Before we get started, I should clear some things up about myself.
I have Aspergers Syndrome, for those who are not in the know, it’s a form of high functioning Autism which, in my case leads to difficulties in communication, social anxiety and a whole litany of other completely brilliant differences between me and the average, or “neurotypical” person.
That last part was sarcasm by the way, another thing that people with Aspergers sometimes have difficulty with.
There are many myths and misapprehensions about Autism, ranging from the idea that we “have no empathy” and are all basically Elliot Rogers-esque ticking time bombs of Hollywood-sociopathic evil, just waiting to explode and murder everyone in our immediate vicinity (sociopaths are another deeply misunderstood group, but that’s another topic for another time.) Despite the fact that this myth has been debunked into the ground multiple times.
Another pervasive falsehood is the idea that vaccines cause autism, a myth so prevalent that it’s actually become a talking point in the run up to 2016’s presidential elections, despite having been, once again, debunked into the dirt multiple times. Not that “facts” and “evidence” have ever meant a thing to Donald Trump.
…Unless those kids are Mexican, right Donald?
Cheap shots against easy targets aside, lets get to the point.
In a nutshell, Autistic people are the one minority in the western world that you can still get away with mocking, which is especially disheartening because the majority of them are among the most vulnerable people in society.
Now, I’m all for having a laugh, I have a pretty near the knuckle sense of humour myself, hell, this is my second article for this site I’ve already made jokes about incest, cocaine and having sex with Sean Hannity. But those are jokes, “This chart looks like sh*t, are you autistic?” isn’t a joke, anymore than “you’re so mean with your money, are you Jewish?” is. And yet, that made it into a critically acclaimed, commercially successful (and admittedly very funny) comedy movie.
Another example (and given the source, an especially disappointing one) is the character of Michael Falk, Autistic Reporter, a character who has appeared in multiple sketch’s from The Onion, a site I’d argue has more hits than misses in terms of how many times it’s nearly destroyed my computer by drowning it in spat out coffee.
Take a look at this sketch:
I don’t know whether you found that funny or not, and I don’t blame you if you did, humour is subjective after all. But let me ask you something, what is the moral difference between making a joke about how “Autistic person finds a sense of belonging visiting prison because the the regimented structure appeals to all autistic people” and “Black person finds a sense of belonging visiting prison because all Black people are criminals?”
And before you write me saying that “that isn’t accepted in the broader culture” take a look at the like/dislike ratio:
It’s even infected the already ethically murky world of social justice identity politics, with well known professional victim and supposed advocate for equality Brianna Wu (apparently she designs games too, apparently they are terrible, and apparently people thinking they are terrible are misogynistic) saying this about somebody with Aspergers:
…which is pretty ironic, since she accuses pretty much everyone who has a differing opinion from her of bigotry. For the record, “Aspie” is the Autism equivalent of calling a Black person a N*****, and I’m only censoring that word so that her moronic cabal of apologists don’t start calling me a racist, because context be damned!
Probably the most egregious example of how people with Aspergers and Autism are mis-represented in media is the character of Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory, a show that has been described by some as “Nerd Blackface” by people much more sensitive than myself (I just think it’s kinda crappy) a character who’s main source is comedy is being a walking caricature of every tired cliche about people with autism.
Now, the writers of the show have tried to avoid accusations of exploitation by flat out denying that he has Aspergers. But they really aren’t fooling anyone, it’s like trying to deny that Buckwheat from The Little Rascals is black.
Thankfully, Youtuber Sanny Wendy has made a really useful video highlighting all the stereotypical traits of Aspergers that Sheldon Cooper totally doesn’t have:
This denial comes off as especially disingenuous when you consider that 2 Broke Girls, a show made by the same production company caused a stir in the Autistic community for a joke about Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science and prominent Autism activist, which wasn’t particularly offensive to anything but the abstract concept of comedy.
To contrast with Sheldon, compare Abed Nadir, a character created as the author avatar of Dan Harmon, who actually discovered that he had Aspergers while using the character as a conduit for his inner thoughts. The portrayal here is much more accurate and sympathetic, which actor Danny Pudi deserves a mountian of golf claps for:
While these clips are pretty hilarious, probably my favourite moment from the character is “Six Candles” a short film about Abed’s troubled relationship with his father which perfectly captures the Aspergers experience in a beautiful, funny, and utterly tear jerking way:
Sadly, this clip fails to show the money shot of the scene, where after watching, the character of Jeff (aka the attractive white guy) quips that “It’s not exactly Citizen Kane” like the generic sarcastic sitcom protagonist he is, while is fathers reaction is a little… different.
Humour is a powerful tool for change, and while characters like Abed from Community, Will Graham from Hannibal and Brick Heck from The Middle are doing a lot to demolish preconceptions about Autism, there are still countless examples of broad, offensive stereotypes which are little more than fodder for the lowest form of comedy.
In my case, I’m very fortunate, I’m very high functioning, and for the most part I can basically function amongst normal people. But the many can’t, and they have little context for their condition in the media or from society at large beyond being a near-constant subject of mockery. Anyone making jokes about Autism really needs to bear this in mind, because every person on the spectrum’s struggle is unique, and despite the fact that living with the condition is certainly more difficult than being a Neurotypical by varying degrees of severity, and the fact that there are certainly enough of us to be a “minority” onto itself, it still isn’t seen as a “legitimate” disorder worthy of recognition like Bipolar or Schizophrenia. Once again, Community provides a perfect microcosm of the spectrum of reactions that Aspergers receives:
and that pretty much seems like the perfect place to end this.
Images owned by NBC, The Onion, Twitter (I guess) and CBS