I'm a self-described pop culture junkie. Ever since I was a child, I have been addicted to movies, television, theater, and music. I'd watch "The Wizard of Oz" and "Fantasia" ad nauseum, blast out the local pop music radio station in my room, glued myself to Nickelodeon's SNICK every Saturday night, and keep up with the latest musical theater - all encouraged by my parents and friends. I also read a lot of books, often over and over again, ever since I was three. (I learned how to read at that age as it was the primary method of teaching me to talk.)
It should be noted that this obsession with pop culture is not unusual for girls on the autistic spectrum. In fact, it's often labeled as a "special interest" for autistic girls. I have my doubts that's true across the board but it's definitely true for me.
With that in mind, I've been thinking about autism representation in the media. We don't really think of autism being very visible in media unless it's some parents talking about "the struggle" of raising an autistic kid, an autistic person "beating the odds" to excel at something, or some tragedy involving an autistic person. (I'll probably blog my feelings on all those things later.) But I recently came across a Flavorwire article about autistic and Aspergers representation on television and while most of the characters certainly displayed traits of ASD, very few were expressly indentified as autistic or Aspergers. And all of the shows the characters came from were within the last ten years or so. Waaaaaaaaay after my childhood years.
Long before (and even after) I knew I was autistic, I always related to characters branded as "outsiders". Characters who were good souls and often very talented but were always made to feel shamed because of their differences. I loved Claudia and Mallory from the Babysitters Club series - Claudia as a creative and talented artist shamed for her academic struggles, and Mallory's bookish smarts and writing at odds with her awkward personality. Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was another childhood favorite - a kind and generous kid ostracized due to his family's poverty (but of course rewarded for his virtues at the end of one twisted journey through Willy Wonka's property). I loved Felicity from the American Girl company for being a spirited inquisitive tomboy despite being forced into traditional feminine roles. Belle from "Beauty and the Beast" remains my favorite Disney princess due to her kindness, patience, and bookish traits (the latter labeling her "odd" and "a funny girl" by her local townspeople). The Harry Potter books also provided a bounty of characters I related to, especially the Golden Trio being all outsiders in their own right: Harry as someone shamed for his magic by his aunt and uncle and put on an odd pedestal as "the Chosen One" but brave and noble regardless, Ron as "unextraordinary" when compared to his six siblings but generous and warm-hearted, and Hermione both praised and made "other" for her academic knowledge and extraordinary memory.
(Yes, most of the characters I related to as a kid were bookish/academic types. Five guesses what that says about me.)
But the two characters who had the biggest impact on me as a child had to be Matilda Wormwood and Luna Lovegood. Matilda, the titular character from the Roahl Dahl book, has to be a solid fave for as long as I could remember. She was absurdly smart, taught herself to read at a young age, made to feel worthless by her family and headmaster, but persevered to find strength and value in herself through some understanding friends and the teacher Miss Honey. As a bright child who felt like adults saw her as a problem, I clung to Matilda as my own and a role model of sorts. I wanted to prove my worth to people that I wasn't some child unworthy of love or respect. And then there was Luna from Harry Potter - sweet, soft-spoken, and quirky Luna, who while other students called her "Looney" and stole her shoes, was forgiving and had unique wisdom in seeing the world a little differently than others. I may never been soft spoken (I'm the seemingly rare autistic extrovert), but I have always been told I "see the world differently" as a strength and thus have felt a kinship in being off-beat yet oddly perceptive with Luna. Both Luna and Matilda taught me that it was okay to be different and no one should shame you for it.
I'm not saying that any of the listed characters are expressly autistic. I'm just saying I related to them as someone who was "different". The only representation of autism I remember from childhood is from a Babysitters Club book I wasn't particularly interested in as a child.
Then HBO made a biopic about Temple Grandin in 2010.
Although I heard a lot about Temple Grandin growing up, I never took much interest in her as I tried to stifle any association with autism. But I finally gave in and watched the biopic when it aired, and found myself relating to it much more than I thought I would. I knew what it was like to want comfort through hugs and to simultaneously not want to be touched. I knew what it was like to have uncontrollable triggers that sent me into meltdowns. I knew what it was like to notice patterns and come up with ideas not obvious to others. I may not be an animal genius like Grandin, but I saw a lot of myself in how autism was depicted in the film. And it only helped that the filmmakers and actors heavily consulted Grandin and employed autistic people on the film, crediting them when the biopic won a slew of awards. I'd say that film was one of the first things that got me to think of being autistic as an asset rather than a liability. And for that, I'm forever grateful to HBO and Temple Grandin herself - you're both helping me accept myself.
As autism diagnosis rates rise, autism is becoming increasingly prevalent in popular media and news outlets. While I love characters like Abed from "Community", Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Tina from "Bob's Burgers" (and take issue with the Emmy-winning butt-of-the-joke Sheldon Cooper from "The Big Bang Theory"), it bothers me that there's very few outrightly stated autistic characters in pop culture that aren't after-school specials or dismissed as "quirky". And news coverage of autism tends to depict it as a life-debilitating force that leads the public to view autistic people as objects of pity. The media thus far hasn't been very helpful in representing autism as a whole.
I want to see better autism representation in media because autistic people are people. There's as many different manifestations of autism as there are different types of people, and all deserve to be shown and respected. And if popular media can reflect that diversity of the autism spectrum, perhaps it'll lead to a greater understanding of autism as a whole.
The more I connect to being autistic, the more I'd love to see myself reflected in pop culture. Autism is a part of the human condition, and every human deserves positive representation.