I've been noticing that autistic characters, or characters with autistic traits, have been showing up in lots of TV shows and movies lately. Joseph Kahn at the Boston Globe noticed this too and wrote an article about it.
I like that this is happening. Autistic traits are, after all, part of the spectrum of human traits, and they deserve to be represented in a variety of ways (not just in a Hallmark Hall of Fame tragic way) and they can make for pretty interesting material for character development and interaction within a story.
But what I've noticed is that when I see autistic/Asperger's characters in popular culture, they often conform to a fairly narrow type: overly serious, fixated, unemotional, occasionally non-verbal but with amazing superpowers.
I enjoy watching Max on Parenthood, for example, but it kind of bugs me that I can't recall many - if any - episodes where I've seen him laugh, or even smile.
The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon's logical, literal, loquaciousness is great comedy material, but Sheldon himself is a pretty deadpan guy.
My favorite character with autistic traits is Abed, on NBC's Community. He's clearly an Aspergerian guy, though the show doesn't belabor a diagnosis. He's obsessed with pop culture, and given the best story lines on the show (interestingly, creator Dan Harmon discovered he himself was on the spectrum while writing for Abed) but even Abed doesn't smile or laugh much.
These characteristics aren't totally inaccurate. In fact, one of the characters I've developed for Flummox and Friends, Milo, is more serious and intense. Frankly, because it makes good fodder for the story, the interactions, and the teachable moments about flexibility and receptivity to others.
So while I applaud the trend, I think there's still opportunity to expand people's notion of what autism looks like across that oh so broad spectrum. And for me, there's something - maybe a "subtype" - missing from the current array of characters: the picture of autism that I see everyday at home with my son.
And when I say "goofball" I mean a kid who wants to practice spit takes at dinner, who skips everywhere he goes, who acts out Looney Tunes scenes in the aisles of the grocery store, who directs his parents in comedy sketches, who laughs his way to sleep at night thinking about funny things in his head, and rehearses the "Who's on First?" routine until he's doubled over with hiccups.
Yes, he can also be fixated, anxious, socially clueless, sometimes even emotionally unresponsive, but primarily, he is a goofball: craving laughter and fun, sometimes to the point of perseveration, to the point of his parents and friends have to ask him to put a lid on it once in a while.
And I know he's not the only one. In fact, just recently, I discovered there's a comedy group, Aspergers Are Us, comprised of a group of young Aspies.
Breaking news: autistic people have a sense of humor.
So I hope to someday see a character with autistic traits in popular culture that's more of a goofball, who will smile a little more often, laugh a little more often, and maybe even quote Daffy Duck once in a while, because that's a big part of what autism looks like to me.