Why do we want autistic kids to have superpowers?

Charlie J. Anders


week saw the debut of Touch, Kiefer Sutherland’s show about a father whose non-neurotypical son turns out to be able to predict future events. This comes on the heels of Alphas, which also gave us Gary, another person who appears to be on the autism spectrum but who has the ability to see hidden energies. And the notion of autistic people as savants or special fixers has been around forever.

Why do we create these fantasies about autistic people having superpowers? We talked to a few experts to try and find out.

In Touch, Sutherland plays Martin Bohm, a man whose wife was killed on 9/11. His “emotionally challenged” son Jake is mute, unable to connect with others, and “shows little emotion.” Jake is obsessed with numbers and discarded cellphones—and then we discover, via Danny Glover’s expert, that Jake can see the threads of invisible energy that bind the entire world together. And Jake sees where they’re broken by our crazy modern world, and needs his dad’s help to fix them.

So basically, it’s New Age spirituality rolled in with “autistic savant” fantasies. Already, it’s gotten some criticism. ThinkProgress’ Alyssa Rosenberg referred to the show as creating “a magical alternative to autism.” Meanwhile, Ellen Seidman at Love That Max was happy to see a special-needs kid on television, but also worried the show would “take the focus away from the amazing reality of our kids.” And she thought maybe some people would think autistic kids really could predict the future. And that could be bad.

Over at the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism blog, Shannon Rosa talks to Joanne Lara, an autism and special-education expert who consulted on Touch. Among other things, she reveals that the show explicitly said that Jake was autistic at one point, but then that scene was reshot and all references to autism were removed. Also, no autistic people were consulted in the creation of the character.

And finally, Lara also says that it’s not just about the dad, Martin, but that the kid is the real focus, and his explorations are what matter in the show. He’s as much the protagonist as his father. And that seems to be a huge question that people are asking about this show — is Jake really a protagonist, or is he just a vehicle in his father’s journey of self-discovery and personal growth?

The danger here is that the autistic character could be akin to the “magical negro” or the “noble savage” in popular culture, says Steve Silberman, a frequent contributor to Wired who’s writing a book about autism to be published in 2013. Silberman explains that these are

"characters that were significantly disabled in a social sense, but who had a kind of innocence and purity that enabled them to play their central role in the narrative: that of redeeming the hero, who wasn’t disabled and was only temporarily an outcast. Those characters usually faded offscreen when the hero attained his rightfully high status in society; they were only valuable for what they could render unto the mainstream characters—very much like the gay “best friend” in a million TV shows who coaches the female lead on her romantic problems but never has a sex life of his own (“gross!”), or the fat girl who’s “like a sister” to the geeky-but-hot male lead."

Adds Rosa, “I like Gary in Alphas, damn it. He’s happy, functional [and] gets the support he needs. He told his mom to back off. [And he's] OK with being autistic.”

So why do we want autistic people to have superpowers? I talked to Rosa, and she says that there are two conflicting things at work. We want autistic people to want to be like us, like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. And secondly, we’re “obsessed with exceptionalism,” says Rosa. “People can’t handle the fact that some people are just different without having something fabulously acceptable as balance, because otherwise we’d just have to accept autistic people on their own terms, and that’s hard and challenging and takes patience and work.”

Read the full article from Discover here


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