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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Autism, Popular Culture, and Stereotypes

In a blog about autism politics, it is important to keep an eye on popular culture, which influences public perceptions. Books, television shows and movies can raise awareness but they can also spread misinformation and stereotypes.

At The Huffington Post, Greg Olear writes about Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Rain Main:

Although there are those on the autistic spectrum who found Haddon's portrayal of Asperger's on base -- William Schofield, then a student at a London college for aspies, wrote in The Guardian that "the similarities are very convincing between Chris and me especially, in my opinion" -- it is telling that many of Curious Incident's 73 one-star Amazon reviews (there are a staggering 1,720 reviews in all, most fours and fives) were submitted by aspies. Here's a smattering:

"Stereotyped, inaccurate, horribly offensive... this isn't how it is." "Haddon does not understand Asperger." "Stereotypical view of an autistic child." "I find it hard to believe that Mark Haddon is an autism expert, because Christopher Boone isn't like any other child with Asperger's that I've ever met." "A major disservice to the Autistic Community." "An excellent portrayal of autism...NOT!"

The aspie reviewers, as it happens, were onto something. Haddon, by his own admission, is clueless about Asperger's. "I know very little about the subject," he confessed on his website, in an blog posted on July 16, 2009. "I did no research for Curious Incident... I'd read Oliver Sacks's essay about Temple Grandin and a handful of newspaper and magazine articles about, or by, people with Asperger's and autism. I deliberately didn't add to this list."

As for Rain Man, savant skills, and Kim Peek:

The character of Raymond Babbitt is based on Kim Peek, a man capable of astounding feats of mathematics and memory. Posthumously diagnosed with Opitz-Kaveggia syndrome, Peek had no corpus callosum connecting the two halves of his brain.

In the film, Babbitt is called an autistic savant...but the real Kim Peek was not autistic. Nevertheless, Rain Man became the popular culture's introduction to autism.

Thirty years later, the belief persists that autistics can reliably count a pile of toothpicks at a glance. This is a powerful negative stereotype that autistic children (and their parents) must overcome.