Monday, March 21, 2011

You Tell Me: Characters with Developmental and Emotional Disorders on Kids' Television

My son's current favorite television show is called "Dino Squad", about a group of kids who can turn into dinosaurs (I think it was on 2008-2009, but we have Netflix and that's how we watch most of our television, which admittedly isn't much).

The other day, he was watching one of the episodes while I was cooking dinner. And as I was chopping carrots, I heard this robotic monotone voice saying over and over again, "sugar sucrose glucose high fructose corn syrup ..."

So I had to go see what on earth was going on. Turned out it was this character named Liam, who appeared in the first episode of the second season. And he had Asperger's Syndrome.

Now, the writers/creators of this show made Liam a positive character. He helps save the day. And the wise adults on the show explain a few things about Asperger's to the main characters, who end up being nice to him and sitting with him at lunch.

But, in my opinion, the portrayal of Liam is a really mixed bag. His exaggeratedly odd prosody (the rhythm and intonation of speech) and constant repetitive hand movements left me feeling like the writers might have been relying on stereotypes of individuals on the autism spectrum.

You can watch a clip of Liam in action here

You tell me--is this a good way to teach children about developmental and emotional disorders and differences? Does this trade-off often occur in kids' television--including characters with these disorders but making their presentation so exaggerated or stereotyped or oversimplified that it possibly leads to a Rain Man sort of expectation (i.e., all people diagnosed with autism will behave like that character)? For those of you with kids, where have you seen this done well? Where have you seen in done poorly?

And be sure to check out Lydia's gruesome yet fascinating Medical Monday post, as well as Laura's Mental Health Monday post (which is only a tidbit today because she's moving, but get on over there and wish her well)!


  1. I have mixed feelings about it too. Because kids will always be different from each other, but on TV, you get one character with which to form a lot of ideas.
    Thanks for the shout-out! Going to say hi to Laura now.

  2. I'm not sure how I would feel. Since I don't have children I don't know if I'm the best person to offer an opinion.

    I just wanted to stop in and say hello! Thank you so much for stopping by my blog! I've recently seen your profile picture make it's way across the blog!

    I look forward to your comments on my query tomorrow!!!

  3. Personally I think even these stilted highly stereotyped portrayals are better than nothing. I mean if it means a kid hears about autism for the first time, and then discovers real people like Daniel Tammet and Kim Peek, who truly are (were RIP, Kim) amazing human beings, then I think it's a good thing.

    But obviously it could be really insulting to a person who had an autistic person in their every day lives. I do think the good outweighs the bad, though.

  4. Wow. I haven't heard of that show. Really interesting portrayal of these disorders to teach kids. I'm not sure how I feel about it. Did your son react to it or did it just go over his head? I imagine it could go either way at that age? Hmmm. Interesting.

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  6. *mouth drops opens* My 11 yo son has AS and he DOES NOT act or talk like that. This is how stereotypes start. Grrrr.

    I think helping kids understand the different developmental and emotional disorders is great, but the creators of these shows have to be careful on how the portray these individuals.

  7. i don't know... i'm kind of with matt here. stereotypes fall short- very short. and i can TOTALLY understand why stina would be offended by such a thing. but kid's shows tend to show lots of kinds of stereotypes- not just for people with developmental or emotional disorders- how many nerds or jocks or mean cheerleaders have you seen? how many villains have no depth?
    i hadn't even heard about AS until i was an adult and the only exposure i wittingly had to kids with developmental disorder was one severly autistic kid in my grade- and that was just outside chicago, where there is much more diversity than many other places in the country...
    i guess my thought is, as a parent i want my children to love and respect everyone. to see people as people- no matter what they have to overcome or where they have failed in the past. and acceptance comes with understanding and understanding begins at realization. so, i guess i would be happy that my kids heard about AS from the show, and would hope they would ask me more about it so we could look it up and learn. there is only so much time a show has to introduce a character... it seems like only the main characters ever really seem rounded... i'm starting to ramble now. anyway, good morning!

  8. There's no easy way. No matter how careful we are in our portrayal, there is always something which might be offensive. I'm leaning toward Matt's pov. I'd rather my kids know something about it than nothing.

  9. It's always tricky to portray accurately any sort of disorder or even minority. I think there will always be issue from others unless the author actually is a member of that group. I've even been corrected on twin behavior despite the many differences in individuals, and the fact that I've had very good friends who were twins. Not a big deal, but interesting nonetheless. I guess my point is that you can't please everyone, but if you do an honest job trying to realistically portray an individual as who they are (hopefully avoiding stereotypes) then that's great.

  10. hi miss sarah! for me i saw dd stuff on tv and other stuff kids have. for me the best was my brothers took me with them where they go to help so i could help with dd kids and i learned how not one is the same and they got the same wants as me. now i dont ever even think of them as being dd. so im thinking knowing bout that stuff could start on tv but parents gotta teach more on it.
    ...hugs from lenny

  11. I'll side with Matt as well. TV shows try to appeal to a broad audience, so stereotypes or over-simplified explanations abound.

  12. I remember that I first learned about things like autism and diabetes from The Babysitters Club books.

  13. While I'm glad that there are even autistic characters in cartoons to begin with -- I had no idea! -- I'm going to have to say that this is way too stereotyped for my preferences. While I'm aware that, the younger the show, the more stereotypes you get, I don't think you can compare it to the treatment of jocks and cheerleaders. Those groups don't tend to be marginalized, and won't suffer from people's misconceptions on nearly the same level as people with disabilities (or other minorities in areas such as race). I've had people tell me to my face that I can't be autistic because I'm too 'normal'; where do people get an idea like that from, if not these kinds of portrayals?

    I get that they won't be able to get into it much in a show like this, but it's not like it would've taken up any extra screentime to, say, make this kid sound less like a robot.

    Also, Matthew, you said: But obviously it could be really insulting to a person who had an autistic person in their every day lives.

    Keep in mind it could also be pretty insulting to... you know... autistic people themselves. Not just the people around them. We do watch television and read blogs on occasion. ;)

    Sorry if I sound snarky -- it's just I encounter this attitude a lot, where people's perception of autism centers around families and caretakers rather than autistic people themselves, and it's rather a sore spot. I hope you understand!

  14. Hmm... I think it's good to teach children to be nice to children who are different. Sadly, children's tv does tend to over-simplify things.


  15. It's not good it's been stereotyped, but it is good at least that the writers were TRYING to teach the viewers good things. They just could have done it better.

  16. Tough question! Especially with something as various as AS. I think I'd vote for children's shows to avoid stereotyping specific diagnoses. It's too likely to lead to ingrained misunderstanding. The best intentions can backfire.

  17. Thanks for the twitter following--fascinating blog. I have to say that I'm curious whether you've watched any Degrassi (stay with me). There's a current character who has Asberger's who is quite well done--but they tend to do issues of difference well anyway; they also have a really sensitively portrayed trans boy.

  18. I think when people over-exaggerate a certain disorder, they are doing a great disservice. People watch something like that then assume ALL children with Asperger's Syndrome have those exact same signs. I have two friends who each have a son with AS. I'm going to forward them your link because I'm interested to hear what they have to say.

  19. Lynda, you said: It's not good it's been stereotyped, but it is good at least that the writers were TRYING to teach the viewers good things. They just could have done it better.

    I think what it comes down to for me is... does intent really matter? I'm also glad that autistic people are more and more often portrayed in positive roles (though there's still a long way to go), but if these portrayals are actively harmful -- and they are -- then there's not much comfort to be found in the good intentions of the show's creators, is there? I don't just think they could have done better; they should have done better.

    I also question exactly how hard they tried, because to me, this barely even resembles autism. It makes me question if they did even a speck of research. I actually read a good blog post about doing one's research regarding portrayals of disability the other day -- it's probably asking a bit much to actually get consultants on set for a cartoon, but it does happen (Avatar: The Last Airbender had loads of cultural consultants, I believe) and this is a wider issue, anyway, seen across all media.

    I just don't feel quite comfortable with the idea that I'm supposed to be grateful when people pay me lip service, get it completely wrong, and actively harm me in the process, you know?

    Actually, now that I think about it, I'm also not thrilled with the idea of them including an autistic character solely to teach the viewers something (if that's the case). So far we've been discussing what non-autistic viewers might take away from a show like this, but... Autistic kids also watch these shows. They want to see themselves represented. And while it's undoubtedly a good thing if non-autistic kids learn a bit about autism from a show like this (assuming it's handled well), if the creators of a show think of their audience as solely neurotypical kids, that shows a pretty large flaw in their thinking.

    I don't want to see or read about characters like me knowing that they're only around to teach other characters and viewers/readers a ~very special lesson~. I want to see characters like me because people like me are also a part of this world, and we can be heroes, too. And I think that's a far more important lesson to teach kids -- both autistic and not -- than just 'be nice to the weird kid'.

    ... I'm rambling. Hah! I'd better get back to writing.

  20. I'm with Stina and Corinne on this one. My son has a milder form of PDD than Asperger's or Autism. It's hard enough for him to find his place in social circles without TV shows misrepresenting him.

    And this reminds me of LGBT stereotypes as well. How often are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans teens *and* adults misrepresented on television? It is exposure, yes, but is it the right kind of exposure? From what I've seen over the years, usually not.

    Kids get the *right* kind of exposure from real life experiences. And this is one of the reasons why I rarely ever watch TV anymore.

    As writers of fiction (including screenwriters) I believe we have a responsibility to both entertain and keep things fair. Don't we? It's part of our job requirement to find that balance.

  21. This is a really interesting question with no easy answer. And I don't watch a lot of kids' shows b/c I don't have kids, but it seems like they're not doing a great job of depicting AS on grown-up TV either -- Grey's Anatomy had an arc w/an AS surgeon played by Mary McDonnell, and they played wacky, jaunty music in the background whenever she appeared -- definitely played for laughs. I've heard it's better on Parenthood, but I haven't seen that one.

    Misrepresentation or no representation? Gosh, what an awful choice.

  22. Your description of how the character was portrayed made me not want to watch the clip from the show. I have to agree with Corinne that they should have done better, and if not it'd be better to leave that character out. I think it'd would be far better for kids to find out about something like asperger's by meeting a real person who has it than to see a stereotyped character on TV.
    I didn't know I had Asperger's until I was grown up, and I had never met anyone else who I knew had asperger's until after I knew I had it. So I knew nothing about it growing up, but I could recognise that I was different from other kids. When I was diagnosed, it was just giving a name to the difficulties I already knew I had.