This week I’d like to talk about Netflix’s latest drama film ‘I Used To Be Famous‘ and an autistic character that appears in the film.
So what is the film about?
The film follows Vince (played by Ed Skrein), a former member of a famous boy band who has been struggling to make headway with his own electronic music since the dissolution of the band several years previously. One day while busking in the city, he happens upon a teenage boy who starts drumming a beat on a nearby bench in sync with his electronic stylings. The resulting music captures the attention of everyone around and a video of the incident goes viral online. As it turns out, Stevie is on the autistic spectrum and a passionate drummer. Vince tracks him down in a music therapy group for people with disabilities and proposes that they start a band together in his desperation to make it back on top, a move which changes both of their lives forever.
You can see a trailer of the film below:
So how was this films depiction of autism?
The writers have kept things simple in the film, choosing to make Stevie’s drumming abilities the main focus rather than his autism, showing us all that autism should never be a blocker to achieving your dreams. Now one of the great things about this film is that building on from Atypical, Netflix has cast an autistic actor, Leo Long, to play Stevie. Leo is a talented drummer with the London Youth Folk Ensemble and National Open Youth Orchestra, and a passionate advocate for making the music and film industries more accessible for individuals with disabilities.
It’s a heartwarming film with some great tunes to boot- perfect for a quiet evening in 🙂
This week I’d like to take a look at autism in the popular BBC mystery/crime drama series ‘Sherlock‘ starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (I know, I’m a bit late to the party on this show, but I only recently binged it during the pandemic 😛 ).
So what’s Sherlock about?
The premise of Sherlock is fairly self explanatory- it’s a series based on the infamous Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set in modern day London. Holmes, a consulting detective, works closely with his friend Dr. Watson to solve mysteries and crimes across London by using Sherlock’s keen powers of observation and deduction in tandem with modern sleuthing technologies, giving Holmes’s story a contemporary edge.
Here’s a trailer of the series for those of you who have never seen it:
So how does autism tie into all of this?
There has been much debate as to whether or not the character of Sherlock has Asperger’s Syndrome. Many experts have theorized that he original character of Sherlock Holmes in the 19th century stories may have been displaying signs of autism decades before the condition was first characterized. Sherlock indeed displays many traits of Asperger’s- his powers of observation, his intellect and memory, obsession with his work, issues with sleep and drug addiction, mind blindness to social cues, his struggles with empathy, and moments of perceived sociopathy (some autists have been misdiagnosed as sociopaths) all tend to paint the picture of an autist. Moreover, the chief of police and Dr. Watson have even theorized that Sherlock may have Asperger’s.
You can find a video of some of Sherlock’s best bits in the show at the link below:
However, this depiction has not been without it’s critiques. It has been argued that this depiction of Sherlock as a superhuman intellect with sociopathic tendencies is damaging for the autistic community as this is a negative, somewhat romanticized and simplistic portrayal of the condition that can mislead the public in their perceptions of the condition (although let’s face it- 90% of autistic characters recycle the same traits and rarely give us an insight into the variety and complexity of the neurodivergent population 😛 ). The autistic community on the whole however, has mainly been supportive in claiming Sherlock as one of our own as many relate to Sherlock and feel seen in Cumberbatch’s portrayal.
Following the recent release of Netflix sensation ‘Stranger Things‘ Season 4 Vol., this week I’d like to discuss a possible autistic character that many fans have been discussing online since the season dropped (don’t worry- I’ll keep this spoiler free!).
So before I get into discussing this character, what’s Stranger Things about?
For those of you who may not have heard of Netflix’s all time most streamed TV show, Stranger Things is an 80’s nostalgia sci-fi/horror/drama series set in the fictional town of Hawkins Indiana. Secret government cold war experiments exploring psychokinesis have ripped a portal to an alternate dimension filled with monsters called the ‘Upside Down’, leading to a series of mysterious events in Hawkins which a young group of pre-teens set out to investigate after their friend Will disappears.
Now back to autism.
In the most recent series, one of the new characters introduced in the last season, now appears to be showing a lot of neurodivergent traits- Robin Buckley, played by Maya Hawke (daughter of Hollywood legends Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke).
Robin is a highly intelligent high school student that befriends the main Stranger Things gang in season 3 when Russian scientists build a portal to the Upside Down in a secret lab beneath the mall that she works at. Described as “an alternative girl” when her casting was first announced, Robin has certainly captured the attention of autistic viewers as her character has developed in season 4. Throughout the season, Robin has been very quirky, exhibiting no filter and rambling constantly about random topics, but can also be quite easily distracted, suggesting that like many autists she has ADHD.
She mentions that she has no grasp of social cues and has awful coordination, claiming that she took 6 months longer to walk than the other babies which she says was not normal. Robin also claims to be a terrible liar and regularly addresses her weirdness and tendency to inadvertently come across as mean or condescending, constantly asking her friends if she is being annoying.
During one particularly memorable scene, Robin, a notorious tomboy, is dressed up in tight frilly clothing which she constantly complains about, arguing that the borrowed outfit is itchy, the bra is pinching her, and the blouse is strangling her, which could suggest that sensory sensitivities could be driving her penchant for baggy clothing.
Most autistic fans did not notice much in the line of neurodiversity in season 3, but other keen eyed viewers have noted traits prior to season 4 citing her ability to hyperfocus, her memory, her ability to connect dots the others can’t, her blunt truth bombs and that she is a member of the LGBTQ+ community (which a large proportion of autists are). Robin also remarked in season 3 “I feel like my whole life has been one big error“, a sentiment that many an autist can relate to. It could be argued that perhaps now that Robin is part of the gang, she is far more relaxed and doesn’t feel the need to mask as much as she did in season 3.
Whilst it is highly unlikely that Robin will have an autism story-line given how poorly understood autism was in women during the 1980’s, nevertheless it’s always nice for autistic fans to feel seen when watching our favourite shows. It will be interesting to see how her character develops in season 4 vol 2 and beyond!
This week I’d like to talk to you about one of my specialist interests- the Eurovision Song Contest, as this year one of the entrants is on the autistic spectrum! 😀
So, first things first, what exactly is the Eurovision Song Contest?
The Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) is an annual international songwriting contest organized by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) that was first established in 1956 as a means of bringing divided European nations together through music in the wake of World War II. Originally, only 7 countries participated, but over the years musicians representing 52 countries have competed across Europe, Israel and Australia (don’t get me started on the logic for that one…)
Each participating country submits one original song under 3 minutes in length, and performs the song live on stage to the world, competing to win a trophy and the chance for their nation to host the contest the following year. There are two semi finals and one grand final, all held over one week, usually in May. The voting is a 50/50 split from audience televotes and panels of industry experts from each participating country.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Eurovision is very popular in Europe with an average annual audience of just under 200 million viewers. Over the years it has grown from a simple song contest to a huge spectacle with elaborate staging and often crazy performances from bread baking Russian grannies, to metal monsters, dancing drag queens, to flapping puppets (sorry again for that one Europe!), to powerful songs that unite us and capture the hearts of an entire continent.
We get it, you love Eurovision Aoife, so where’s the autism link?
This year, the Australian delegation (we’ll let the geographical issues slide for a few paragraphs) are sending autistic singer Sheldon Riley to the contest in Turin, Italy with his song ‘Not The Same‘ where he talks about his struggles in life, and particularly his struggles growing up with Asperger’s Syndrome. You can check out the song here:
Diagnosed at 6 years old, Sheldon was told that he would never be “normal”, that he would never achieve his dreams, never have a job, friends or a romantic partner. Instead, he has defied the odds and went on to compete in several song competitions in Australia in addition to America’s Got Talent. As part of his stage persona, Sheldon incorporates elaborate crystal masks into his performances to hide his face to allow him to focus on his singing as he often feels judged for his appearance, a shield to allow him to perform, taking autistic masking to a new level. With his participation in Eurovision however, Sheldon finally feels confident to start ditching his mask to embrace who he really is. You can also hear Sheldon talking about his experiences of autism to BBC in the video below:
Sheldon isn’t however the first autist to take to the Eurovision stage. In 2015, Finland sent the rock band Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät comprised of disabled musicians with Down Syndrome and Autism. To this day it holds the record for the shortest ever song performed at Eurovision:
On another level, Greta Thunberg’s mother, Malena Ernman, who is an outspoken advocate for autism awareness, represented her native Sweden in the Eurovision in 2009!
Whilst these are the only confirmed examples of autists competing in the Eurovision, it’s quite possible that other past artists may also have been on the spectrum (knowingly or otherwise) but they have not revealed their diagnosis.
Fun Fact– yours truly contributed to last years 4th place Icelandic entry as part of an online virtual choir of 1000 fans, so you could say that one other autist has appeared on the Eurovision stage (in a roundabout way 😛 )
Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂
Have a lovely weekend and enjoy the competition tomorrow night if you’re watching!
After recently seeing the new Fantastic Beasts film in the cinema, it’s got me thinking about whether or not some of my favourite characters in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter are on the autistic spectrum.
As I stared up at the big screen at Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander, I was really struck by how many autistic traits that his character possessed. Newt is quirky and socially awkward, he rarely makes eye contact, he has an unusual gait and is obsessed to distraction with magical creatures, often mimicking their behaviours to communicate with them. Perhaps most telling of all in the latest film, Dumbledore tells him that his honesty is one of his greatest attributes. Eddie Redmayne himself has said in interviews that he feels that Newt probably has Asperger’s syndrome based on how JK Rowling described Newt’s mannerisms to him, but would have unlikely been diagnosed as the films take place in the 1920’s long before Kanner and Asperger first published their work on autism.
Here’s a video that someone spliced together showing Newt and some of his autistic moments in the films:
Driving home after the film, I started thinking back over the books and wondering how I had never wondered if some of the characters were autistic.
Perhaps the most obvious potential autist would be Luna “Looney” Lovegood- a quirky and eccentric girl who is often shunned by her peers for being different (famed in particular for her radish earrings). She floats around the castle a social outcast, her mind often miles away in a dreamland. Highly intelligent, fiercely loyal and brutally honest, Luna is quite gullible and often the victim of bullying, as many of us on the spectrum often are. Irish actress Evanna Lynch who played Luna in the films has said in interviews that she regularly receives letters from autistic fans about Luna and how they connect with her. I didn’t quite connect with Luna in the same way that I identified with Hermione Granger (as I’ve mentioned previously), but she was the one character I would have loved to have played in the films.
Many have also questioned whether Hermione Granger is on the spectrum due to her obsession with good grades and initial struggles to make friends after arriving at Hogwarts. While I certainly connected very strongly with Hermione, I doubt that she is on the spectrum- her emotional intelligence and understanding of people wouldn’t generally be expected of an aspie. She spent many nights by the common room fire schooling Harry and Ron on how to understand women and their emotions, something that very few on the spectrum would feel knowledgeable enough to comment on.
In addition, there are those who also feel that Snape and Voldemort could have been on the spectrum. I can see how Snape, like Hermione, could in passing seem autistic as he has displays some traits through his anti-social behaviours, obsession with potions and tendency towards eloquent language use, but again feel that this is unlikely. Let’s face it- most of us have no filter, we’d have never successfully hidden that we were working as a double agent from Voldemort!
As for Voldemort himself being an autist…I think that’s really reaching. Most people possess some level of autistic traits, and I think it’s a little insulting to liken one of the most evil literary villains of modern times to autists, and in fact quite damaging to compare his sociopathic lack of empathy to our struggles with this emotion. To attempt to humanize him by linking autism to his origin story really doesn’t do the autistic community a service.
While none of these character’s were ever explicitly written with autism in mind, it’s wonderful to hear that many autists feel they can connect with these character’s and feel seen 🙂
This week I’d like to talk about an autistic character in the British medical TV drama ‘Holby City‘ that I have been following for a few years now- Jason Haynes.
One of the really special things about this character is that Jason is portrayed by actor Jules Robertson who has Asperger’s syndrome – the first autistic actor to have a recurring acting role in a BBC TV show! Jules has been playing Jason on and off again since 2015 and has proven very popular with both his co-stars and the audience. His portrayal has been praised by several autism charities in the UK and Jules has even been nominated for a BAFTA for his acting work.
You can see Jules in action as Jason in this behind the scenes video:
Over the years the writers have really developed Jason’s character to highlight how much can be achieved when autists are properly supported. When he first appeared in the show, Jason was very literal, and needed full time care. Over time, he get’s a job as a hospital porter, get’s a girlfriend (who also has Asperger’s) and they have a baby and get married living completely independent lives, really challenging the stigma surrounding what autists can and can’t do.
I always get great enjoyment out of any episode that Jason appears in (he get’s some great one liners!). It’s a pleasure to see such a truthful portrayal of autism. Whilst Jules may not have some of the same issues in real life as Jason does, nevertheless he lights up the screen, fully able to be his true autistic self.
None of this would have happened were it not for producer Simon Harper who fought hard to have an autistic actor play Jason to avoid another cliched Rainman-esque portrayal of an autist. Minor accommodations are made when Jules is filming such as encouraging a calm set and preparing the scripts further in advance than would be the norm for him, enabling Jules to work and inspire the next generation of autists to realize their dreams.
You can read an interview where Jules talks about life with autism here:
This week I’d like to talk about one of the main character’s in the acclaimed comedy show ‘Derry Girls‘ whom many consider to be autistic- Orla McCool.
So what’s ‘Derry Girls’ about?
Set during the Northern Ireland Troubles in the early 1990’s, ‘Derry Girls’ follows the lives of four teenage girls, and the honorary Derry “Girl” James, growing up in Derry in the years preceding the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Despite the sectarian clashes of The Troubles around them, the gang navigate life with good humour, getting themselves into all sorts of wacky and hilarious situations- just like any other “normal” teenagers.
If you’ve never seen Derry Girls you can check out a trailer for the show here:
Among the fab five is Orla (played by Dubliner Louisa Harland), a quirky, somewhat innocent girl who lives in a complete world of her own and is one of the show’s biggest sources of comic relief. She has really niche interests (she’s obsessed with sweets, step aerobics and Renault Clios), is very literal and truthful, is sensitive to loud noises and is often completely oblivious to social norms, cues and potential dangers. For example, Orla once expressed interest in joining the Orange Order for their drumming skills despite being a Catholic… She also appears to be sensitive to textures as can be seen in the picture above where she is rubbing her face with a sponge.
Here are some of Orla’s best moments from the show (Fun fact- her clips are the most viewed of all the gang on YouTube):
Now one of the most interesting things about Orla is that it appears she was not originally intended to be portrayed as an autist, just a complete individual. Back in the 1990’s in Ireland, ASD’s were relatively unheard of (hence why yours truly flew under the radar for 24 years), so Orla is simply just seen as an odd girl. In a recent interview, Louisa Harland revealed that she has had an overwhelmingly positive response from the autistic community with many female autists writing letters to her to say how much they loved her portrayal of Orla and how they finally felt like they were being represented. Louisa took this info forward into season 2 to really add more depth to Orla 🙂
Regardless of whether Orla is autistic or not, ‘Derry Girls’ is a very enjoyable show and worth adding to your watch list 🙂
This week I’d like to take a look at the portrayal of autism in the 2020 crime-drama film ‘The Night Clerk‘ starring Tye Sheridan, Helen Hunt and Ana de Aramas.
So what’s the movie about?
The Night Clerk tells the story of Bart, a 23 year old with Asperger’s Syndrome who works as a night clerk in a local hotel. Bart secretly films the guests in the hotel through a number of hidden cameras he has installed in order to observe people and learn social cues to help him navigate the world, becoming embroiled in a murder investigation as a result.
If you haven’t seen the film you can see the trailer here:
So how did the film fare in it’s portrayal of autism?
The film generally get’s a lot of the classic traits right such as struggles with eye contact, colour sensitivity, lack of filter, social awkwardness, stimming, coordination issues (in particular Bart runs awkwardly with his hands flapping at his sides) and echolalia. I particularly enjoyed Bart’s response when people asked him “How are you?” and he replied with “That’s a very complicated question!” As I’ve discussed in previous posts, I have often found in the past that this is one of the worst questions to be asked and it’s great to see that portrayed on screen.
Bart’s voyeurism on the other hand, while well intentioned, does portray the community somewhat negatively and further adds to the wealth of negative portrayals of autism. Interestingly though, it does sort of in a weird way shake things up a bit- yes it’s not the best look for autist’s, but it does highlight that just because you’re on the spectrum, doesn’t mean you can’t also be a bit of a creep 😛
Overall however, the depiction falls into the stereotypical pit showing us a lot of the same tired autistic tropes like Bart’s primarily monotonous tone of voice. Just once I’d like to see an autist show a little bit of varied inflection on screen- every single autist I know uses a variety of tones when speaking; monotonal speech is clearly not as common as film makers would have us believe.
This week I’d like to have a look at the depiction of autism in the 2014 historical drama ‘The Imitation Game‘ starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley.
So what’s the film about?
Based on a true story, ‘The Imitation Game‘ follows computer scientist and mathematician Alan Turing during World War II as he works together with a group of code breakers to decrypt the German cipher machine Enigma, successfully intercepting key messages for British Intelligence. In designing his own computer (the Turing Machine) to decrypt the messages, Turing’s efforts allowed the allies to win a number of key battles in the war, with experts estimating that the war was shortened by as many as 2 years saving 14 million lives.
A trailer for the film can be found here:
Now this film isn’t strictly about autism, but as Alan Turing is widely believed by scholars to have had Asperger’s syndrome, it’s worth looking into the portrayal of Turing on the big screen.
So how did ‘The Imitation Game‘ fare?
In my opinion, I found Cumberbatch’s characterization of Turing to be very convincing of a man with Asperger’s syndrome- a blunt, literal, socially awkward character, with poor eye contact and a tendency towards unusual verbose language (although I will admit that these are once again, highly stereotyped autistic traits). It helps that Benedict Cumberbatch is no stranger to autism- for his turn in Danny Boyle’s Frankentein, Cumberbatch did a lot of research about autism and met with many individuals on the spectrum, his experiences of which would likely have influenced his portrayal of Alan Turing.
On the other hand, Turing’s intellect does further perpetuate the stereotype of the autistic genius, however, as in the case of ‘Mozart and the Whale‘ (also based on a true story), it’s hard to downplay a historical figure that is in fact a genuine genius 😛 We just need to get Hollywood on board with showing us a more diverse range of autistic characters in fiction films 😉
Interestingly, historians have criticized the film’s depiction of Turing as the autistic traits depicted do not align with Turing’s adult personality. Turing has been described as quite sociable and friendly with a good sense of humour, a man who did not have issues working with others- so it would appear that the filmmakers took some liberty with the facts in an attempt to convey that Turing was likely on the spectrum. Perhaps a more subtle portrayal of Turing’s autistic traits would have led to a more accurate portrayal of an alleged real life autist.
All in all, it’s a really interesting biopic and worth a watch to while away the lock-down blues 🙂
This week I’d like to talk about the representation of autism in the 1990 drama film ‘Backstreet Dreams‘ starring a young Brookie Shields and Jason O’Malley.
So what’s the film about?
The story follows a young hoodlum named Dean as he navigates fatherhood. Things become complicated when Dean’s son Shane get’s diagnosed with autism, causing his marriage to fall apart, and making Dean a single father. With the help of Shane’s therapist Stevie, Dean forms a connection with his son, finding the strength to leave his backstreet activities behind him.
You can check out a trailer for the film here:
So how did this film fare in it’s portrayal of autism?
Filmed in 1990, this was one of the earlier film portrayals of autism, and as such is very stereotyped in the autistic traits discussed. There’s a lot of mono-tonal speech, lack of eye contact, repetitive behaviours and stimming so nothing really out of the ordinary in this film. That being said, for a child actor in a role this young, it’s tricky to accurately depict the realities of autism unless the actor is themselves autistic. The story also tended to focus more on the impact of autism for Dean rather than Shane, which further distracted from the issue.
On the other hand, it was heartening to see the impact that appropriate interventions and support were having on Shane’s development, something that wasn’t always highlighted in these early films featuring autism. Most early films focus on accepting autism or how burdensome the condition can be, but this film showed a turning point in how it’s not all doom and gloom, and how proper interventions can really improve symptoms and outcomes for autists.
All in all, it was a fairly poor offering both in terms of autism and cinema, but by all means give it a go if you think you might like it!