It’s because of the way I laugh sometimes, smile sometimes, and clap. I don’t know. But there’s a reason I’m charged as being oversensitive often and get right down to the bottom of the issue when someone says ‘you remind me of (insert name of someone we know with downs syndrome.)’ Or insisting that my favorite tv show character isn’t autistic (even when the evidence is strongly against it.) Because you always get that look.
That tone in your voice. That ‘I’m an expert in these matters’ tone. If I asked, you’d probably put ‘because I know you’ down as your reasoning. Or your pastor’s kid has downs. But it’s really not cutting it, and some of you have called me a bitch in person for telling you so. Let me address both areas thoroughly.
‘Sheldon Cooper/Sherlock/Abed isn’t autistic!’ You proclaim, kind of angry that I’ve tainted that character with the label. But here’s the thing. What it means to you is a drop of water and it’s an ocean to me. Dan Harmon got fired from Community, so Abed may change. In light of that and the fact that most of my friends who watch Community aren’t autistic, I’m going to be really frank.
You’re not a bloody expert on autism just because you know me.
Or if you’ve seen a documentary.
I’m stripping those titles off you.
To you, Abed is amusing and funny. Sheldon Cooper is hilarious but rather geeky and you don’t like the thought of him being autistic because autistic people are x. (Insert stereotype about autism that has no basis in fact and has everything to do with functioning arguments and ‘but autistic people can’t be cool.’) Sherlock said he was a sociopath, after all (good job missing the sarcasm, by the way.) But all in all, it doesn’t really matter to you if these characters are autistic, aside from ‘that would make my character retarded.’
But to me (and people like me,) it matters. Popular culture representation of people with your disability matters. It just…it just does. Julia Bascom says it eloquently with Someone Who Moves Like You.
Sherlock’s executive functioning impairment and too fast brain are seen without looking away, but his best friend doesn’t leave. Max from Parenthood barely counts here, because his diagnosis is explicitly spelled out, but he’s important as well. He’s one of the most realistic and best depictions of autism I’ve ever seen on screen and he matters a lot. It would matter a lot if you took the diagnosis away and insisted that he wasn’t autistic.
I’ve spent a large part of my life racing to get to the point of ‘as good as the rest of my peers’. That’s a stupid, ridiculous race. But when you grow up with a developmental disability (anywhere from ADHD to autism), curing becomes ‘looking like your peers’ and has nothing at all to do with how you actually function. When you grow up in the nineties, this becomes growing up like role models on tv. (Laugh all you want, what we see on television while we grow up matters and shapes how we form our personalities as adults.)
A significant gap shows up when you realize you’re not even close to where they are, on television.
When in real life there’s nothing to say but ‘you’re not adequate at all,’ and everywhere else you turn, including media, you see ‘everyone else is better,’ it really, really matters when autistic characters, or could-be-read as autistic characters show up on the scene. Sherlock’s diagnosis has been mentioned but not officially declared on screen, I don’t think Abed’s is either, and Sheldon could be a few different things
. Sometimes labels actually do matter. Benedict Cumberbatch has mentioned that he plays Sherlock as ‘slightly autistic,’ Dan Harmon is autistic, and the writers of TBBT make Sheldon unmistakeably neurodivergent while saying that he’s not autistic. But here’s the thing: their depictions matter. The race is exhausting. It leads to depression and the inability to do anything, much less act like I’m not autistic. It is usually acting and overcompensating. Social scripts. Smiles. And I’m a goldfish, so climbing a tree doesn’t work very well. So why did I compete in the Olympics of Passing as Non-Autistic for most of my life? Well, easy answer – it’s really not your choice when a. You’re a child and b. The mental health system is involved.
And autistic characters being portrayed in a positive light wasn’t exactly a thing when I was growing up. Not in the spotlight. Not so obviously. Explicitly put out there. And all of those characters are. Sherlock is so autistic most people watch the show and wonder how anyone draws any other conclusions. Sheldon could possibly have OCD, but he has a stim room and he…generally is an autistic person. I’ve not heard one person debate about Abed but I won’t be as nice about it if they do so now that Dan Harmon is fired.
As an autistic adult I still don’t do a good job of passing, (and if you want a job, you have to try,) so it’s comforting that there’s a popular depiction or three of adults like me who have friends and (for the most part) jobs. It’s a message to myself both that I’m okay and I will be okay.
Again, let me say…to you it means that tv show character is ‘retarded.’
One of my pastor’s kids has downs syndrome. I get excited sometimes, and flap/clap. In these times, I read as Fully Autistic Person. (And that’s honestly okay.) One day, someone told me ‘you remind me of James (which, on this blog, is his name.)’ They smiled at me and expected it to go over well. ‘Because he has Downs Syndrome?’ was my immediate reply because, frankly, I’m not an idiot. I know the stereotypes of people with developmental disabilities.
Both him and I are affected by the discrimination those stereotypes bring about. I’m not going to laugh, play along, or let it go. You can say I’m oversensitive (which was said) or I don’t get the joke (which was also said). I’m not a child. It’s really not a good joke to choose on a developmentally disabled person acquainted with advocacy and politics of disability. I get the joke. It’s not cool or funny.
Sometimes the traits of an autistic person and a person with downs syndrome (person first language is different with both camps- ask the person with the disability first and go with what they say) look the same. Jokes meant to use DD people as the butt and to basically say ‘you look retarded’ aren’t going to go over without me being critical of it. I’m not going to laugh along. I’m going to call you out even if it hurts your feelings and makes you look awkward. The politics of looking retarded and what it means in life are so much deeper than you can understand.
‘BUT I DO.’ Then you wouldn’t joke about it when I commit the crime of being autistic in public.
If you want to be an Ally, you need to go deeper. You need to give up your pride, because this isn’t about you. When an autistic person says a tv show character is autistic, don’t argue with them because ‘autism isn’t like that.’ Have a think about whether you or them knows more about autism. Don’t make ‘you’re retarded’ jokes. Don’t use downs syndrome as a stand-in for ‘retarded’ because it’s not PC to use retarded anymore. You’re not fooling anyone.
‘I can do what I want, PC police!’
Yes. You really can. I’m just telling you, because most people with disabilities you pull this crap with are going to leave you behind if you don’t change.