Saturday, January 26, 2013

Autism in Pop Culture, and the Cross-Section with Nerds

I have previously talked about Sheldon Cooper, Abed Nadir, and Tommy Westphall on this blog. They are all fictional television characters who may be on the spectrum and have a share of traits of those on the spectrum.  Well, there was an amazing piece in The AV Club this past week concerning the spectrum in pop culture, even if only so many characters are "out," to use that term.  Noel Murray is really talking about both "nerds" and autistics/Aspies, and how they aren't always interchangeable.

After some clarification, Murray explains what bothers him about the way autistic people are often lampooned like nerds:

[W]hat bothers me is the hoariness of jokes about bespectacled weirdoes who know the details of every Doctor Who episode but will never know the touch of a woman. First of all, they’re about as cutting-edge as jokes about airline food. Second of all: Did you know that many autists find it uncomfortable to look other people in the eye, or to be hugged? So what’s the joke here exactly? That two recognized traits of people with autistic spectrum disorders—obsessive interests and difficulties with social interactions—are a thing that exists?.
I tend to feel the same way, as not all nerds are autistic.  There are some common grounds, not like an exact Venn diagram but certainly similar.  It's a complex discussion, as I often related to the nerds with the stereotypical opposite-sex issues and factoids wading around the cranium.  However, we're not the same as most nerds or geeks either.  Geeks, for instance, are not that socially awkward, just immensely engrossed in a certain subject or four.  Nerds are geeks with the level of awkwardness added in, which makes a dork.  Yes, I "studied" those definitions.

He brings up five fictional characters, some from shows I had not seen until now.

  • Sheldon, of course, who Murray has the most to comment about. He is correct that The Big Bang Theory has "very carefully avoided labeling Sheldon as having an ASD, because they've said they don’t want to be limited by what an autistic person would or wouldn't do."  I am a fan, but the show is divisive because it follows a pretty simple sitcom formula, dropping in references for the sake of references as well.  I could have a whole discussion on what that show accomplishes for nerdism, but that's not the blog subject. As I have said before, I can identify with Sheldon in some aspects, but many times he is over-the-top, albeit intentionally.  While I worry about a character like him enforcing bad stereotypes of AS (lately he has played an antagonistic role in some episodes), Jim Parsons plays the role masterfully, which explains why the character is so popular.  There's an innocence behind Sheldon's more irritating characteristics, and I often find myself sympathetic to his cause/plight...some days I want to be a supervillain anyway ;-)
  • Abed, the authentic pop-culture geek.  I also am a fan of Community, making Thursday night viewing a conflict for years.  He is positioned as the emotional center of the show, even though it's an ensemble cast.  Abed has really helped the impression of the AS character through his own innocence, and his bromance with jock and not-so-secret geek Troy Barnes.  Abed is lovable due to his own innocence, and the fact that his interests run parallel to mine make me identify with him often.
  • Brick Heck from The Middle, the young kid.  I haven't really watched this sitcom, but when I checked out some clips, I also see that Brick has many of the autistic tendencies.  This is especially true of his inability to be touched.  He did remind me a lot of me when I was eleven, but I didn't intentionally isolate myself from everyone during this time. I would do that when I was in high school.  I'm also unable to whisper.
  • Max Braveman from Parenthood, also a kid in a family, but part of a drama.  He is an open autistic, with the story revolving more around the parents working with him, with amazement and frustration and other emotions in between.  We get some development from Max, apparently, but the focus is more on how the parents react and get used to the situation.  It's about adaptation.
  • Gary Bell from Alphas, the science fiction show starring David Strathairn (reason enough for me to check it out).  No, Strathairn doesn't play Gary; an English actor named Ryan Cartwright does.  He is diagnosed high-functioning ASD, like I was, and his idiosyncracies were similar to most (certain food aversions, OCD nature).  His power is that he's a transducer, practically a human antenna, picking up wavelengths using his mind.  It's a power that I could see myself having if I was blessed with a random superpower, even if it wasn't my power of choice.  Murray calls him "accurate in the autist's at-times-frustrating inability to control his own quirks while also allowing Gary to be amused and amusing on his own terms."

What Noel Murray brings to the forefront with his piece is that the stereotypes may certainly be enforced with some shows, but that good shows have brought humanity to each of these characters...the idea that pop culture has changed the perception of the autistic somewhat, even if most NT people still don't understand it.  The piece is worth reading in full.  As he concludes, his son on the spectrum gets "awed respect and genuine affection," and maybe the representations of them on television has helped.