Greetings Earthlings! 🙂
This week I’d like to discuss the depiction of autism in the Disney + coming of age comedy series ‘Girl Meets World‘ (the spin-off/sequel to the 90’s classic ‘Boy Meets World‘) in an episode from 2015 that has been doing the rounds on Tik Tok in recent months.
The clip from the series depicts the shows protagonist Riley and her group of friends finding out that their best friend Farkle may be on the autistic spectrum, specifically he may have Asperger’s syndrome. Farkle was recently given an aptitude test that affirmed, what he always knew, that he is a genius. Following additional tests to confirm his IQ, it was decided that he should also be tested for autism as he presents with many traits such as touch aversion, social awkwardness, specialist interests etc. (we won’t get into how they automatically jumped to spectrum from a genius test 🙄).
Now while it’s great that such an important topic is getting airtime on a channel as big as Disney, the clip has been viewed quite negatively by the autistic community. After telling his friends that he may have autism, their reactions are somewhat overdramatic. Riley’s friend Maya automatically jumps off the couch and vehemently proclaims “You don’t!”, while Riley similarly jumps up saying “Let’s go tell them you don’t!” Moreover, Riley and Farkle’s parent’s set quite a serious and sombre tone in the room about his potential diagnosis which doesn’t help the vibe. Although not included in the original viral clip, the gang later study up on Asperger’s and every time that Farkle agrees with a trait and gives an example, Maya grabs him and tells him to “Stop doing that! He’s going to stop doing that!” Needless to say, autists everywhere have been highly offended by the reactions as they are treating autism like a terminal disease! This has even made many afraid to disclose their diagnosis to their friends based on this reaction (although I would argue that this is an overreaction as my friends have been nothing but accepting and supportive when I have disclosed my diagnosis).
The clip has since been edited/removed, but you can watch the episode in full on Disney + (Season 2 Episode 15). Here’s a clip instead introducing us to Farkle:
Ultimately, it turns out that Farkle isn’t on the spectrum, so there was a whole lot of hullabaloo about nothing, BUT it is revealed later on in the episode that Farkle’s female nemesis (and later girlfriend) Smackle was diagnosed with Asperger’s at 5 years old. She like Farkle is also a genius (whhhhyyy must we perpetuate these stereotypes!!!), with an aversion to hugs, difficulty reading social cues and struggles to make friends. Her depiction is very stereotypical Aspergers male and doesn’t tie in with how most women with autism actually present- although it is nice to see another woman on screen where autistic men are the media majority.
The episode ends with everyone accepting Smackle and showing her that none of them in the group identify as “normal” nor aspire to be “normal”, ending everything on a slightly better note of acceptance- something that most of the online chatter didn’t delve into following the disastrous reaction to Farkle’s potential diagnosis.
All in all, this type of representation is not great, but at least the tone does even out by the end of the episode. It’s a very stereotyped depiction and the initial reaction of the gang can be quite triggering for some autists, but I’ve definitely seen way worse handling of this issue. That being said, this episode does come from 2015 and media depictions have come a long way since then, with many shifting to cast autistic actors for accurate on screen portrayals- like the character of Quinni in Heartbreak High. As with history, we should learn from the past and look to examples like this as ‘what not to do’ so that media portrayals going forward will be far more reflective of the real autistic experience.
Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂
Have a lovely weekend!