On a 2006 episode of House, Fox’s popular TV drama about the misanthropic medical genius played by Hugh Laurie, Gregory House has to solve the troubling case of an autistic child. Is the 10-year-old boy screaming because he has an untreated physical ailment about which he can’t communicate, or because, well, as most of House’s team believe, that’s what severely autistic children do? House eventually saves the day, of course, but the specific illness of the week was not the real plot point. That turned on the question, now unavoidable to House’s colleagues, on whether their resident savant—sarcastic, brutally blunt, virtually friendless and utterly devoid of social niceties as he is—was himself autistic: specifically, did he have Asperger’s syndrome, the best known of the diagnoses at the high-functioning end of autism spectrum disorders?
The answer to that is left hanging, but were the good doctor to be diagnosed with any ASD, he would be just one of many such characters in recent pop culture—one of many such beloved characters. From the runaway success of Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time with its autistic teen hero Christopher Boone, to Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan and her assistant Zack Addy—two Asperger’s characters on one show—of Fox’s TV drama Bones, to Lisbeth Salander, the electrifying Asperger’s heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, viewers and readers have taken to a series of endearingly offbeat ASD protagonists, if not to the 10-year-old screaming in the corner. It’s all part of autism’s new normal, at least as it’s portrayed in pop culture, variously described by those who approve as evidence of growing social acceptance of “neurological diversity,” and by those less impressed as “our strange fetishization of Asperger’s.”
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Autism is a brain development disorder generally diagnosed in early childhood. Its main visible symptoms are primarily social and emotional: limited interaction with other people, including a lack of eye contact, hypersensitivity to noise and other stimuli, restricted and repetitive behaviour. It has a strong (but poorly understood) genetic component, and controversies swirl around suggested environmental causes, particularly vaccines—a claim championed most prominently by actress Jenny McCarthy and dismissed by medical experts. The prevalence of autism has mushroomed since the 1980s. Better diagnoses explain most of the increase, and the degree to which autism itself may be more prevalent than in the past is another area of dispute. The impressive achievements of a few high-profile autistics like Temple Grandin, a leading authority on livestock behaviour and a bestselling author, have helped fuel an autistic culture—the idea that autism, at least at its high-functioning end, should be considered a difference and not treated as a disorder.
Increasing awareness of autistic people and their accomplishments—the same forces that brought first greater ethnic and then sexual diversity to the fore—is one impetus behind autism’s growing fictional prominence. Yet there must be more to it than that, or there would be more characters with physical disabilities on TV and in popular fiction. Within the limited formats of episodic TV and genre fiction there’s a limit to the physically challenged’s bag of dramatic tricks—the blind hero who’s more at home than the villains in a darkened room, for instance, has been a pulp fiction staple for decades. Neurological quirks, however, have endless possibilities for writers.
In real life, for instance, Temple Grandin thinks of her autism, specifically her lifelong tendency to think in pictures rather than in words, not as a handicap of any sort but as “a tremendous advantage” in her work as an equipment designer for the livestock industry. “I credit my visualization abilities with helping me understand the animals I work with.” She’s certainly been enormously successful in her field: one-third of the cattle and hogs in the U.S. are handled in equipment Grandin has designed. Similarly, staff at the Danish software firm Specialisterne, 75 per cent of whom have some form of autism, receive rave reviews for what one client called their “fantastic ability to locate errors and aberrations” in computer code.
Fictional autistic characters overwhelmingly display similar gifts. Raymond Babbitt, played by Dustin Hoffman in 1988’s Rain Man—the first, and for a decade, only famous autistic character—is a savant, with a deep but very narrow memory for certain facts. Christopher Boone knows every prime number up to 7,057; another autistic hero from teen fiction, 16-year-old Simon Lynch of Ryne Douglas Pearson’s Simple Simon, has mathematical abilities great enough to crack a NSA security code. Bones Brennan is a brilliant forensic anthropologist, trained in four martial arts, and a bestselling novelist who speaks Japanese; Zack Addy has an IQ north of 163, a photographic memory and two doctorates. House is, roughly speaking, more intelligent than the rest of his medical team combined. On the ABC series Boston Legal, it is Jerry Espenson’s Asperger’s that provides the attention to detail that makes him a master of financial law. Lisbeth Salander, 24, had a horrific childhood, but emerged as a brilliant computer hacker. The autistic, animal-loving, humanity-hating Crake in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake was smart enough to plan and unleash a sequence of events that destroyed modern society; his real name, Atwood’s narrator recalls, was Glenn, “with two n’s, after a dead pianist, some boy genius.”
Atwood, like many others, thinks piano prodigy Glenn Gould had Asperger’s. “I bet, I’ll just bet, that he did even if they didn’t diagnose it back then,” she once remarked. “Want to know a factoid I learned after I wrote the book? When he was 10, Gould wrote an opera where all the people died at the end, and only the animals survived. That gave me a chill.” Posthumous diagnoses of autism, where people comb the historical record seeking possible cases, are a popular pastime. And those who look for ASD often find it in past admired intellectual and cultural titans, especially in math and music. Isaac Newton, Lewis Carroll—a mathematician when he wasn’t writing Alice in Wonderland—Mozart and Gould are all favourites. Nor are living icons spared: Bill Gates—technologically brilliant, socially awkward and fabulously wealthy—is the object of much Internet speculation about his neurological wiring.
In most cases, although not Gould’s, the suppositions are based on little more than the fact the geniuses in question tended to become deeply immersed in their work to the detriment of other aspects of their lives. Contemporary culture has a bias toward medicalizing human genius, especially of the mathematical variety, and still carries a traditional tit-for-tat assumption that talent in one sphere is balanced by weakness in another: athletes are dumb and smart people can’t jump. So prevalent are these tendencies that any character, particularly a child, who can add up three-figure sums without a calculator, has an odds-on chance of being assumed autistic. Early accounts of Reif Larsen’s new novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, almost universally claimed that its protagonist, a 12-year-old map-making prodigy, is autistic precisely because he is a prodigy. (He isn’t.)
Wonder workers are always welcome in popular media, but superhero skills are not the entire source of the autistic characters’ appeal. We also love them for their lack of social skills. We, at least those of us without autistic relatives, can laugh when Christopher Boone, in the midst of a harrowing journey alone to his mother’s house, barks like a dog at fellow passengers who come too close to him, or when House is unspeakably rude to some pompous hospital administrator. There are also rich comic possibilities in novels of manners; in The Family Man, the latest work by Elinor Lipman, an American master of the genre, part of the plot turns on a PR campaign to soften the edges of an Asperger’s star of horror movies. In one of her earlier novels, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift (2003), when a female autistic doctor finally scores a boyfriend, she is hilariously clinical about their first kiss. “When he leaned in for the actual compression of lips, my arms went up and circled his neck, causing a lingering farewell and inducing a near-reluctance to part that was unanticipated.” One (female) reviewer wrote that, in the touchy-feely world of women’s lit, it was refreshing to have a heroine “as in touch with her emotions as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.”
And we appreciate the way autistic characters function in the manner noble savages did in literature centuries ago, as outsiders who don’t know the social rules and thus speak the-emperor-has-no-clothes truths no one else dares to utter. Christopher Boone was taught to not lie, but he had to learn himself, quite painfully, not to speak the truth when he met someone fat or ugly. Autistic characters are valued for the way they often point at (and point out) social hypocrisies, as though they were large—and exceptionally intelligent—children. In Margot Livesey’s Banishing Verona (2004), an older pregnant woman loves a younger Asperger’s man, not despite his neurological wiring, not incidentally to it, but because of it: she values him for his inability to cheat, pretend or lie. This, far more than ascribing savant-like mathematical abilities, is a portrait of high-functioning autistics as morally better than the neurologically normal. That is a fetishization of Asperger’s if there ever was one: the lover is still defined by his condition.
Some of the observers most troubled by pop autism are the parents of ASD children. Happy as many were to see so iconic a TV character as House (almost) outed, just about everyone who posted to support-group websites expressed anger with the comment made by House’s sole friend, Wilson. As the rest of the team speculated about House, Wilson remarked his prickly friend would welcome an Asperger’s diagnosis—as a licence to be rude. The social ineptitude writers use to mine laughs is frequently indistinguishable from the emotional distancing that can devastate the families of actual autistic people. Literature is more apt to deal with the issue than TV, and there is a poignant moment in The Curious Incident, after Christopher arrives at his mother’s. She’s so torn between fear and relief that she just wants to hold his hand, but Chris doesn’t like being touched, and she can find no wordless way of expressing her love or of being assured of his. And, naturally, the severely autistic, like the non-verbal child in the House episode, tend to appear only in victim roles.
Yet, so dominant is the positive message, especially on TV, that it stands on its head Susan Sontag’s famous maxim, that every age has a defining illness that reflects back its deepest fears. Autism may be the distemper of our times (succeeding AIDS in that role), but as portrayed in pop culture, it’s as likely to invoke envy as fear.