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Friday, March 18, 2011

Autism and Popular Culture

Jean Winegardner writes at "Autism Unexpected," The Washington Times:

Perhaps the greatest problem with the way autism is treated on television, other than its dismissal of more severe forms, is that television is intrinsically shallow; processes that take months in real life happen in days in TV land. Problems that last for weeks, months and years in real families dealing with autism, get tackled and solved almost immediately on television.

For instance, I'm still annoyed that Max's family suspected Asperger's, got a diagnosis and found the perfect school and behavioral specialist for him in about a week. In my experience, it takes two to six months to even get an initial appointment with any developmental pediatrician, let alone the area's premier one, such as the Bravermans did.

As the parent of a child with autism, I get asked a lot if various portrayals on television are realistic. I am encouraged that parents of neurotypical children want to learn about life with autism and I am grateful for shows like "Parenthood," which start this conversation. I am happy about shows like "The Big Bang Theory," which raise questions about what it is like to be an adult with Asperger's or other neurological differences and shows that it is possible to be successful even if quirky. I am thrilled to see the public embracing actual individuals with autism, such as James Durbin, who are showing us that being a cookie cutter person is not necessarily the best way to make an impression in the world.

Television has a long way to go, but it is making strides, and for that I am grateful. I hope that this trend of exploring autism in popular culture continues. I'll be in a front row seat.

The increased visibility of autism in popular culture dates back to Rain Main and has become even more salient in recent years. Back in 2007, Caryn James wrote in The New York Times:

AUTISM has become to disorders what Africa is to social issues, the celebrity cause du jour. “Oprah,” “Larry King,” “The View” and MTV all devoted full hours to the subject in recent weeks, sometimes with appearances by the singer Toni Braxton (the mother of a boy with autism); the disorder is the focus of documentaries now making the festival circuit, like “Autism: The Musical.” Most intriguingly, it has turned up in a spate of dramas that take autism beyond “Rain Man.”

Sigourney Weaver snaps “I’m autistic” at Alan Rickman in the current “Snow Cake,” while in the past year Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell played an autistic couple in “Mozart and the Whale,” and Hugh Laurie’s character pretended to be autistic on “House.”