Welcome back to the second part of our monthly discussion! As it’s Autism Awareness Month, we’ve decided to take the opportunity to discuss neurodiversity in writing. Check out Part One here.
Neurodiversity means recognising and respecting neurological differences. This covers a range of labels from Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, ADHD, Dyscalculia, the Autistic Spectrum, and Tourette Syndrome. We are also including discussion of neurological issues such as Depression, Anxiety and PTSD.
Elise: Let’s continue this chat by looking at the current portrayals of neurodiversity in the media. Do you think neurodiversity should be more prominent? What aspects would you like to see with better representation?
Cassandra: Yes, definitely, neurodiversity should be more prominent. However, the characters must also be relatable — they can’t be completely paralysed by their disability. The plot of overcoming it, confronting the pain point directly, is getting common. If they have goals and aspirations like neurotypical people, but the impediment is an obstacle, that makes for a good story.
Allie: Absolutely. Invisible illnesses need more representation so those who don’t have them can understand neurodiverse people better instead of simply thinking we’re “weird” or trying to fit us into their molds of what people should be. Not everyone is going to fit into someone else’s ideal of “normal”, and fiction is one way we can help others better understand our minds. Reading books about “normal” people only worsens the stigma that we need to fix ourselves to fit in, or act a certain way. These disorders cannot be “fixed”, and when we read characters with problems similar to our own, it helps us to accept that we are our own kind of normal.
I don’t see enough of any neurological disorders. Depression is becoming more common, but I haven’t read enough books with anxiety accurately represented, and I definitely don’t see enough likeable/relatable characters on the autistic spectrum. It’s easier to portray characters that “normal” people don’t understand as “bad”, or even just “odd”. I also don’t see enough characters with PTSD who aren’t soldiers. There are other, smaller triggers for PTSD.
Renee: I feel that diversity of all kinds should be prominent in all entertainment outlets, as it helps normalize and instil acceptance and understanding of diversity. I do think neurodiversity is strongly lacking in positive, realistic, and thought-provoking content. Mass media seems to eschew realistic representation for cartoonish and lampooned representation, such as Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory.
Rather than say what TYPE, I think we need to publicize and produce works created by neurotypical creators, as they can capture the story, representation, and realism better than anyone else.
Corinne: I would love for there to be more neurodiverse characters in fiction. I don’t really know which aspects there should be more of, but fewer stereotypical Rain Man types and more realistic people, for a start.
Natalie: Yes, I definitely think it should. That said I think it’s important to have neurodiverse writers write those stories. I’m not saying a neurotypical writer can’t write a good non-stereotypical character, but in my opinion people who have been/are directly affected by anything, whether it’s anxiety or Aspergers, will have a better foundation for portraying these characters truthfully.
Katelyn: I’d love to see more representation of people on the spectrum but I think it’ll be a while before we see it.
However, I do think the media is becoming more aware that people want diversity and that it does sell. Look at how well Wonder Woman and Black Panther have done for example. That bodes well for those of us on the spectrum, I think.
I’d like to see more…normalness. I know that probably sounds odd but most of the time when people on the spectrum show up, they’re not so much defined by being people as they are by whatever traits they’re displaying. I’d like to see more nuanced and realistic portrayals I guess is what I’m saying. Having Aspergers… that’s only a part of who I am. Yes, it influences the rest of my life much the way things like gender, race, and sexual identity do, but it’s just an aspect of what makes me, me.
Elise: One issue has come up a couple of times – neurodiverse characters can often be stereotypical. Do you think this does more harm than good, or does the awareness raised outweigh this?
Cassandra: Stereotypes are clichés: they make people easy to categorise. It’s similar to race: we all suppose that certain races are lazy, hardworking, cunning, savvy, family-oriented, known for producing domestic workers, and so on. When we make the names of races with unfavourable traits known, it gets called racism. Only when the upsides are emphasised is it termed “diversity”. Doesn’t the same apply in the neurological sense?
Allie: I think it can be a stepping stone toward accurate portrayals of neurodiversity. The one I think of is the TV show Monk with his OCD. It’s more than liking things to be clean/organized. While he has that need, like when he tries to even out someone’s sleeves, or someone’s socks don’t match because they’re a shade off, or when he has to clean a smudge off a window because he can’t focus until those things are fixed, it also shows him walking down the street and compulsively touching every light post or parking meter he passes. It helped me better understand the disorder, though I know I still have a lot more to learn.
Renee: I think it really depends on the situation, the goal of the story, the reach of the platform, and changes over time. For example, Big Bang Theory does raise awareness, but also misinforms people. How many hiring managers, with only Sheldon as a reference, might hesitate to hire someone with Aspergers or Autism, fearing legal repercussions (how many times has Sheldon said something terrible at work) or other issues. To be responsible, CBS should donate funds to Autism Awareness, and even produce a documentary or educational special targeted at their Big Bang audience (even have Jim Parsons narrate) to drive true awareness with the audience they’ve built. Failing that or other similar measures, they are exploiting an under-represented group of people for entertainment purposes and spreading rampant misinformation.
However, a small indie author, likely not reaching a huge audience, who has done research and does their best to present the character, does not, in my opinion, have as large a responsibility. Ultimately, I think it ties into how much economic success the character or work brings to the owner or publisher. If it brings you success and reaches a large audience, you are responsible for limiting misrepresentation and taking part in education your audience.
Corinne: I would have to say yes to this. Of course, it’s great that TV producers and movie directors want to create characters like Rain Man and Sheldon who have ASD, but in the end, it does us more harm than good. They probably intend for it to bring awareness or something along those lines, but instead, it only serves to create misconceptions in viewers’ minds. Rather than seeing a TV program like Big Bang Theory and subsequently going and researching ASD for themselves, viewers instead just watch it and think that it’s the ultimate source for what life is like on the spectrum. The producers of TV shows and movie directors make these characters more stereotypical on purpose for entertainment value–those sorts of characters will garner more views and ratings–but IMHO, it feels more like we’re being exploited rather than represented.
Natalie: I think they, to some degree, do more harm. The issue arises when someone whose only reference point for someone with say Asperger Syndrome is Sheldon and they then expect ALL people with Asperger Syndrome to act like he does.
Katelyn: *sighs* Ah, Sheldon… He’s a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, seeing any sort of representation is good because it opens doors for there to be more representation since he’s such a popular character on a very popular show. On the other hand, I wouldn’t call him necessarily an accurate representation. Some of this I think is due to Sheldon being a character on comedy show. His traits are played up for laughs. So yes, the representation is good, but it also leads people to have misconceptions I think about what Aspergers and others on the spectrum are really like.
Elise: Thanks very much for joining me this month everyone! As a neurotypical myself, I’ve found it fascinating to learn more about neurodiversity and the issues that can come up with representing it in fiction. I hope you’ve enjoyed the posts as well. Let us know your experience of neurodiversity and media in the comments!
Elise Edmonds lives in a quiet South Gloucestershire village, where she spends her free time with her husband and two cats, and enjoys attending local fitness classes, watching movies, and playing the piano. Pursuing writing in her spare time as a creative outlet is a way to bring the magic back into her everyday life.