Column: Autism on screen is only depicted properly when there are flaws in the individual

Too many false images of autism have been portrayed in the media, yet there are honest portrayals in film that show the uncomfortable truth of those with the disability.



Art helps Sam (Keir Gilchrist), who has autism, express himself. (Beth Dubber / Netflix/TNS)

Pedro Barragan, Arts Reporter

With the latest season of Atypical on Netflix, I’ve felt obligated to shed light on how commercialized and romanticized autism is in popular media. I took the initiative to reference works from the past that put this current work to shame in its characterization.

As a Mexican-American who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 19, both identities explain why I couldn’t get into my culture’s phenomenon of soccer or why my family isn’t as crazy about my special interest of Swedish cinema as I am.

But let me focus on the issue at hand: autism in the media. My sister watched The Good Doctor where Freddy Highmore’s doctor is on the spectrum and is depicted as solely socially awkward and goodhearted. My sister told me she sympathizes for the character when he’s criticized for his disability, yet she lived with me for many years and considered me rude (and this is typical, nothing I ever took personally since she wouldn’t be the first). Why? Because individuals on the spectrum always speak their mind.

Noah Baumbach’s film, Greenberg, captures this really well. Ben Stiller plays the title character, who spends his free time writing complaint letters to organizations like Starbucks because he’s frustrated by their corporate mindset. Greenberg is harsh to those closest to him, and he doesn’t notice social cues, such as his ex-girlfriend having no interest in reviving their romance, or that one of his friends expects an apology for his outburst he has on his birthday.

Being on the spectrum gives me a certain perspective on life, and it gets difficult when someone doesn’t share this mindset. A character who perfectly depicts this nature of living in their sole world is Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver.

In Martin Scorsese’s 70s classic, Bickle is an anti-socialite driving through the corrupt streets of New York City. He spends his days viewing pornographic films, a recreation he believes suitable even for a first date. Bickle believes that the cute girl working at a campaign office is the single purpose for his life, something which I as someone on the spectrum have faced multiple times.

When he finally asks the girl out, they have an awkward dinner where Bickle makes plenty of assumptions about how they’ll connect. But Bickle ruins the relationship by taking her to a pornographic film on the first date. He calls her, sends her flowers, yet doesn’t get the message that she wants to be left alone.

Related: Local gym offers exclusive class to children with autism

As someone with autism, I lack the ability to recognize the comfort zones of individuals, such as catching hints that they no longer wish to associate themselves with me. We’re OK seeing individuals with autism as harmless, but there are moments where we’ll scare others without realizing their discomfort.

I tend to fall for the protagonist of my favorite film, the pudding-buying Barry Egan from Punch-Drunk Love. I saw the film during the summer of my freshman year of high school and I watched it seven times afterward because I related to it so much. Egan breaks his sister’s windows during her birthday, then does the same at a fancy restaurant’s restroom during his first date. Not only is it inappropriate to give such outbursts, but he performs these actions at the worst time possible.

But Barry shows hope for individuals on the spectrum, asking how you can find someone who will accept you for who you are. In the film’s case, it’s Emily Watson who doesn’t condemn Egan for his social restraints but instead wants to be part of the journey.

In the end, we see each of these characters aren’t quite the clumsy and awkward non-socialites of other shows and movies. Rather, they’re flawed and destructive, but that’s supposed to remind you that they’re human.