"It Reveals Who I Really Am": New Metaphors, Symbols, and Representations of Autism Spectrum Disorders in Popular Culture

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O'Neal, Summer Joy
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Middle Tennessee State University
Autism seems to have been sensationalized by the media because of the disorder's purported prevalence. Diagnoses of this condition that was traditionally considered to be incredibly rare have exploded. An analogous fascination with autism is especially observed in the field of popular culture. In the past decade, numerous television programs and independent and foreign films have focused on autism spectrum disorders by including principal characters with recognizable traits of Asperger's Syndrome and other forms of autism. Many of these programs promote similar ideas about autism and convey metaphors, motifs, symbols and, themes that describe the autistic experience. This study focuses on the films <italic>Adam, Mozart and the Whale, My Name is Khan, Ocean Heaven,</italic> and <italic>Temple Grandin</italic> and analyzes characters from the television shows <italic>Alphas, The Big Bang Theory, Bones, Boston Legal, Community, Criminal Minds, House, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Monk, Parenthood</italic> and <italic>Sherlock.</italic> First, this study discusses these presentations' significant use of masquerade to advance autism identity. Second, it analyzes the recurring use of detective motif in autistic portrayals using understood conventions of detective fiction. Third, it critiques three ubiquitous qualities, honesty, innocence, and violence, that are not part of the official diagnosis for autism but continually appear in these narratives, suggesting what such repeated themes say about autistic people and offering some interpretations of how they could be read. Finally, it descibes the types of relationships portrayed in these popular culture offerings and related metaphors, using corresponding research in psychology to explain what they might mean.
This study is important particularly because the current messages regarding autism do those in the autism community a disservice. Such metaphors suggest that autism is a mystery, a burden, and a fate perhaps worse than death. According to various theories in disability studies, such messages prevent autistic people from claiming their disability as part of their identity. Most current messages are based in the medical model, which focuses on the debilitating symptoms of a disability and therefore sees it as a problem. The messages of this study, however, endeavor to pursue the social model, which focuses more on the particular needs of a person, and moves forward to discover autistic identity and beneficial integration into society.
Autism, Communication, Popular Culture, Relationships