Authentic portrayal

Nick Gibb - Supplied
Nick Gibb pens us a poignant argument on autism in the arts.

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It's pretty well recognised that historically, autistic people have made huge contributions to maths and science. As Temple Grandin puts it (with license of exaggeration) "If by some magic, autism had been eradicated from the earth, then men would still be socialising in front of a wood fire at the entrance of a cave". It's a much more recent and less widely understood realisation that autistic people have also made significant contributions to arts and literature.

Common autistic traits include a preference for solitary focus, attention to detail, a talent for pattern recognition, detailed fixation on a single topic, and a tendency to notice things or see things from a perspective that non-autistic people don’t. These traits are just as effectively applied to creative pursuits as technical ones, yet the idea that autistic people are even capable of creativity is surprising to many. This is due to several persistent myths about autistic people - for instance that we aren't emotional, empathetic or imaginative. This is because we often present as a blank slate, subject to whatever assumptions are imposed on us. I usually don't automatically or naturally express my inner emotional state or current train of thought in ways that are picked up by non-autistics and when I choose to do so consciously it can feel glaringly artificial - a kind of facial puppetry that I'm convinced looks as artificial as it feels.

Common autistic traits include a preference for solitary focus, attention to detail, a talent for pattern recognition, detailed fixation on a single topic, and a tendency to notice things or see things from a perspective that non-autistic people don’t.

The truth is that autistic people feel emotions deeply and can be extremely empathetic but it may not seem that way to a non-autistic observer. We speak a different body language, and a different emotional and social language but that doesn't mean we don't have those things - just that it can seem that way to non-autistic people. A recent study "discovered" what many of us already knew, which is that autistic people often communicate with and understand each other - emotionally and socially - better than non-autistic people do with each other. They concluded that there is a form of social intelligence specific to autistic people.

Autistic people spend their whole lives figuring out how to communicate with non-autistic people but very little effort is made in the other direction. Autistic people expressing themselves creatively and being accurately represented in the media can go some way towards bridging this gap in understanding. David Byrne of Talking Heads fame was diagnosed with Aspergers (which today is called Autistic Spectrum Disorder). When he was told by an interviewer that this makes his choice of career quite strange he said “To me it makes perfect sense. When you have trouble expressing yourself socially, through the normal channels, you find other ways to do that, and one way is to get up on a stage and blurt things out”.

This resonated with me - “get up on stage and blurt things out” is a perfect description of stand up comedy, which I find goes perfectly with being autistic. At its most basic comedy is all the complications of social interaction reduced to a binary - laughter or silence. Of course there are different kinds of laughter and different kinds of silence, but a room full of people sitting in the dark will clarify their feelings in a way individuals usually don’t. You can come away from a social situation with little idea of which bits went well or not but there's much less confusion with an audience. Talking at people is much less complicated than talking with people. Also, a comedy routine is literally a routine, which is very autistically satisfying. Even better, it's a routine that comes with regular doses of whatever good brain chemicals are released by laughter and applause. It's hard to imagine a more perfect therapeutic exercise. I find it energising and even calming. I've had days where I felt completely overwhelmed and exhausted and have struggled to get myself to a gig but then afterwards I've felt completely recharged in a way that might have otherwise taken hours or days of seclusion.

Armchair diagnoses of famous figures might be less than completely reliable (and even less so posthumously) however reliable diagnosis or even partial understanding of the scope of the autism spectrum is only several decades old so a collection of historical "probably autistics" is the best we have to retroactively recognise an autistic contribution to culture as an identifiable thread throughout history. In 2007 medical researcher Sarah Abrahamson suggested that based on the substantial amount of information that we have about Janet Frame (primarily from her own writings) that she was likely autistic. Her surviving family bristled at the idea but seemed to do so on the grounds that, in their eyes, the label diminished her - that she was a perfectly "normal" woman and to label her autistic is to say otherwise. I like to think they wouldn't have bristled in the same way if the "diagnosis" had been phrased more reasonably by simply saying that she falls into a category of historical writers about whose lives we have enough specific details to suggest that today they may well have been diagnosed as autistic. Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Emily Dickinson, Patricia Highsmith, Hans Christian Andersen, Emily Bronte, and many others fall in this category. To me, this isn’t surprising or abnormal (and certainly not diminishing) company for her to be in.

Frame's family may have disliked the suggestion she was autistic for the same reason I think it's potentially helpful: there’s a stigma around autism that comes from a lack of understanding. The history of cinema has dozens of autistic characters and not a single one has been played by an autistic actor. Unsurprisingly then, it’s very rarely done well. Part of the problem is that autism doesn't always obviously look like autism but actors need it to if they want to win awards for how autistic they look. Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for Rain Man with a performance Pauline Kael described as "humping one note on a piano for two hours and eleven minutes". Rain Man is laudable for increasing public understanding of autism from “nothing” to “one thing at least” but thirty years later that one humped note is still the first or only thing many people think of when they think of autism. A better characterisation is Claire Danes as Temple Grandin in her biopic, as she had the real Temple right in front of her, overseeing the project and steering the production away from too many of the usual missteps and cliches. I don't think autistic characters necessarily always need to be played by autistic actors, but literally even one would be nice. Ideally, there would be enough authentic portrayals by autistic actors out there that audiences notice when a non-autistic actor gets it wrong.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

28 Jun 2019

The Big Idea Editor

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