“Witch, witch, you're a b***h! Witch, witch, you're a b***h!”
They didn't really like me in elementary school. I didn't fit in with the other kids. “Practical Magic” had just come out, and everyone thought it would be funny to yell a modified version of the witch line at me. Because those kids hated the main characters like these kids hated me. Spoiler alert: Kids are very influenced by what they watch on TV.
Recently, there’s been an uptick of TV and movie characters who have autism, the latest being Sam from Netflix’s “Atypical” and Julia from “Sesame Street.” The representation of autism is a great start for neurotypicals to learn about a condition which affects more than 3.5 million Americans. And it’s been a breath of fresh air to see characters on TV who I can really identify with.
When I was growing up, autism wasn’t something that was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. My parents knew something was up with me, but they didn’t know what. But I made good grades and didn’t make any waves, so everyone just kind of let me do my thing.
Anytime I would step on social toes, it became a joke about foot-in-mouth syndrome. There wasn’t autism in the media — there were awkward personality types. And I was an awkward personality type.
Many people with autism watch a lot of TV. I myself am an example of this. We notice patterns in neurotypical exchanges and adjust our own responses based on the things we’ve seen neurotypicals say and do.
Seeing more characters like me on TV would’ve helped me realize sooner that I shouldn’t try to change myself to fit in. I learned this as an adult in the workplace.
Seeing a character stimming makes me happy, because I notice that I do that too. It makes it more acceptable. It makes me feel more acceptable. And when TV gets it right, like Abed from “Community,” it makes me feel hope that society might eventually truly accept people with autism.
Making me feel like I have a purpose
When you’re a kid, you play pretend a lot. People with autism aren’t all that different in that respect — some of us have amazing imaginations.
But when it came time to act out what we saw on TV, as a kid, the closest reflection of autism in pop culture I could find were the awkward, intelligent characters. I was Donatello from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” I was Billy from “Power Rangers.”
Had they existed then, I would’ve been Tina from “Bob’s Burgers” or Abed from “Community.”
I related to these characters. They made me feel like people like me had a place in the social construct. So I aimed to fill that role in social situations, because that’s where I seemed to fit in, in my real-life adventures with my siblings.
I never made the plans that got us into trouble, just the ones that got us out of trouble. I may have been a weird kid, but I had my purpose.
Take Mulan. She was relatable because she was different. She didn’t have a place with the other brides because her place was on the battlefield. I was very influenced by this. I didn’t really know I was different-minded, but I knew I wasn’t like the other kids in my classes.
I assumed it was because I was Hispanic and all the other kids in my class were white — Racism exists, even for people on the spectrum. I didn’t see anything different from me except for the color of my skin, as autism is a hidden disability.
I took my “differences” and made the most of them by getting really good at solo jump rope and making honor roll.
I knew my time would come because the story arcs of people like me said my time would come. The characters I found relatable dreamed of bigger worlds and greater things. Ariel, Belle, and Pocahontas came from different positions, and all of them knew they wanted adventure and excitement.
I wanted those same things, but on my terms. I wanted to change the world, but I didn’t want the downside that comes with success (as TV portrays it, at least): loneliness.
Navigating the teenage years
When I was a teenager and was starting to figure out I really was that different, I became obsessed with adjusting my rough exterior to be someone somebody could love, and who people wanted to be around. I tried to shave off the corners of my square peg to fit in the round hole of society.
Contrary to males on the spectrum, females on the spectrum prefer to be part of a group. So we reverse engineer social situations and create a social logic that makes sense to us, based on our past experiences of getting social situations wrong.
For a young girl with autism, finding your place in a group can create a lot of pressure and anxiety. If you’re very impressionable and have no one to identify with, you’re left wondering where your place is.
That’s why representation is so important. It's so much easier to learn from the patterns of characters from TV. They make the mistakes so you don't have to.
There’s more to autism than what you see on TV
While there have been advancements, there’s still room for improvement in autism representation in pop culture. Autism itself is a spectrum, and that needs to be portrayed.
It’s not just a white person disorder, and it’s not just a male disorder. There are gender and racial factors within autism that must be considered. So much so that professionals can’t even agree on exactly how badly these factors put women and people of color at an extra social disadvantage.
There are socioeconomic factors that hinder certain progressions in those with autism. Not every family can afford therapy, the necessary medications, or frequent doctor visits. There are people who can’t speak but can express themselves nonverbally and are intellectuals.
Where are the shows about these people?
The current pop culture landscape tends to frame autism around poor social skills, because this is what most neurotypicals are likely to notice.
This gives neurotypicals a cookie cutter view of what autism is, and how to interact with people who have autism. But not all of us state facts, not all of us quote movies, and not all of us are blunt.
Rather than focusing on our social skills, I’d like to see the media focus more on how we communicate. On how some of us become quiet when we don’t know what to say. Or how we can’t understand why someone would feel a certain way, or be upset about something.
For me, my verbal skills aggressively devolve the more emotional I become. I would say the lack of coverage on how we communicate is probably the biggest obstacle between people with autism and neurotypicals, because the way we communicate affects our social skills and the neurotypicals’ interpretation of us.
The surge of autism portrayals in pop culture has the potential to change how autism is viewed by neurotypicals, and thus immensely improve the lives of people with autism. However, the message the media portrays about autistic people needs to shift slightly.
This is the time to shatter autism stigmas and stereotypes — the time to bring the right kind of attention to autism awareness. With a more diverse autistic representation in TV and movies, the gap between neurotypical understanding and autistic ability will slowly close.
And kids on the spectrum will have characters just for them and the acceptance that their adult counterparts have always wanted.
Arianne Garcia is an autistic person who wants to live in a world where we all get along. She grew up in Texas and loves to go camping. In her free time, Arianne likes to reverse engineer social situations for meaning and read books recommended by her friends. She’s a writer, artist, and autism advocate. Visit her website.