Important Lessons about Asperger’s/Autism Portrayals

I recently wrote a post about television and movie portrayals of Asperger’s Syndrome. I critiqued the portrayal of Dr. Virginia Dixon on the ABC medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy.” I felt this character was only a stereotypical representation of classic Autism that was merely based on a list of symptoms. I replied to a comment which indicated some characteristics and qualities that I would really like to see in portrayals of Asperger’s Syndrome. I do realize that Asperger’s and Autism are difficult disorders to portray. This is mainly because no two people are the same. One person may exhibit all or several of the common characteristics, while another may only exhibit one or two. I must admit that it is difficult to come up with an answer to such an open-ended question. The Autism Spectrum in and of itself is very diverse, so some may not agree with what I am about to say. Here, I provided two things that I really want to see in portrayals of Asperger’s that many Hollywood writers fail to even acknowledge.

1.) There is a difference between short term goals and ultimate goals! 

My cousin Heath does a Podcast called “The Artrepreneur Now.” As its name suggests, it is about entrepreneurs who are either working towards or already achieved their goal of quitting their day job and living their lives through their creative passions. Most of them know that the dream life (currently) is just a dream. So, they have no choice but to find a day job. Sometimes, it’s as non prestigious as bagging groceries at the local supermarket. Other times, it’s a boring, repetitive job in a corporate office or working in construction, manufacturing or engineering. Whatever it is, it gives them enough money to pay the bills and keep food on the table. The real world is always less appealing than fantasy! Short term goals are used to realistically plan for all the necessities of life. These include paying bills, taxes, mortgage, rent and general time management. I am not going to deny that most people don’t like to have to think about bills and such. However, failure to do all of them can result in some very unappealing consequences (including eviction, homelessness or even incarceration.)

Ultimate goals, however, are the desired result from working to create the life you have truly dreamed of creating. When you have achieved that goal, you know that you have truly achieved that life you have truly dreamed of living. There is nothing wrong with raising the standards and dreaming. Of course, that means people will think you are crazy and even try to discourage you. They are self-proclaimed “experts” about you and the life you want to live. It’s always important not to take their discouraging words to heart. Don’t dream too much, because it is still important to know the necessities of creating that life so you don’t live up to their negativity. This is where it becomes necessary to get in touch with people who are successful in pursuing their passion. Ask them as many questions as you can and take their advice!

2.) Unique and hero are two completely different words!

Unique: having no like or equal; unparalleled; incomparable 

Hero: a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal. 

I get really fed up when I see an Autistic character who is esteemed as a “hero” simply because he is “unique” in a certain way. We’ve all seen those movies and television shows. The writers for Grey’s Anatomy seemed to have portrayed Dr. Dixon as a self-described hero simply because she puts “faith” in science, as opposed to beliefs. No surgeon would ever make it through medical school with such disregard for the importance of tact in delicate situations. I am particularly referring to disrespect for her patients religious and spiritual views, along with the inability to recognize when people need time to grieve a loss. I look at my abilities and weaknesses and I realize one thing. I cannot consider myself a hero simply because I am unique. People will think of me as a jerk with a tremendous ego if I go around and expect others to hold me to high esteems for such a ridiculous reason.

If you had to battle Godzilla, how would you use your creativity/talents to defeat him?

This is a closing question that Heath asks guests on “The Artrepreneur Now.” Some people might consider this question ridiculous. (From a realistic standpoint, Godzilla movies are pretty ridiculous.) However, I think any answer to this question might prove one thing about uniqueness. It can be considered heroic if you are able to use your talent to better yourselves and the world around you. Unique people understand how it feels to be “defeated by Godzilla.” However, they know that they must learn from their mistakes and use them as an opportunity to improve. Otherwise, Godzilla might just “eat you alive!”

I did my best to come up with a list of two things that are essential to remember for anyone who is writing a portrayal of Asperger’s Syndrome. As I stated earlier, the Autism Spectrum is very diverse. I may not exhibit all of the traits that someone else may greatly struggle with. Regardless of the labels thrown by neurotypical people, I hope you consider these two essential tips helpful.

If you feel like anything else should be added, please feel free to comment! 

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The Challenges of Portraying Autistic Spectrum Disorders

If you love television, you may (or may not) like what I am about to say in this post. It’s funny how many of these television shows that depict people with disabilities have this way of making the average viewer think that the things they see on television are accurate and true. When they encounter a person or situation in life which reminds them of a certain television show, they utter some variation of the following phrase.

“Wow! This is just like what I saw on __________!”

For the record, I actually enjoy a lot of those crime and hospital dramas. I have to admit that the actors are good at making it look real to the average person. They also raise awareness about the emotional impact that such devastating circumstances can have on people. However, I watched a few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy that I thought were horribly misrepresented of Asperger’s Syndrome. It was the three episodes from Season 5. Mary McDonnell played Dr. Virginia Dixon, a surgeon who happened to be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. From her very first scene in “These Ties That Bind”, I could tell that her character was going to be a walking stereotype. She never looked the other doctors in the eye, then started to name useless facts about the history of a piggy back transplant. She was also a stickler for “scientific” medical terms, which is very childish in and of itself.

Hetero-topic transplant! Piggyback is a colloquial name for the procedure!

Don’t do that!

(whispers) Don’t do that!

It is very common for movies and television shows to portray people on the spectrum as intelligent, but socially inept. The next several scenes made that incredibly clear. Dr. Dixon took unapologetic, blunt and socially inept to a whole new level. I am going to briefly describe several scenes where she did just that! The first example was an interaction with patient Clay Bedonie. Six years prior, he underwent a piggyback transplant. The patient wanted his donor heart back because he felt “haunted” by the new one.

Dr. Dixon:

Clay Bedonie, are you aware that without the donor heart, you will live a short life attached to a machine while dying a sudden and agonizing death?

This particular scene was nothing compared to the others I am going to discuss. Dr. Dixon refused to acknowledge or respect the patient’s religious and spiritual beliefs. (Clay Bedonie was a Navajo!) She stated several times that she only puts faith in science. Please, tell me I am not the only person who believes that this would be a very unprofessional example for anyone who desires to pursue a medical career. Simply put, there is a time and a place where it is acceptable to debate religious or spiritual beliefs. I do not have a medical degree, but I am old enough to know that interacting with a patient in any healthcare profession is not the time or the place!

The next episode featuring Dr. Dixon showed what can happen when a “clueless aspie” fails to show respect and understanding for the patient’s family when they face the devastating news that their loved one has died.

Patient Holly Anderson was involved in a car accident with Emma, her sister. Upon arriving at the hospital, the two bickered because Holly was texting while driving her father’s car. Dr. Alex Karev noticed that her eyes started to turn a strange red color as a result of brain matter leaking through her nose. She was then admitted into an operating room. “Good! Take her away! I hope she dies!” Emma yelled this as they rushed her away. Holly died on the operating table of a carotid dissection. Dr. Dixon made the typical aspie mistake of standing up in front of the family and going into graphic detail about the failed procedure. I transcribed this incredibly awkward scene here.

Dr. Dixon: I’m very sorry for your loss, but tests confirm that although your sister’s bodily functions are fine, her brain is dead. She has no thoughts, no emotions, no senses. I’m Dr. Dixon, I will be harvesting your sister’s organs, if your parents agree.

Mr. Anderson: Please, she’s our baby. We need more time.

Dr. Dixon: I’m very sorry for your loss, but her organs are young and vital. They could save many lives.

(Emma wheels over to Holly and begs for her to wake up.)

Dr. Dixon: I’m very sorry for your loss, but your sister can’t wake up. Her basic functions are gone. Her brain is dead. Her body is alive, but unfortunately, unfortunately, she is dead.

(Emma angrily demands for Dr. Dixon to leave. Meredith then politely asks her to leave the room.)

I cannot imagine what it would feel like to see my loved one dying on a hospital bed after a tragic accident. Combine the shear devastation with the added aggravation of having to deal with a socially inept doctor who is overwhelming me with the details about why my loved one is brain-dead. If I were in this situation, I can only hope that I would not end up smacking her right in the face! Believe it or not, those of us with Asperger’s Syndrome are more than capable of recognizing, understanding and expressing human emotions. It is part of learning these things the neurotypical calls “social skills.” Like riding a bike or playing the piano, it takes practice to master.

I look back on these scenes and I realize one thing. Most intelligent people know that this is not an authentic portrayal of Asperger’s Syndrome! (They know that Autism is a neurological disorder, not a disease like Tuberculosis or AIDS. Amount and severity of symptoms varies in each person.) It shows stereotypical resemblance to classic Autism combined with the physical ability to communicate verbally. I don’t expect others to use the same words and terms that I am accustomed to using. I don’t throw temper tantrums after being hugged by someone who I don’t particularly have the interest sharing such a personal interaction with. I am able to understand when a certain time or place is not appropriate for debate about beliefs and opinions. Furthermore, I do have feelings and emotions. I just communicate them in ways that are only somewhat different from everyone else.

I have yet to see one portrayal that does not put such strong emphasis on stereotypical symptoms and mannerisms, and that does allow the individual to reach their full potential. This is just one thing that will change people’s perceptions about Autistic Spectrum Disorders and about disability in general.

What Does “Cool” Mean?

High school is the place for cliques and stereotypes. When you walk through the lunch table, you often notice that the same cliques always sit together. I felt like I didn’t belong with any of those so-called “cliques”. I felt as if I was a number during my junior and senior high days. I had trouble figuring out where I wanted to sit, so I decided to sit at a table in the back of the cafeteria by myself and would start crying because I was so lost. People really didn’t seem interested in getting to know me, so I didn’t really want to get to know them. Bullying was a major issue during freshman year and the beginning of sophomore year, but the boy who kept bullying me got kicked out of school during the second or third month of school during that year. The teachers and administration most likely became tired of all the complaints coming from my mother about his immature and disrespectful behavior. The positive side was I never had to see him again.

The “popular” kids are the ones who have lots of friends and who own the expensive cars and live in a big house. They are the ones who are always elected president of the student council, which is pretty much a popularity contest on its own. The same people run every single year and they end up winning because everybody thinks their “cool”. I wasn’t interested in running for student council at Freeport because I was an outcast. These same people were on the sports teams and had a boyfriend or a girlfriend. I felt like people didn’t even know I existed on this planet, and the only ones who did know I exist enjoyed belittling me and making my life a living hell. I tried hiding my Asperger’s and reaching out to the “cool” crowd, but they would either just tolerate me, ignore me or tell me they would “rather not talk”. I have said many times before that a true friend should not just “tolerate” me, they should want to spend time with me and they must always be willing to make time to spend with me.

I do look back and realize that I am better off without people like “Mr. Cool President of Student Council”. As described in my blog entry titled “Four Important Qualities of a Best Friend” I had an unfortunate incident with this same kid. I inadvertently sent a text message to the wrong contact, and he was the person who received it. We chatted online quite often and I thought we would become good friends. He used to pick on me back in junior high, so I thought “maybe he changed and wants to be my friend”. When summer came around, he would start ignoring me when I would start instant messaging him. When I greeted him he would sign off and ignore me. I would then write on his My-space wall then he would Delete my posts. It became even worse when the whole cell phone incident happened. The next day, I text messaged him and his friends. I asked them what they were up to, and then “Mr. Cool” snapped and said “You woke me up at midnight! What the fu** is your problem”? I then asked him what he was talking about, then he told me about the text message. I looked at my sent messages and I saw I addressed it to him instead of the person I intended to send it to. I explained to him that I did not intend to send that message to him, but he then said “whatever, just don’t talk to me”. I asked why he was being so rude to me and he said “I don’t want to be friends with you. Don’t talk to me”. I then started making nasty comments to him, and said things like “You are only going to work at Burger King after you graduate from high school. You may be Mr. Cool now, but you will be a loser after you graduate”. He then responded to me “Yeah, my friends and I are Mr. Cool. You just fu** off and leave me alone”. I continued to send him disrespectful messages, but he just ignored me. I was upset that he became angry with me about something I didn’t mean to do. For the next few days, I continued to experience negative feelings about myself. I felt that everybody in the world didn’t know I existed, and the only people who did know I existed wanted to belittle me. I wasn’t considered “cool” (according to the Freeport Senior High School standards) and I hated that about myself.

I looked up a definition for the word “cool” on the popular website Urban, and this particular one caught my eye:

“Socially appealing; used to describe any behavior, object, ability or quality contributing to one’s social prowess”.

I laughed at this one because it was perfectly true about the kid in this situation. During junior high, he enjoyed talking about me behind my back. He would mock some of the Autistic behaviors I exhibited. I tended to look around the room and stare at things like the wall or the ceiling, and he would start staring at me. When I would look over at him he would point and laugh at me. He seemed to realize I didn’t like it by my facial expressions and laugh at me in front of his friends. His friends would either acknowledge him with a fake smile or try to change the subject. I talked to my mother about it, and she said “Maybe he wants to be your friend”. I found out that was not the case after the cell phone incident a few years later.

You can probably tell that I don’t really need to pay attention to the stereotypes from high school. The social politics make it seem that if you don’t go to events like football games or the prom, you are a nobody. The Computing Workshop summer program I am working teaches kids that would most likely be considered “uncool” in a regular high school. Schools often think they will not be successful in the career field they want to pursue. This program came into existence because the staff members want to prove these school districts wrong. These school districts are not willing to try anything new. They just want to do things the way they are used to. They also try to discourage these students into obtaining a post secondary education because they feel they won’t succeed. They use these threatening tactics by saying things like “college is rough, you get a lot more homework”. They focus on the negative things about college and not the positives. Helping the “uncool” kids has really turned out to be a “cool” thing to do during the summer.

During the board meetings at Lenape, I was amazed at how well students expressed their concerns about the half day issue. Many of these students were also considered “uncool” in their original school of residence. The teachers really cared about them and they want them to be the most successful individuals they can be after high school. I think that is a very “cool” thing.

I am only willing to stick with the friends that accept me for who I am and who will not try to change me into a different person. I will only hang out with a person who will ignore the high school stereotypes and not try to make me into a “normal person”. I made the mistake into trusting “Mr. Cool President of Student Council”. Having at least one friend that really likes you is a very “cool” thing. Aaron likes me for who I am and he doesn’t try to magically make me into a “normal person”. If it were not for places like Computing Workshop and Lenape, I don’t even know if I could have finished high school. I would most likely be working at a fast food restaurant making minimum wage. I have learned that I should be thankful for the things I have and not focus on the things I don’t have. I didn’t have the pleasure of being “cool” at Freeport, and that doesn’t mean a single thing to me because I am not there anymore. I am cool to my real friends and my family, and that is the only thing that matters to me.