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My name is Ardis and I am an avid reader and budding writer. I want to share my love of books with others. I work with kids and am interested in finding and creating books that will ignite the reader in everyone. Contact me at: ardis.atkins@gmail.com

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Friday, June 17, 2016

Representation of people on the Autism Spectrum in the Media




I am writing this post today, not as a rant, but to compare two wildly different representations of how people on "The Spectrum" are shown in the media.  I have been thinking a lot about this lately as I read Cassandra Clare's Lady Midnight.  I couldn't be more pleased with how her character Ty (short for Tiberius) is shown.  When I think of the television show The Big Bang Theory, I cringe at how the character of Sheldon seems to be the butt of most jokes.

In both Lady Midnight, and The Big Bang Theory, there is never an explicit acknowledgement that Ty or Sheldon are autistic, but the signs are obvious.  Ty is sensitive to noise, and textures; he needs routines and can't look people straight in the eye.  Sheldon has similar issues:  he can only sit in a specific chair, has routines for eating food, and doesn't understand many social norms.  

Both The Big Bang Theory and Lady Midnight seem to go to great pains to omit the term of autism in their stories.  I actually went to a forum at Silicon Valley ComicCon that had the writers for the Big Bang Theory as speakers.  They said Sheldon WAS on the spectrum, but that they didn't want him to be "labeled".  Cassandra Clare also doesn't actually say Ty is autistic.  In some ways, I can understand why both have done this.  They want the audience to see these characters as real people.  But I wish there wasn't such a stigma surrounding the term.  There is nothing wrong with being autistic.  This is just another presentation of what it is to be human.  Yes, people dealing with autism have certain issues with social interactions, and some of these issues are severe.  But I really wish people would stop making it a shameful term (okay, I guess I did have a mini rant inside of me).

When I think about how Sheldon's issues are dealt with on The Big Bang Theory I cringe.  All of his seemingly quirky behavior is his way of coping with stress.  But most people just make fun of it.  The only character that seems to have developed any true empathy for Sheldon is Penny.  Once in a while, Sheldon will set the other characters straight and explain why he is behaving that way.  But I think after nine seasons, you would think that the other characters would be more sympathetic.

Contrast that to Lady Midnight where, in his family setting, everyone just accepts Ty as he is.  No one berates him for his behaviors.  His older brother, Jules, constantly thinks of ways he can adapt items for Ty to use as fidget toys, and he is attuned to situations that will be upsetting to Ty.  The family sees the positive things Ty contributes: he is great at solving problems, finding information and using technology.  Jules worries about how Ty will be treated if he goes to the Scholomance school.  He points out that instead of accepting differences in people, the Clave (the government in charge of Shadowhunters) prefers to make different people keep to the shadows.  They don't want to acknowledge that there are a variety of people who may be better suited to tasks other than being a Shadowhunter.

Isn't that what our society also does?  I think that if people are different there is a tendency to try and "fix" them, rather than look at how they are contributing to society in their unique way.  This is why I enjoy fantasy novels so much.  The authors can point out real-life issues through the mask of another universe.  

I have not finished the book yet, so I am hoping that Cassandra Clare doesn't kill Tiberius off or have something awful happen to him later in the series. I just hope that people will read Lady Midnight and truly SEE Ty's character as a wonderful, unique person who will do amazing things in life.  He is not a burden.  He is not "special".  Tiberius is simply himself, and that is enough.     

Updated Note:   In my post, I used both the terms Autistic and dealing with Autism.  I know there is a huge debate as to what the correct phrase should be.  And I struggled with the phrases to use.  There is a wonderful article about the pros and cons of each term:  Identity-First Language on the Autistic Self Advocacy Network if you want to learn more.






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6 comments :

  1. Hear, hear! Now I'm actually tempted to read Lady Midnight just for Ty. Did you watch Community? I don't think it was ever specifically stated but Abed there is very clearly on the spectrum as well. Instead of turning it into laughter track moments, I can only applaud on how the writers show us his creativity as well as his meltdowns. Plus, all the other characters support him in a similar way Penny does with Sheldon. It's little things like that which can create some awareness on how to understand people who are on the spectrum (instead of the obnoxious treating someone like a spoiled child and tell him/her to get over it).

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    Replies
    1. I have not seen Community, but I will look it up on Netflix. Yes, I agree that creating awareness is so important. I just worry that by making Sheldon the punchline, any progress towards understanding is lost.

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  2. This is such an important post. Thank you for writing it! I was think about it when I read Lady Midnight, but I didn't know how to express what I was thinking. It so hard to find good representation of people on the spectrum, while I write this I'm trying to to think of other books that do it and I can't seem to find any. If you do know of more books, maybe you could do a post with a list of suggestions? It would be really helpful. You did I really great job with this!

    Sofia @ Bookish Wanderess

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Sofia. This is an issue close to my heart, as I work in Special Education and I have a son who has Asperger's. Off the top of my heard, I do not know of many other books that show people on the spectrum in a positive light. Most of the representations I see are stereotypes of the genius savant.

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  3. This is a really interesting post! I don't think Sheldon is ALWAYS the butt of all the jokes in TBBT and over time you develop a lot of respect for him, because there are episodes where his behaviour is explained, but I agree that there are also a lot of episodes where it isn't, and I can absolutely see how that is a problem (especially for people who only tune in every once in a while and never get to see the times his character is portrayed in a more layered way). I agree with what Anne said about Abed's portrayal in Community! I think sometimes he's maybe also the butt of some jokes, but overall his character is portrayed in a very understanding way and the other characters support him as he is. Also, I want to read Lady Midnight now!

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    Replies
    1. TBBT is very popular in my house. I agree that over time you gain a greater understanding of Sheldon. But I still feel uncomfortable sometimes with their humor. I think all the male characters are not supportive of each other (not just Sheldon). Is this just "guy humor"? If so, I don't get it.

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