Why Do We Want Autistic Kids to Have Superpowers?

The CruxBy Charlie Jane AndersFeb 1, 2012 10:13 PM


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Charlie Jane Anders is the managing editor of io9.com. Read her novelette

Six Months, Three Days


Last week saw the debut of Touch, Kiefer Sutherland's show about a father whose non-neurotypical son turns out to be able to predict future events. This comes on the heels of Alphas, which also gave us Gary, another person who appears to be on the autism spectrum but who has the ability to see hidden energies. And the notion of autistic people as savants or special fixers has been around forever.

Why do we create these fantasies about autistic people having superpowers? We talked to a few experts to try and find out.

In Touch, Sutherland plays Martin Bohm, a man whose wife was killed on 9/11. His "emotionally challenged" son Jake is mute, unable to connect with others, and "shows little emotion." Jake is obsessed with numbers and discarded cellphones—and then we discover, via Danny Glover's expert, that Jake can see the threads of invisible energy that bind the entire world together. And Jake sees where they're broken by our crazy modern world, and needs his dad's help to fix them. So basically, it's New Age spirituality rolled in with "autistic savant" fantasies. Already, it's gotten some criticism. ThinkProgress' Alyssa Rosenberg referred to the show as creating "a magical alternative to autism." Meanwhile, Ellen Seidman at Love That Max was happy to see a special-needs kid on television, but also worried the show would "take the focus away from the amazing reality of our kids." And she thought maybe some people would think autistic kids really could predict the future. And that could be bad. Over at the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism blog, Shannon Rosa talks to Joanne Lara, an autism and special-education expert who consulted on Touch. Among other things, she reveals that the show explicitly said that Jake was autistic at one point, but then that scene was reshot and all references to autism were removed. Also, no autistic people were consulted in the creation of the character. And finally, Lara also says that it's not just about the dad, Martin, but that the kid is the real focus, and his explorations are what matter in the show. He's as much the protagonist as his father. And that seems to be a huge question that people are asking about this show — is Jake really a protagonist, or is he just a vehicle in his father's journey of self-discovery and personal growth? The danger here is that the autistic character could be akin to the "magical negro" or the "noble savage" in popular culture, says Steve Silberman, a frequent contributor to Wired who's writing a book about autism to be published in 2013. Silberman explains that these are

characters that were significantly disabled in a social sense, but who had a kind of innocence and purity that enabled them to play their central role in the narrative: that of redeeming the hero, who wasn't disabled and was only temporarily an outcast. Those characters usually faded offscreen when the hero attained his rightfully high status in society; they were only valuable for what they could render unto the mainstream characters—very much like the gay "best friend" in a million TV shows who coaches the female lead on her romantic problems but never has a sex life of his own ("gross!"), or the fat girl who's "like a sister" to the geeky-but-hot male lead.

Adds Rosa, "I like Gary in Alphas, damn it. He's happy, functional [and] gets the support he needs. He told his mom to back off. [And he's] OK with being autistic."

So why do we want autistic people to have superpowers? I talked to Rosa, and she says that there are two conflicting things at work. We want autistic people to want to be like us, like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. And secondly, we're "obsessed with exceptionalism," says Rosa. "People can't handle the fact that some people are just different without having something fabulously acceptable as balance, because otherwise we'd just have to accept autistic people on their own terms, and that's hard and challenging and takes patience and work."

Partly, it's because we want any disability to be countered by a contrasting superpower, says Carol Greenburg, a special needs consultant and the East Coast director of the Autism Women's Network, who's been diagnosed as autistic herself. She explains, "The difficulties that can come along with autism are undeniable, but I see neither my life, nor my minimally verbal son's life as unrelentingly tragic simply because of our communication impairments. But if you really do believe, as I think the dominant culture implies, that humans are the sum of their language, then you damn well want the universe to balance out and compensate for the lack of it, and all that goes along with it. Reality usually doesn't provide that compensation, but fiction, especially fiction in this genre, can." Says Silberman, it all goes back to the "autistic savant" notion, which is what got the mainstream media interested in autism in the first place:

The first autistic person that most people can remember seeing was Raymond Babbitt, a savant played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 film Rain Man. His ability to count the number of toothpicks dropped by a busy waitress at a glance was like a very humble form of superpower—an enhanced cognitive ability that didn't have to be "super" to be real. Oliver Sacks' memorable portrait of the "calculating twins" in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat built on the interest in autism sparked by Rain Man, and established the stereotype in popular culture of autistic people as secretly-super-abled disabled people. This stereotype, like most stereotypes, does an injustice to most people in the stereotyped category—what if you can't calculate prime numbers in your head, and instead face poverty because many firms don't want to hire even skilled employees who aren't good at navigating social hierarchies?—but it has also succeeded in bringing a vast amount of media attention to what was once considered an extremely rare disorder.

Greenburg says she's not sure whether the rise of superpowered autistic people in mass media will be good for the autism community or not. "That knowledge would require superpowers that would allow allow me to see into the future, powers of which I am sadly bereft." But she adds that she's inclined to "support all storytelling that has anything good to say about autistic people's potential to make a positive difference in the world." Silberman, meanwhile, says he hopes we'll eventually stop seeing all autistic people as "Rain Man-style savants." And that we'll recognize that people on the autism spectrum are all around us, and "always have been, whether they had or needed a diagnosis or not." For her part, Rosa hopes Touch busts, rather than perpetrates, stereotypes about autism.

This post originally appeared on io9.

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