Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Media and Special Needs

The media often gets blasted for all it does wrong - being too one-sided, only being out for ratings, showing too much sex, etc etc etc (I mean I could go on and on but you get the idea!)

However, this post is about what the media is doing RIGHT. And lately I have to say I have seen some really positive characters and shows about autism and other special needs. When I was growing up I don't remember there being shows with special needs characters. There was a girl with cerebral palsy on Facts of Life but she was only a guest, one of the girls' cousins, and wasn't in many episodes. The first show I can think of a special needs main character was Corky on Life Goes On in the early 1990's who had Downs Syndrome. As I recall they did a good job with his character. Then...nothing much for years that I can think of other than the occasional guest spot for special needs characters.

This season there is Parenthood which (in my opinion) has done a really good job of depicting a child with Asperger's. Max is intelligent, funny and handsome. However, he ignores greetings, obsesses about insects, and has meltdowns when his routine is disrupted or something unexpected happens. He has sensory issues like being completely undone by the bubbling sound from the fish tank in his classroom. He has trouble with sports teams. This show has also done a great job in showing the parents' reaction to the diagnosis and dealing with it on a day to day basis. When Max was diagnosed in the first season (last season) they were devastated and the wife implored the husband "Don't leave me alone with this." It was heartbreaking and very realistic. Then they realized they had work to do to help their son and rallied. This is all very familiar to me.

I also like The Middle's youngest child Brick. He does not have a diagnosis on the show (it is a 1/2 hour sitcom, not a drama) but he is definitely "autistic-like". He is funny and smart and not at all tragic. The mother does a lot of eye-rolling and sighing but accepts her son for who he is. In one episode the parents are intent in having Brick make some friends until they realize he is happy how he is and would rather be reading a book. Again, acceptance.

Finally, on my list is the new MTV (yes, really, MTV!!) show World of Jenks. In each episode, Andrew Jenks spends time with a different interesting person. In the episode "Can't Make Me Be" Jenks moves in with a 20-year old man who has autism named Chad. I think it was really well done. They showed what Chad does on a day to day basis (like going to school) and also showed the broader issues of autism like hyper-sensitivity to smells and sounds. In the final analysis, it showed that Chad really isn't all that different from other young men his age. He likes a lot of the same things, he is able to communicate fairly effectively (dispelling the Rain Man stereotype), and he is a funny and compassionate person. My hope is that many younger people will watch this show (because it is on MTV) and understand that people with autism are not "less" or tragic, but just need some understanding. Jenks demonstrates this well when he takes Chad on a road trip to Manhattan and quickly realizes it is a mistake when Chad is upset by all the horns honking, smells - in short, the total sensory overload. At the end of the show he finds a more appropriate place to road trip with Chad. This is reality TV as it should be. It's hard to believe Andrew Jenks is roughly the same age as the morons on Jersey Shore (which I admit I have watched from time to time - a little escape from reality!).

I have read there is a boy in a wheelchair on Glee and that Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory is a classic Aspie but since I have never seen either of these shows, I can't comment on them.

I'm sure there are other shows and examples, but to be honest I am not a huge TV-watcher so this is all I am aware of now. It's a great start.


  1. Great blog! I am following... I hope you follow me to, my 4 year old son has been diagnosed with High Functioning Autism.

  2. Media really can be so helpful in exposing us to what we may never encounter or dispelling anxiety we sometimes have about those who are different than we are. Glad to hear there are some good shows out there and I'll check out the shows you've mentioned that I haven't yet seen. I did see that episode on The Middle that mentioned and really liked it too. I remember the girl with cerebral palsy on Facts of Life for sure and I remember as a kid being struck by how smart and funny she was. I've noticed World of Jenks and didn't bother but will now and same for Parenthood. Next time I happen upon Big Bang Theory I'll pay more attention to which one Sheldon is. I've seen this show before but it didn't occur to me that someone had Asperger's. To be completely honest, I thought it was about the struggles socially that extremely intelligent people sometimes deal with. This is not to say that people with Asperger's can't be or aren't extremely intelligent, I just haven't really watched that show very much to know what it's about.

    Kris, have you ever seen the claymation movie Mary and Max? I rented it this past summer to watch with my young nieces, thinking it had a G rating. Ahem...at one point my 8 year old niece pointed out that it "might be a little inappropriate". It definitely was NOT a G rated movie so I messed up there somehow (it said G on the jacket, I'm sure of it!) but what it ended up being was a stumble upon a very very good movie, just not really for some little kids.

    Also, a warning, as I found written in one review, "The unflinchingly frank treatment of Asperger’s syndrome is at once Mary & Max’s greatest achievement and its biggest limitation. Watching Max’s irrational fits is deeply moving, but may prove too much for some sensitive audiences" http://www.openmagazine.co.uk/big-screen/review/article/mary-and-max/

    Here's another link to a blog that reviewed it.

  3. Denise, I am following your blog. Your little guy is adorable! Campbell, thanks for the links! I have never heard of Mary and Max and will have to check it out.

  4. Hi, thanks for commenting on my blog about High Functioning Autism, I wanted to add that a person with HFA or Aspergers don't "have" to be considered a genius or have a extremely high IQ, they can have a IQ of 85 or above (I think I have the numbers right!) You also mentioned ADHD, that actually can coexist with with Autism, A. has had problems with ADHD type symptoms, he actually is on a non-stimulant medication right now for that. He also has a diagnosis of Sensory Integration disorder, all of those things seem to go hand in hand!

  5. I saw the same episode of World of Jenks and I was also very impressed!