Guess what I’m reviewing on Monday?
We all remember those episodes of the various Disney Channel shows we watched growing up, where the plot would revolve around a character from a minority background, who was never seen or heard from again. The “special” episodes, that were more about teaching acceptance than plot, making them the most boring. Though they’re not actually that good at teaching acceptance either.
Many other writers from many different minority groups have spoken before about the special episode and its problems, but as autism moves to the forefront of the public consciousness, I feel I need to reiterate some points.
This post will focus on television, specifically children’s television, but some of the points may be relevant across all forms of media.
So, onto the problems.
1) Too Little Time
Autism is complex. This entire blog series exists because of how complex autism is. Most shows have just over twenty minutes without adverts, which is far from enough time to give a crash course on autism, especially once you work it around enough plot and jokes to keep it interesting.
You could give a list of autistic traits, but what about reinforcing that not all autistic people have the same traits? Addressing that autism looks different in women?
You could focus on acceptance, but your character arcs regarding that acceptance have to be solid. Could you pull that off in less than twenty minutes without throwing mentally ill people or people with intellectual disabilities under the bus? (”We’re not like *that* kind of crazy!”) Could you do it without functioning labels or “Asperger’s”? (”It’s okay – it’s not the *bad* kind of autism!”)
If the autistic character is part of the main cast, then it’s easier to take your time. Even if they show up semi-regularly, it can work, if you’re careful with that first episode, which means covering enough so that you don’t come across as ableist, while not trying to shove everything in twenty minutes. It’s a tough balance to strike.
2) We Become Props
Using us as props to teach other kids to treat us right, is still using us as props. It perpetuates the idea of disabled people existing for the sole purpose of inspiring or educating the abled. This is a problem disabled people have to deal with constantly out in the real world, so we’re not exactly happy about it being perpetuated in fiction.
At the end of the day, it’s dehumanising. We’re not people with our own stories and plot arcs (which should really be the message you’re trying to get across, if any), we’re educational tools to be pulled out and gawked at for twenty minutes, and then we’re never to be seen or heard from again. It’s alienating and it works against the idea of acceptance that I assume you’re trying to preach.
So, in conclusion, special episodes are not a good idea. It’s much better to introduce a recurring autistic character, who has plot arcs and their own personality which is separate from their autism.
Originally posted to myautisticpov.com on 19/9/15.