Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Kids' TV Characters with Developmental and Emotional Disorders

First, I need to say that the comments on Monday's post just made me happy. There were a few different opinions, but everybody was really respectful and thoughtful, and I'm really honored that you guys took the time to share your views.

I've emailed many of you who commented, but I wanted to share some of my thoughts about this issue. I presented an example of a character in a children's television show who was portrayed in a rather stereotyped fashion and asked, essentially, if it was better than nothing.

Some of you said yes--at least the writers tried to include a character with a developmental disorder like Asperger's, and it's better than pretending individuals with such disorders don't exist. The assumption here is that it's important to include diverse characters (and obviously, I'm talking about stuff way beyond racial/ethnic diversity) in children's television. I agree with this assumption. Our world is diverse. Religiously, sexually, ethnically, neurologically ... people are enormously complex--and in each of our dimensions, we vary tremendously, and that's really cool. It ain't just heterosexual-neurotypical-white folk watching the telly, right? Right. So we should have television characters that reflect that diversity.

Some of you said no--this type of stereotypical portrayal is not good at all. It's insulting and potentially harmful. Aaaaand ... I agree. Let me tell you a story (and by that, I mean a mash-up of an experience I've had way too many times): I'm sitting with the parents of a five-year-old, and I'm telling them that I'm diagnosing their child with autistic disorder. You know what they say? "But he acts NOTHING LIKE RAIN MAN!" I can almost see their thoughts--they are picturing their adorable child as an adult living in an institution and counting matchsticks.

That alone is heartbreaking. But you know what's worse? Sometimes, a parent has had concerns for a few years. Maybe they even worked up the courage to speak it aloud to a grandmother-aunt-neighbor-friend-stranger. And that person said, "Pshah. He acts nothing like Rain Man. You don't need to have him evaluated."

I've worked with people who put evaluations off for a year or two in part because of this very thing--media portrayals that are extreme or very stereotyped. Sometimes it means that the child has missed one or two years of treatment.

In that case, I would say that stereotyped portrayals have done some damage. The problem is, when we only see the extreme or the stereotyped, it's easy to be blinded to the complete continuum.

This is the late Kim Peek. Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man was based on him. He was what is known as a "savant" and memorized about 9000 books before his death in 2009. He also couldn't button his clothes. His presentation was NOT typical of individuals with autism spectrum disorders. He was an extreme. I'm not saying it was wrong to make that movie--by all accounts the portrayal was accurate. But if it's one of the few out there, it leaves viewers thinking "this is what people with autism spectrum disorders are like."

Usually, my first response to controversial stuff on TV is to say "if parents are going to let their kids watch it, they should watch it with their kids and talk about it." I feel that way about this issue, but it doesn't get rid of my concerns. Because what if the parent doesn't know much more about autism spectrum disorders than the kid? That parent is dependent upon the writers and creators of those shows to present an accurate picture of an individual with one of these diagnoses. I happen to think this is ESPECIALLY TRUE of children's television shows where the clear goal of the portrayal is to raise awareness and sensitivity, as was the case with that episode of Dino Squad. The things is, so often the symptoms of this disorder (and many others) are subtle and not easily recognized unless you know exactly what to look for.

I won't go on and on. This is a tricky issue--both in adult and children's television. We need diversity, but it needs to be nuanced and sensitive, well-researched and informed by real-world experience. I'm pretty sure we can all agree on that.

On the Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog front, check out Deb's post on "In my writing, I always/never ___"!


  1. I'm so glad you bring these issues up, Sarah! I worked as a nanny to put myself through university, and one of the jobs I was sent out to was for a ten-year-old boy with Asperger's. I'd worked with children who had learning disabilities before, but I'd never worked with one who had Asperger's, so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect.

    I got there early to sit down with his mother, who went on to tell me all the things I should expect - and she actually made him out to sound like Rain Man. As it turned out, he was nothing like she told me he'd be. We talked all night, we played video games, we laughed, etc., etc. If I hadn't been informed that he had Asperger's, I would have walked away from the job being none the wiser that he'd been diagnosed with this disorder.

    Instead, I walked away feeling sorry for a little boy whose mother saw the diagnosis, and not a 10-year-old boy. It was pretty sad, really. Of course people could argue that his mother *knows* him, and has had to deal with him since birth. Maybe I was lucky in getting him on a good day.

    But I'm not so sure. I worry that, like you said, people compare their child to Rain Man, saying their child is nothing like him. I think it travels to the other end of the spectrum, too, in that some parents see their child as Rain Man once a diagnosis has been given, when to everyone else, the child seems relatively 'normal'.

    Do you see this a lot in your profession? Are there many parents out there who label their own children like this, and view them as being worse than they actually are?

  2. When my daughter and I watch shows with kids who have disorders, she always asks why they are different. And I always say, "Because that's the way God made them." And she always asks "Why?" My usual response to her is "so people like us can help them."

    I think the portrayal of people on tv with either, mental or physical disabilities does help. At least it gets us thinking, whether it's right or wrong, so the condition or problem might be ascertained and then helped.

  3. Great post, Sarah. I think people forget inividuals with developmental and emotional disorders don't necessarily fit the worst case scenarios presented on TV, movies, and in books on the disorders.

    With my 11 yo, his teacher last year confessed that she panicked when she heard she was going to have a kid with AS in her class. She read up on the topic and freaked out further, not knowing how she was going to manage.

    To her surprise, my son is nothting like the worst case scenario in the books. He has his struggles (and some go beyond AS), but he's on the mild end of the spectrum. Most of the teachers in his school didn't realize he has AS even though they had interacted with him. The kids know he's slightly different (he has trouble with eye contact among other things), but they accept him as he is. They have no clue he has AS. He's just one of them.

  4. I have to agree with you. I think there are valid concerns on both sides of the argument.

    I think Kim Peek may have been too extreme of an example to use in my comment the other day. I'm curious to know more about what you think about Daniel Tammet as an example. He is a very high functioning autistic and might be a better example to show parents that symptoms can sometimes be very subtle. Obviously his savant abilities don't make him a very normal example, but I think they can make autism a little less scary.

    I don't know. I think it still comes back to the fact that there are positives and negatives on both sides of the argument.

  5. Anne, I fully realize you mean well, but please realize that when you say this: When my daughter and I watch shows with kids who have disorders, she always asks why they are different. And I always say, "Because that's the way God made them." And she always asks "Why?" My usual response to her is "so people like us can help them."

    It's incredibly hurtful, offensive, and condescending. My existence is my own. I was not put on this world so that other people can pat themselves on the back for helping me. I'm living my life like anyone else. There is no special purpose to or reason for my disability. It is simply a part of who I am. Please do not take that part of me and make it about you; please, please realize how hurtful what you are teaching your daughter is.

  6. Television was invented as a source of information and entertainment. The information part can be found through documentaries and news channels. The entertainment part comes in with movies and series. It's fiction. Why do grown adults believe that what they see in television and movies is reality to begin with? If they think that something is wrong with their child, what in the world would make them base whether to seek help or not on a movie portrayl?

  7. Very interesting blog post. I have to say I agree with you. Hollywood has a dilemna to entertain with stereotypes and overtures or to be somewhat muted but true. I don't know that I can remember any examples on film like this. I haven't even seen Rain Main, but I've read "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime." I'd like to see your take on books with a character examples of this diagnosis.

  8. Geez. I love you guys. OK:
    Jaime--I've seen all sorts of reactions from parents. Parents are people too, so of course they have a huge variety of reactions. I've worked with parents who were really disappointed because I DIDN'T diagnose their child. So you make a good point.

    Anne--It's so important to teach our kids that people come in so many varieties and that all of us have different needs. It's awesome that you watch those things with your daughter and have those discussions. I think what I try to emphasize when kids ask about differences is that everyone has them, and it's really important to try to understand others' perspectives and strengths and start from there.

    Stina--thank you for giving us a real life example. It happens so often--adults are obsessed with differences and diagnoses, while kids just take things at face value. Sometimes, when we don't lay that stuff on them, they seem better off, right? Of course, it is important that kids understand that other kids who have special needs aren't inferior or less valuable as human beings simply because they need additional or different resources or help, and that's what the adults can contribute.

    Matt--there are no wrong examples. It's just that both Daniel and Kim are extreme examples, just like other brilliant people who are neurotypical are extreme examples. I do think they, and especially Daniel, can be seen as an example of a highly successful person with an ASD, just like Temple Grandin is. She has been particularly vocal about her experiences, and as a result, has been a powerful voice for people with ASDs--especially because there are a significant minority who cannot speak or have trouble speaking in ways others can easily translate.

    Corrine--thank you for commenting, and especially for sharing your perspective. Frank discussion about these issues is crucial, and it's like any conversation about diversity--it can sometimes be uncomfortable.

    Katie--of course it's entertainment, but when that's all you know about something, it does influence you. But also--sometimes, when the truth feels enormous and terrifying, sometimes we grasp onto the tiniest excuse to turn away from it.

    K.--Yes! That's definitely a book I'll be discussing in the future. Sadly, I haven't read it yet, but I have a colleague who works exclusively with individuals who have ASD and she did recommend it to me.

  9. Great follow up post. I wholeheartedly agree. Ignorance is a problem and communication is essential.

  10. Sorry I missed your post on Monday--I had wanted to comment. I think the TV/movie portrayals go for the extreme...really ups the ante, emotions, and tension (which is what we want as writers, I think). HOWEVER, it DOES do a disservice for a majority of people with these symptoms. I usually end up getting frustrated. I think that's why I avoid psych/medical shows...the inconsistencies irk me, LOL!

    As always, this is a solid post series on a serious topic. BRAVO!

  11. Thanks for doing a follow up post to this. It kind of begged for more discussion. I can see all of the different viewpoints on this subject. Sadly, any portrayal of a character with these issues will never make everyone happy...there will always be someone thinking it's insulting, or too stereotypical, or not stereotypical enough. I can see why many wouldn't even go there in their writing, but I applaud those who even try.

  12. Hi Sarah! First of all, thanks so much for commenting on my blog the other day. I really appreciate it :D

    This is a tough issue and I agree with both sides. Yes, we do need to be educated (and educate our children) on the vast diversity that's out there and yet, to sterotype things and blow them out of proportion is not the way to do so. Such an interesting topic for pondering. Thanks for bringing up the hard issues!