On twitter today I came across a thread about a new show, Atypical. Now, I personally am not even remotely interested in this show: it might be about an autistic character but I know it isn’t for me. Atypical is definitely not for me even if it exploits what it’s like to be me to get good ratings and reviews.
The thread I came across includes a review of the show written, unsurprisingly, by someone who isn’t autistic. The show itself has a non-autistic actor playing the character who, like so many actors, has done research on what its like to be autistc (see: typical inaccurate depictions and stupid stereotypes about autistics).
Now, while I can respect that we, collectively as a species, are capable of using our empathy to imagine what it is like to live this way or that, I draw the line at the idea at ever assuming true accuracy as a result of imagination.
I cannot, as a white woman, know what it is like to live as a black man. I cannot, as a British national, know what it is like to be a Chinese national. Nor do I assume that I cannot imagine either experience. But while I can imagine it (and I really do have a good imagination, gods do I) never in a million years would I ever presume that my perspective is more accurate or relevant than that of whoever’s perspective I’m trying to imagine.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a black man in America, constantly worried about being shot by police whether I am innocent or guilty, armed or unarmed. I do know what it’s like to be from a poor town with a police that generally look down on anyone who lives on benefits or in council housing. I can imagine that some of my experiences can parallel some of those by American black men, but I certainly do not presume that I then know what it’s ‘like’ to be a black man in America.
In the same vein, I do not know what it’s like to be neurotypical. I know what it’s like to be assumed normal thanks, in part, to the fact I was diagnosed autistic in my teenage years, but I don’t know what it’s like to actually be normal. Only my approximation of it. In the same way I write characters in my stories in certain ways, I am always aware that I am not accurate and that my experiences colour my work.
Is it so strange of me to assume then, that only an Autistic person can know what it’s like to be autistic? That only a young, autistic boy can accurately and reliably portray a character that is male and autistic?
The fact that this review of Atypical has been written by a neurotypical mother of autistic children doesn’t automatically grant her the right to be assumed a reliable narrator. She’s not. Unless she’s autistic as well. The replies in this thread on twitter illuminate that quite well, as twitter user BoyCottAtypical points out:
Autism Moms are neurotypical people (usually, not always) who are the parents of autistic ppl who behave in harmful and/or abusive ways…Their voices frequently overshadow the voices of autistic people. Most articles with “real life experiences” are from the parent…A lot of them genuinely think they’re helping their children and the autistic community and refuse to listen to anything otherwise…They think they are a member of the autistic community and they are not and their voices outnumber us 50 to 1… They frequently support harmful things to autistic people and their voices are heard over ours. They are extremely harmful to us
One of the most harmful stereotypes of autistics is the idea that we lack empathy. This is simply just untrue. I do not lack empathy, I am not defective, and I am not broken or incapable of emotion. It is difficult for me, sure, but there are things in life that are difficult for everyone—and these things differ from person to person.
As Jennifer Lisi (@BiteSmaller) points out:
Many of us have an abundance of empathy. We feel too much & it’s hard to regulate
A book that I find to be incredibly illuminating on the nature of empathy is The Science of Evil, by Simon Baron-Cohen. While the name is less than auspicious, the book itself narrates the types of empathy human beings experience and where different types of people tend to fall on the empathy scale. With two types of empathy, affective and cognitive, lacking one of these types doesn’t automatically make you ‘evil’. Many autistics tend towards a decreased amount of cognitive empathy (this is the thinking part where you can “put yourself in someone else’s shoes”) but either have a normal or increased degree of affective empathy. Affective empathy is the type of empathy you experience when seeing an animal hurt, or hearing it’s pained cries. It’s less thought-based and more intuitive.
I will confess, I cannot watch a single show or movie where animals suffer. I honestly cry or have to stop watching. I, an autistic, become an emotional mess when I watch Homeward Bound.
But almost every single show, movie, book, and play that has any autistic characters in it, doesn’t have this as part of the autistic characters personality. They are cold, distant, unfeeling, robotic, cruel, ignorant, confused, harsh, comedic. Never are we emotive, loving, tender, kind, affectionate.
The biggest problem with shows, and reviews of those shows, which portray inaccurate perspectives of autism is that they are always supported by those who do not have autism and do not know what it is truly like to be autistic.
In a world where we have a history of white men saying black people were happy to be enslaved, and where this history still rears its head on the systematic oppression of black people, it is wholly unacceptable for a white voice to be considered more accurate on what it’s like to be black. But we do not have the same standard for autism, for disability in general.
Hypocrisy at its finest, really.