Sheldon Cooper- A Case Study

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

So today I’d like to take a quick look at one of the most famous TV characters in recent years- ‘The Big Bang Theory’s‘ Sheldon Cooper.

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Strictly speaking, the show’s creators have said that Sheldon is not specifically autistic (and have been frequently criticized for stereotyping autistic behaviour), however, the evidence is overwhelming that he is a cornucopia of autistic traits. In fact, having seen every episode (and many episodes dozens of times thanks to the constant replays on E4!), I believe that he has demonstrated practically every single common autistic trait, and also many rarer traits which the average viewer may miss.

In case you haven’t seen him in action, here’s a video of some of his best “sheldonisms:”

So let’s take a closer look at who exactly is Dr. Sheldon Cooper?

Sheldon is a socially awkward, routine obsessed, theoretical particle physicist of genius intellect (*cough stereotype*!) who’s array of outrageous quirks have been the cornerstone of ‘The Big Bang Theory’s‘ enduring success. Much of the show’s humour hinges on Sheldon’s OCD, specialist interests (such as trains, physics, comic books and sci-fi), mind blindness and bluntness, with particular attention to his struggles to perceive sarcasm. Sheldon constantly has to be coached on appropriate social behaviour, including one particularly memorable episode where he had to practice smiling to feign support when his friend Raj was being obscenely obnoxious.

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It may surprise you to hear that many autists have struggles with smiling, particularly in forced situations such as in front of the camera (or in Sheldon’s case in an attempt to endear himself). I certainly went through a phase of not knowing what to do with my face in pictures as a child- there’s some pretty awful photos of me from one particular holiday until I copped how creepy it looked 😬!

Sheldon has also shown signs of synaesthesia (a phenomenon where one sense is perceived in terms of another i.e. hearing colours, smelling sounds etc- which I will talk about in a later post), a common, but not widely known autistic trait in the following scene:

Immortalized by the line “I’m not crazy; my mother had me tested!” (a line which I have jovially used since my own diagnosis πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰ ), Sheldon can be a lot to handle. His narcissism, OCD, TMI and childish tendencies whilst comedic, often alienate him from friends, family and the world in general.

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As annoying as Sheldon can be however, we have seen huge improvement in his character over the course of the last 11 seasons- he has become more socially aware of others, more in sync with the ins and outs of humour, more comfortable with touch and has even bagged himself a girlfriend who will soon become his wife in the current season finale πŸ™‚ This character development is particularly poignant as it shows how in spite of the difficulties associated with autism, with time, effort and a LOT of patience, autists can overcome so much! πŸ˜€

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All in all whilst Sheldon’s character is highly exaggerated with many stereotypical autistic behaviours, I think it’s really important that a character like Sheldon features so prominently in a prime time TV show to help normalize the autistic experience, and more importantly to see the lighter side of things. So often we fail to see the funny side of autism- what can you do but laugh when Disney films trigger a happiness meltdown (wouldn’t know anything about that happening…πŸ˜¬πŸ˜‚)?!

Enjoy the weekend Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Please Stand By

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

In this weeks edition of ‘autism on screen’, we’re going to take a look at a brand new film about autism- the 2018 film ‘Please Stand By.

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What’s that I see in the poster? A young woman with autism?! 😲

FINALLY!

Nice to see Hollywood change things up a bit!

So what’s the story about?

Starring Dakota Fanning (was wondering what she was up to these days after Twlight!), ‘Please Stand By‘ tells the story of Wendy, a girl with Asperger’s syndrome living in a home for people with disabilities. When the opportunity arises to enter a screenwriting contest for ‘Star Trek‘ fan-fiction, Wendy must step outside her comfort zone and boldly cross the country alone (she ran away- a common trait in autistic women) in order to get her script to the studio on time.

You can check out the trailer for the film here:

So how did this film fare in it’s depiction of autism?

Well…as excited as I was to see this film…the reality did not live up to my expectations.

Indeed, Wendy showed the classic signs of autism- meltdowns, lack of eye contact, preference for routine, social awkwardness, literal thinking etc., but she did not stand out as a unique character. She was quirky, but there was nothing unique about her quirks, unlike Sigourney Weaver and her fondness for snow in ‘Snow Cake.

Surprisingly, Wendy didn’t appear to be a savant as in other films, however, she did have superb recall of the minutia of her specialist interestStar Trek‘!

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I am a little shocked seeing as her character was so derivative in other respects! πŸ˜›

What really bugs me about this film however were the missed opportunities. As Wendy spends much of this film by herself, ‘Please Stand By‘ had the perfect opportunity to focus in on the challenges of a high functioning female autist. To the outside world, most autistic women appear fine; we employ learned/observed techniques to blend in- known as ‘masking’. However, behind closed doors it’s a very different story.

Case in point-check out this clip from last week’s Channel 4 documentary ‘Are You Autistic‘:

You would never know that these women are on the spectrum, but you could pick Wendy out of a lineup!

The film uses a lot of narrative introspection to give us some insight (albeit minor) into the autistic psyche, but alas the full potential here was not harnessed. Wendy mainly spoke in ‘Star Trek‘ quotes which while poignant, this narrative could have been put to better use to give us true insight into the speed/and or disordered array of thought within the autistic mind. I often compare my thoughts to that of Marisa Tomei’s character in ‘What Women Want‘ (which by the way is just as funny 18 years on as it was when it was released… Man I feel old!😬).

To be quite frank, the film is kind of forgettable (I even had to look up Wendy’s name she left that little of an impression on me!)- it just didn’t draw me in and I found it incredibly tedious.

But as I say with all these films- if you think it’s your thing, why not check it out? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure after all! πŸ™‚

Enjoy the weekend everyone! πŸ˜€

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Killer Diller

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Time for another autism on screen again, this time exploring the portrayal of autism in the 2004 musical drama film ‘Killer Diller.

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The film follows Wesley, a young musician and troublemaker who is sent to live at a Christian halfway house for young offenders. Reluctantly drafted into the choir, Wesley encounters Vernon, an autistic savant with a gift for music. His captivating piano playing inspires Wesley to invite Vernon to form a blues band with the choir members and embark on a journey of music, understanding and friendship.

You can check out the trailer below (apologies for the poor quality, it’s not a very well known film- I found it very difficult to source):

So how did this film fair in terms of representation of autism?

Well, by now you all know how I feel about the over-representation of autistic savantsΒ in TV and film, so as you can imagine I was yet again disappointed to see this rare trait highlighted in another film. So let’s quickly move on from that! πŸ˜›

Much of the behaviours exhibited by Vernon were consistent with classical autism symptoms like rocking, missing social cues, inappropriate social behaviour etc.; however, as I previously found while watching ‘Cube‘, nothing felt unique about the character, Vernon was just another Hollywood carbon copy of autistic stereotypes.

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In addition to this, many film scholars have noted that in films featuring autistic characters, the filmmakers choose to use autism for the purposes of redeeming the main character. This film is a prime example of this. Vernon’s presence in the film is used to redeem Wesley, who up until he meets Vernon, is selfish and wayward. However, like ‘Rain Man‘, ‘Snow Cake‘ and several other films featuring an autistic character, the protagonist is transformed following his encounter with an autist.

Thankfully in more recent years, the focus has since changed wherein autistic characters are no longer seen as secondary, but are protagonists in their own right as we have seen in ‘Atypical‘ and ‘The Good Doctor‘ (which by the way, is proving to be an excellent series as the year has moved on πŸ™‚ )

Huzzah for Progress! πŸ˜€

All in all, this film (if you can find it) was worth a watch at least once- especially if you’re into blues music. It may not have been the greatest depiction of autism, but it’s an easy watch with some decent music to boot πŸ™‚

Enjoy the weekend everyone! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Mercury Rising

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, so today I would like to take a quick look at the 1998 political action film (not a genre one would immediately associate with autism)- ‘Mercury Rising‘.

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So how does this action film relate to autism?

In this film, the NSA has created a cryptographic super-code (Mercury) that was thought to be unbreakable by any computer in the world. However, following the release of the code in a childrens puzzle book in order to test it, autistic savantΒ (not again!!! πŸ˜› ) Simon easily cracks it. This simple act puts his life in danger as contract killers are sent to silence him as the NSA believe him to be a liability. FBI agent Art Jeffries, played by Bruce Willis, is assigned the difficult task of protecting Simon from these killers whilst also navigating the social and behavioural challenges associated with his autism.

You can check out a trailer for the film below:

Honestly, I found the film to be particularly tedious (not a desirable quality for an action film), and really struggled to make it through to the end. 2 hours is a loooong time for a boring film! πŸ˜›

As to the film’s portrayal of autism, you know what I’m going to say- we NEED to stop perpetuating the stereotype of the autistic savant! As I have discussed many times, this is a RARE characteristic (1-10% of the autistic community), and yet almost every film I’ve seen that features autism depicts this rare trait in some form or another! πŸ˜›

Give me strength!

Aside from this, whilst the film did touch on such important topics as ‘wandering’ and issues of trust (which are not always depicted where autism is considered), I just felt that this character was highly stereotyped and that autism was poorly portrayed overall and at times was a little insulting. In fact the original book that this film is based on was titled ‘Simple Simon!’πŸ˜²πŸ˜’

This may even perhaps be one of the worst depictions of autism on screen in my opinion.

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So all in all, if you need a good sedative, or are a huge Bruce Willis fan, this film’s for you! πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

Enjoy the weekend everyone! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen-The Good Doctor

Greetings Earthlings πŸ™‚

Today I’m going to explore the most recent portrayal of autism on screen- the pilot episode for the new ABC drama ‘The Good Doctor‘.

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So what’s it all about?

Well the name is fairly self explanatory- the series follows Dr. Shaun Murphy (played by Freddie Highmore- can’t believe he’s all grown up!), a surgical resident with autism and savant syndrome (Really?Again! πŸ˜› ) as he sets out to save lives.

You can watch a trailer for the show here- but word of warning, it’s a bit spoilery for the first episode so if you’d really like to watch it- maybe skip the trailer πŸ™‚

But how does it’s depiction of autism fare?

Granted, this was merely the pilot, but so far the show has portrayed some of the classic symptoms very well- repetitive movements, truthfulness, literal thinking, awkward gait, eye contact issues etc. Like ‘Atypical, the show strives for subtly in Shaun’s idiosyncrasies rather than highlighting the obvious differences to his surgical peers. For example, Shaun struggles to open a ribbon, a simple, subtle struggle that few would associate with autism. Why just this evening I had to ask my housemate to open some freezer bags for me as I just couldn’t seem to crack it!

Unlike other portrayals of autism, I felt that the acting was far more natural, as if I were encountering a real person and not another hyperbolic autist.

For the first time, I felt like I could identify with Shaun as he awkwardly went about- I particularly identified with his descriptions of smells and how he uses different scents for recall (I’m notorious for using unusual identifiers to recall memories!).

However, as the title character is a savant, once again we are seeing an over-representation of a rare autistic trait. Nevertheless in the context of this series, it makes sense that Shaun has a brilliant mind and excellent recall- skills which are essential in the medical field.

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The pilot also touched on a very important issue- the struggle for autists to gain employment. Following the decision to hire Shaun, the hospital held a meeting to debate the validity of his candidacy as a surgical resident given that he is autistic. This meeting largely focused on all the areas where Shaun may fail, with little attention given to how he might succeed.

Given my own struggles to break into the world of employment this past year, one has to wonder if similar debates were held when I left the interview.

 

Why is it automatically assumed that we will not be capable, or that we will struggle in a job? Would such a meeting have been held for any other equally capable doctor in Shaun’s workplace?

Thousands of undiagnosed autists have successful careers, and yet the mention of the a-word could see them doomed to failure.

Companies are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of gender, age, educational background etc., so why does it have to be different for autism? How will you know if we are capable if you never give us the chance?

All in all, I really enjoyed the pilot and will be very interested to see how this show progresses πŸ™‚ I would highly recommend it- butΒ be warned it may not be for the squeamish (I’m not particularly, but there was one moment during that episode where I physically recoiled! πŸ˜› )

Have a good weekend everyone! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Atypical

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

So today I’m going to place Netflix’s latest original offering ‘Atypical‘ under the microscope.

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The series has been widelyΒ discussed within the autistic community this week, but in case you haven’t heard about it- ‘Atypical‘ is a coming of age series which follows Sam, an eighteen year old boy with high functioning autism as he sets out to find a girlfriend.

You can watch a trailer for the series here:

The series has received mainly positive reviews from critics (Forbes claim it to be the greatest series Netflix has ever made- uh, ‘Daredevil‘ anyone? πŸ˜› ), but some have critiqued the stereotypical nature of the character of Sam.

So what did I make of it?

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Show creator Robia Rashid, who herself has experience of autism in her personal life, conducted a lot of background research and hired autism consultant Michelle Dean to review all scripts and cuts- and in my opinion, it shows!

I found ‘Atypical’ to be a quite enjoyable and endearing series. I particularly enjoyed the coming of age angle, taking us away from the typical child/awkward adult portrayals that we see all too often on screen. It’s refreshing to see autism from the perspective of a teenager on the spectrum, a particularly turbulent time in the life of a change resistant autist (even more turbulent if navigated undiagnosed as in my case).

And guess what- the creators didn’t resort to savant stereotypes! πŸ˜€

Granted, Sam is highly intelligent with an excellent memory, but these traits are subtly infused within the fabric of his personality. I particularly found the acting from leadΒ Keir Gilchrist, who based his portrayal on his experiences with autistic friends, to be quite excellent, especially for an actor of his age.

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However, as excellent an actor as Gilchrist may be, many have criticized the show for casting a neurotypical actor in the main role. On the other hand, show creators did feature actor Anthony Jacques (seen on the right below), who is himself autistic. Alas, while described as a “supporting” character in many reviews of the show, he briefly appears in only two episodes.

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Nevertheless Jacques’ character of Christopher forms a refreshing addition to the cast with his quirky enthusiasm, representing a higher functioning bracket of the spectrum.

Perhaps the thing I enjoyed most about the show was how it focused not just on how autism impacts Sam’s life, but it also gave equal screen time to the impacts of autism within his wider social circle. We see the toll that autism has placed on Sam’s parents and their marriage, the responsibility that Sam’s younger sister burdens herself with and the reactions of friends and others in the community towards Sam.

As much as I personally enjoyed the show however, there were times where Netflix veered towards the stereotypical. For example, I felt that Sam was a little too literal in his thinking/responses:

Zahid (Sam’s friend): “I’m taking you to Poon-city!”

Sam: “That’s not a real place”

We have our moments yes, but not everything is quite that literal.

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I also found issue with how Sam always speaks in measured monotones- a common autistic stereotype. Whilst, yes, this is characteristic of some within the autistic community, it is not for all. My tone of voice for example can be anywhere from high pitched to a deep drawl depending on the mood I’m in (or an opportunistic head cold πŸ˜‰ ). This stereotype crops up time and time again in on screen portrayals and it is really starting to bug me! πŸ˜›

Once again as I watched this show, I felt as though I were seeing yet another carbon copy autistic person dance across my screen. The show talks about neurodiversity, but the character of Sam is, to my eye, far from diverse.

Perhaps Netflix would do well to feature an autistic female lead if the show is renewed for a second season.

All in all, ‘Atypical‘ is a mostly enjoyable affair so check it out if you have a spare 4-5 hours for a weekend binge watch πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Cube

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Today I’m going to talk to you about the portrayal of autism in the 1997 Canadian sci-fi horror film ‘Cube‘ (not the fun TV show! πŸ˜› ).

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I came across this (apparently) cult film last year when I was researching films featuring autism for a college assignment and decided to check it out.

The film focuses on a group of strangers who wake up in (surprise surprise) a giant cube comprised of a series of interconnecting rooms, each rigged with booby traps with the potential to kill the occupants of the cube. For example, there is a room that upon triggering a motion sensor will cause a wire grille to close in on the unwitting victim and slice them to pieces…

It’s a pretty grim film…

In order to leave, the group must work together to figure out how to escape their deadly prison and crack the puzzle that is the cube.

This film was definitely not my cup of tea (if I were a tea drinker! πŸ˜› ), but hey if you’re into the sci-fi horror genre then check out the trailer and see what you think!

But what has this film got to do with autism?

Well, wouldn’t you know it, the invisible puppeteers who control the cube hand selected their prisoners so that they could combine their skills to navigate the maze, and who did they select? None other than an autistic savant…!

Why?!

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This character is key to the prisoners escape as his mathematical skills enable them to calculate how the cube moves so that they can navigate their way to the exit in relative safety…or so they thought!

Buuut I won’t spoil it for you in case you want to see it! πŸ™‚

Sooo aside from yet another stereotypical mathematical savant, how is this films portrayal of autism?

The actor is actually pretty good showing lack of eye contact, stimming and repetitive movements, colour sensitivity etc.; however, once again I felt as though I was watching the same stereotypical character I’ve seen in dozens of films before.

Autism is a spectrum, each character we see on screen should be unique; but I guess Hollywood has yet to get the memo!

These scriptwriters seem to be stuck in a repetitive cube of their own! πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

Until next week Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Sensory Screenings

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Ah the cinema- giant screens, surround sound, confectionery counters, reclining chairs; a perfect treat in many respects (until you need to dash for the loo, or eat too much sugar! πŸ˜› ).

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But for many people with autism, a trip to the cinema can present a number of sensory challenges- the brightness of the screen and overly loud audio can be quite distracting for example.

In recent years, a number of cinemas have begun to host special sensory screenings for children with autism.

In case you hadn’t noticed from all of the autism on screen posts I write, I’m a bit of a film buff, so naturally when I saw that my local cinema was hosting a sensory screening of ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul‘ I had to give it a try! πŸ™‚

For anyone thinking of seeing the film, it’s not as good as the previous ones- the cast change didn’t really work! πŸ˜›

So what’s different about a sensory screening?

A sensory screening differs from the average cinema experience in the following ways:

  • A special sheet of acetate (it reminded me of a giant plastic pocket) appeared to cover the usual backdrop to reduce the screen brightness
  • There are no trailers (woohoo πŸ˜€ !)
  • Sound levels are reduced
  • The lights remain on throughout at a dimmed level

This last part was quite nice actually as I did not emerge from the cinema with the usual vampire-esque response to daylight! πŸ˜‰

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So what did I make of the experience?

Well, to be honest it was a little weird for me at first as someone who frequents the cinema quite regularly. I wasn’t expecting the lights to stay on, but you adapt pretty quickly. It was quite a pleasant transition to go from dark to light scenes without feeling blinded! πŸ™‚

This did however, make it a little bit harder to see any of the night-time scenes which I found a tad distracting.

But all in all I found the experience quite nice and would highly recommend it for anyone who struggles with sensory issues πŸ™‚

However, I would have a slight critique to make in the choice of sensory films that are shown. Any films that I have seen advertised as sensory friendly here in Ireland fall into the family friendly/childrens category. While it is brilliant that many children with autism are afforded the opportunity to attend these screenings, we often forget that children with autism grow into adults with autism, adults who may want to watch the latest Marvel or James Bond movie, or a racy rom com in sensory comfort.

As they say- a lot done, more to do.

Enjoy the weekend everyone! πŸ™‚

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Aoife

 

 

Autism on Screen: Forrest Gump

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Today we’re going to have a look at the portrayal of autism in the multi-award winning 1994 classic ‘Forrest Gump‘.

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I know, it’s not a film that specifically mentions autism, but it’s on a list of films featuring autism by the Autism Research Institute so we’ll have a look anyway! πŸ™‚

In actual fact, ‘Forrest Gump‘ was based on a book of the same name by Winston Groom (1986) in which the title character is an autistic savant with great mathematical ability! I’ll have a read of this at some stage and discuss it in the future πŸ™‚

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So what’s ‘Forrest Gump‘ about?

In short, the film details the life and adventures of one Forrest Gump native of Greenbow, Alabama. Slow witted, but kind hearted, Forrest find’s himself in the midst of some of the most pivotal events in modern American history, showing everyone that mental disability does not preclude you from living a most extraordinary life.

For anyone who has yet to see the film- here’s a little trailer:

So how does ‘Forrest Gump‘ fare in it’s portrayal of autism?

Whilst ‘Forrest Gump‘ may not intentionally portray autism as in the book, nevertheless Forrest displays many autistic characteristics consistent with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. He does not always display socially appropriate behavior, as demonstrated by the memorable scene in the White House where he tells JFK that he has to pee! Forrest doesn’t always make eye contact, has some specialist interests (such as Jenny and Ping Pong) and can often ramble on, speaking in monotones as is often associated with AS. Forrest also demonstrates that he is a literal thinker in the film, often leading to some of the more humorous moments.

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Interestingly, the film depicts Forrest in a more realistic light than in the book. Whilst he is described in both as having a low IQ in the 70’s, Forest is not portrayed as a stereotyped mathematical savant in the film.

FINALLY! A bit of realism! πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

Although entirely fictional, this film delivers the audience an encouraging message of hope. In spite of his mental limitations, Forrest goes on to lead not just a “normal”, but an extraordinary life.

Forrest’s tale truly shows us how, as I’ve often remarked in this blog, you should never allow autism to hold you back. An autism diagnosis can be a challenge yes, but it does not mean that you can’t live a “normal”, happy and fulfilling life πŸ™‚

To quote Sally Field in this film:

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! πŸ™‚

Aoife

 

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