I See It blogs, the writers were given the prompt of ‘Representation of Autism in Media’. A broad topic that I’m excited to read how my fellow bloggers will address. While there is much valuable discourse on the canonical (meaning confirmed by creators and possibly directly addressed within a piece of media) representation of autism within media, what that entails, how it’s presented, and who does a good job of making that happen; I’d like to take a slight detour from that route and look at the unintentional and non-canonical representations of autism in media.

To do that I’d like to take us back in time about seven years or so, I’m in middle school and living with my mom in a new state. I had a hard time making friends in the place where I grew up, and although I was meeting a lot of new people at the time, I still struggled greatly with social interactions. It was for this reason I ended up spending a lot of time with my mom when she was around, and it was then she decided to introduce to me a show she loved from her own childhood and teen years, Star Trek; The Original Series. We had easily watched through the original series, and I was enamored by the theatrics of it, the stupid effects, and bogus sci-fi topics addressed. I related, like many others in the community, to Spock and his own internal emotional turmoil, feeling split between two worlds. But when my mother suggested that we start watching Star Trek; The Next Generation, it was there I found a character that best captured my own experience of being on the spectrum. Commander Data is a humanoid android officer serving on the USS Enterprise, his robotic nature keeps him from fully understanding human emotions, and although he has a basic understanding of social interactions the more nuanced moments tend to evade him. He takes great interest in poetry, art, science, and literature, with his approaches to those more expressive of subjects tending to be much more studied and formulaic, often to the dismay of
his crewmates. For a 14-year-old me, this character was more of a reflection of my own experiences than anything I had ever seen before. At the time I had a very limited understanding of what autism was, so in that way, Data’s trials and tribulations were a rare source of insight. I saw how he was able to interact with others, how he was cared about and respected even though he was different, how he still felt emotions even if he didn’t express them in a conventional way. All of this has rung so true to me and so many others on the spectrum, and yet none of it was intentional.

Funny enough, I was recently watching a video essay on Sia’s recent film Music (which I wouldn’t be surprised if one of my peers talked about in this series), and it was there the essayist included some clips from an interview with the actor who played Data, Brent Spiner. In the interview, Brent talked about how he was unaware of the character’s autistic alignments until much later when fans on the spectrum would approach him and let him know how much Data meant to them. He expressed that he was glad he was ignorant to this fact, so he could just play the character without any inhibitions or preconceived notions about what an autistic character should be. And I think that this notion speaks to the power a character like this can have, as well as the oftentimes pseudo-supportive role canonical autistic representation in media can take on.

When a character is written with the intention of portraying autism, a whole slew of other issues can come about. More often than not it’s allistic writers, directors, and actors who create these characters and bring them to life. But unless great care is taken when doing so, harmful
stereotypes and misrepresentation can propagate. What is the intention of these creators? Do they research autism at all, do they have autistic family or friends? Or do they create these characters for the clout of appearing open-minded in our neo-liberal world? Unintentional representation can put aside these questions and the conversations that come with them, but that’s not to say they’re the solution by any means. We need to have these conversations and more creators should be portraying autistic characters well. But perhaps these unintentionally autistic characters would be a good starting point. Don’t portray an autistic character to represent the whole of the spectrum, someone who lacks autonomy and personhood to some ‘disability’. Like Data, they can be their own people with varying interests, and although he may have some features which dub him as emotionless and non-human, he still feels deeply and is given the respect any human desires and deserves.

Till next time dear readers,


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