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What is the Worth of Your Autistic Character?

I am very insecure about my intelligence.  I didn’t know how to start this thing so I figured I might as well go ahead and just say it. I have a very odd relationship with my intelligence and how I think, and I am beginning to realize how negatively this can manifest itself in me in many different ways. As a result of this realization I have been doing some introspection to try to pinpoint where this deep seeded insecurity stems from.

I’ve come up with a lot of different factors that probably contribute to this, so keep in mind that what I’m about to bring up is hardly the sole reason I feel the way I feel, it just happens to be the one that pertains to this forum.

I said in a previous blog post that when you examine the history of autism, a common thing that happens time and time again  is that someone does something with really good intentions, and then it has unforeseen consequences that we have to deal with. In this case I’m talking about the way “high-functioning” autism is portrayed in narratives, and its implication about what value we should place on autistic people.

For my money, the first place that we have to look at, is “Rain Man”. I think its fair to say that “Rain Man” really defines the modern interpretation of “high functioning” autism in popular culture. Now, before I go any further, before I start critiquing the legacy of this film, I think it’s important for me to note that this film is really progressive in a lot of ways. This film is a landmark in autism awareness within popular culture, and showed people a narrative in which an autistic person had tangible value within the story. It wasn’t just “autistic people are people too”, it was “Oh, this autistic person can actually do something, and contribute to the narrative”. It gives an autistic person worth. In this sense, “Rain Man” is a huge win for the autistic community.

However, while it is great that we can now have narratives where autistic characters have value, it then begs the question, specifically what value are you placing on these characters? Where do we give the character they’re worth? In “Rain Man” almost the entire worth of the character is caught up in what he can do with his brain. It’s the entire trick of the narrative, “oh look at all the difficulties this autistic person has. Oh!!! But look at what he can do with his brain!!! He must be worth something now.” I think by and large we have not gotten past the “Rain Man” way of placing value on autistic characters. We still see, all the time, autistic characters who struggle with emotions or interpersonal relationships, but regain their value by being a supercomputer. More often then not, these characters have unreasonably and impossibly superhuman like brains. The problem with that is, when you are a young impressionable autistic person, as I was, and you see this, then you are going to start measuring your own worth by what you can do with your brain.

Now, I would be remissed to bring this topic up, and not offer another side to this story. So I ask, where is an example of a character who retains and owns they’re autism, but is not a hopelessly detached supergenius? If you are interested in looking for such a character, or looking for an example of how a writer can expertly navigate such a character, then I for one would suggest looking at Dan Harmon’s “Community” and his character Abed Nadir.

Abed shares a lot of the stereotypical behaviors of many other portrayals of autism, he is obsessive, plays a bit by his own social rules, and, yes, he even at times does retain and regurgitate information in a computer like way. But the key is, his value as a character is not caught up in this. In fact it’s quite the contrary.

Dan Harmon is very good at understanding that within groups each person plays a particular role in making that group function, both in narrative and in real life. So what role has he placed Abed, the autistic character, within this group?  He’s the heart. Abed Nadir is the emotional center of “community” and his worth isn’t in his intelligence, its in his ability to be more emotionally available then any other person in that show. He listens, he is attentive, and he’s still utterly autistic.  I can not express how huge I think this is. To have a clearly autistic character be the emotional backbone of a narrative, completely subverts every current expectation we have about autistic characters in narrative. (and for what it’s worth, there is even a scene where someone drops a bag of bagels, and Abed responds with “thirteen” which is clearly a nod to “Rain Man”‘s toothpick scene , which tells me that the show knows exactly what kind of tropes its attempting to subvert)

I still have a lot of soul searching to do about the many factors that go into the complicated relationship with my intelligence. But at least now I can note, as I try to desperately to tie this back to theater, that I ought to be aware when looking at narratives, at what worth those  narratives are placing on their characters, and how that feeds into the development and codification of character tropes. And perhaps more importantly, going forward as a theater artist, to note my own responsibility within this narrative creation as well.

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