Let’s get one thing out of the way: media autism is an oversimplified version of real autism.
Why am I talking about this? Seeing as April, aka Autism Awareness month, is coming to a close, it’s important to advocate for better autism representation in the media as an autistic person myself. So far, most of the autism representation I’ve seen is either absolutely horrible (e.g. Music, Rain Man) or just completely one-sided (e.g. Sheldon Cooper), and I believe that autistic people need to be better represented in order to break the stigma surrounding autism.
First off, what is autism? Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition that affects social interaction, communication, and behavior. Symptoms range from hyperfixation (intense interest in a particular topic), repetitive motions/behaviors (‘stimming’), inability to understand social cues or figurative language, trouble with eye contact, sensitivity to certain stimuli, and trouble with maintaining relationships. Many characters in the media exhibit a mixture of these traits and thus many people think of them as possibly being on the autism spectrum. (To be clear, autistic people don’t always exhibit all of these symptoms.) But frankly, this portrayal is inaccurate.
One of the symptoms I mentioned earlier was being sensitive to certain stimuli. When autistic people get overwhelmed or overstimulated, they may go into meltdown or shutdown. Meltdowns are essentially intense reactions to overwhelming stimuli, while shutdowns involve withdrawal from the outside world. This is the side of autism that media autism tends to ignore because this side is heavily stigmatized. Basically, if an autistic person were to have a meltdown or shutdown in public, they’re bound to have odd looks thrown towards them because this behavior is commonly seen as “weird” or “strange.” .
Back to autism representation: because meltdowns and shutdowns aren’t seen whenever autism is portrayed in the media, this side is often left misunderstood. That’s the big problem with media autism: it basically leaves the “ugly” side of autism out. In order to have true representations of autism in pop culture, autism has to be represented fully — from the cute and quirky parts to the overwhelming and intense parts.
But what makes autism representation good? For one thing, letting the autistic character have control of their own story. Take Sia’s recent film, “Music,” as a non-example. Not only is the “autistic” character, Music (it isn’t explicitly stated that she’s autistic), a gross caricature of autism, but she’s treated as a side character to the two non-autistic characters in the film: Kazu and Ebo. And that’s only scratching the surface as to why Music is a terrible film for autism representation.
It’s also important to listen to autistic people when representing them in films or in TV shows. Using Sia’s film as a non-example, again: it’s quite obvious when watching the film that Sia did not talk to any autistic people during its creation. The scenes where the viewer gets a glimpse into Music’s head are incredibly overstimulating to autistic people because the scenes are saturated with intense colors and flashing lights. On top of that, physical restraint was initially featured as a way of calming autistic people down during meltdowns, which is not only ineffective, but has also proven to be deadly in some cases. To be fair, Sia did remove those scenes later, but only after a ton of backlash from the autistic community. And to top it all off, Music is played by a neurotypical person, Maddie Ziegler, which only seems to add to the inauthenticity of Music’s portrayal due to Ziegler imitating autistic characteristics.
Finally, autism is something that has to be portrayed fully. Along with the “cute” and “endearing” parts such as social awkwardness, hyperfixation, and stimming, the other parts that may not be as appealing have to be shown too. Instead of seeing autism as this cute and quirky thing that makes a character extra unique, autism should be seen as a different way of viewing and interacting with the world. That’s what being neurodivergent is: having a different way of interacting and observing the world around us.
So, what is a good representation of autism?
I bring you To The Moon, a computer game that goes back through the memories of Johnny Wyles to implant a false memory that brings him to the moon. While players view each of Johnny’s memories, they get to know his story and the story of his wife, River. River is canonically diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which, though it initially was a separate diagnosis of Autism with low support needs, is now a part of ASD, and while viewing Johnny’s memories, the player gets to see how autism plays a role in River’s life.
River has an intense hyperfixation on lighthouses; she believes that stars in the sky are lighthouses that are too far apart to befriend one another. She also has a sensitivity to ticking clocks to the point where Johnny mutes all the clocks in their home for her comfort. She has a blunt, matter-of-fact way of communicating and interpreting things as well. To her, doing something together just means doing the same thing regardless of whether she is doing it with another person. Her way of communication becomes a tragic pitfall when it’s revealed that Johnny forgot their first meeting together as she desperately tries to get him to recall it through her way of communicating.
Despite autism tinting River’s experiences and viewpoint, River herself is a person capable of forming deep bonds — first with Johnny, and then with the lighthouse by their home, whom she names Anya. The players see River in her happiest moments, where she is smiling and connecting with the world around her, and in her worst moments when she’s unable to communicate to Johnny about what she wants from him. River is fully fleshed out in this game, and in this game her autism is only one part of her character.
Sadly, To the Moon is largely overshadowed when it comes to autism representation. When people think of autism in the media, they usually think of Sheldon Cooper (who isn’t even confirmed to be autistic by the creators of Big Bang Theory) or, in more recent times, Music by Sia. Frankly, there is a shortage of good autism representation in the media, and it’s important to bring it into the limelight so that autism (and neurodivergence as a whole) can be destigmatized.