A lot of movies and shows seem to have a character with autism, or more specifically with Asperger syndrome, and the characters are all more or less the same.
In “Mary and Max,” Max turns out to have Asperger syndrome. All the charm, for me, slipped away from the character. He stopped being a quirky recluse with no social skills and instead became a textbook.
At the point it is mentioned that he had Asperger’s, it was no longer a story about Max. It was a story about Asperger’s syndrome. The condition became the character.
A commercial I saw advertised an episode of “Parenthood” with the boy asking about Asperger’s, because he was apparently just diagnosed. It felt like “A very special episode of…”
I never thought I’d blog about “Dear John” twice (Here’s the other one: https://whatilearnedbywriting.wordpress.com/2010/02/15/%E2%80%9Cdear-john%E2%80%9D-and-how-weakness-defines-character/), but at one point, John’s father is determined to have Asperger’s syndrome. My wife, a special ed teacher, had it nailed already, of course. Especially because they had already introduced a boy with autism earlier.
“Dear John” wasn’t about Asperger’s. That was just a subplot. “Rain Man” was definitely about autism. But “Rain Man” was based on a real person.
I think writers try so hard to paint these characters in a positive light, and be accurate, that they stop making them characters and just make them cut-outs. They have their little obsessions, which are interchangeable from character to character. And they have their odd way of looking at the world. In sad movies, they are constantly at odds with the way the world works. In reassuring movies, they look at the world through the eyes of a wise and noble child.
Writers have two audiences in mind. The first is someone who knows someone with autism. These people they are trying not to offend. The other are people who don’t know anyone with autism. I think the writers are trying to educate these people.
These are all good goals, but they don’t really make for good storytelling.
Here’s a thought I’ve had before and I’ve got to say it again: The only way to make movies inclusive of people who are different is to make the movie not about the difference. If the whole movie is about a character with autism, you’re not building bridges. They are still the “other.” Studied. Under glass. If you want to show autism as a part of life, show an autistic family member in the movie, but don’t have the whole movie be about that.
I have a comic book super hero whose brother is autistic. Will that fact be the center of stories at some point? Undoubtedly. However, until then, he’s just Jake’s older brother Ronnie, who likes to play video games with him and keeps his mom on her toes.