Sunday, February 28, 2010

How TV shows try (or choose not) to depict Asperger's syndrome: Sepinwall on TV

In today's column (a rare visit to Page 1 of the paper for me, unless there were five simultaneous huge breaking news stories last night), I use a storyline from NBC's new "Parenthood" to look at TV's depiction (or lack of depiction) of characters with Asperger syndrome, including comments from producers of some shows with Aspie-like characters like Sheldon on "Big Bang Theory" and Brennan on "Bones."

A more traditional "Parenthood" review coming on Tuesday. I like the show, though the Asperger story was definitely the strongest part of it.

39 comments:

Molly Lambert said...

thirtysomething 2?

chiwhistler said...

i'm guessing there's a reason you didn't mention Abed from Community...?

chiwhistler said...

great article, by the way! my stepdaughter has Asperger's and she and my wife are huge Gilmore fans, so we're very much looking forward to 'Parenthood'...

Alfred A. A. said...

Greg House is depicted as having aspie traits, and the idea has even been thrown around by Wilson

Alan Sepinwall said...

i'm guessing there's a reason you didn't mention Abed from Community...?

Not enough room, and Sheldon and Brennan are more famous among the "we write them as Aspies but don't call them Aspies" bunch.

Josh M. said...

Wasn't Steve Martin's son in the original film afflicted with something similar? I can't remember if they ever labeled it.

Eleanor said...

yeah, as someone who works with autistic kids, ahbed from community is the best and sweetest reflection of high functioning autistic kids on tv.

Chedda said...

Plus, Abed said in the pilot, or one of the early episodes that he had Asperger's.

Nice article, Alan.

Andrew Gordon said...

Congrats on getting to the front page.

Kaitlin said...

Also, another interesting note about Aspergers & the media: Jodi Picoult's new book that comes out on 3/2 is about a student with Aspergers who is (I think falsely) accused of shooting his tutor.

Too Late said...

In the earlier seasons of 24, Chloe seemed to have Asperger's syndrome. They've toned that aspect of her way down in recent seasons.

amysusanne said...

@Josh: Yeah, the character in the original film basically had Aspergers. Or at least something similar. It wasn't named, but it was discussed. I guess now that they're not limited to the two hour film format they'll bring out a lot more about that particular kid. Not that he wasn't still a pretty important part in the film, but there were so many characters that his issues didn't go all that deep. I don't know what experience Martin or Howard might have had with that disorder, but I suppose that if Katims has personal experience with it then I can understand him wanting to name it in the series. Still fully expect that the armchair docs on the message boards who watch every show with their handy DSMIV next to them for quick character diagnosis will cry about he's doing it wrong.

amysusanne said...

Should have imdb'd the movie before that: make that Howard and Ganz/Mandel. I could have sworn Martin had something to do with the story, but I guess not.

miles said...

I am compelled to mention Jerry Espenson on Boston Legal to the discussion of Asperger's syndrome on TV.

Otto Man said...

And if you'd read Alan's piece, miles, you would have seen that he too mentioned him.

LA said...

The depiction of Asperger's by Mary McDonnell on Grey's was the most inaccurate and offensive I've seen to date (including Jerry on Boston Legal). I'm really looking forward to Parenthood.

Maura said...

I think there tends to be over-diagnosis of TV characters as having Asperger's. It seems there's no longer room for people who are just socially awkward. Or, in House's case, miserable and rude.

I don' remember Abed saying he had Asperger's. As I recall, Jeff said Abed had it, as a joke, because Abed was acting even odder than usual.

amysusanne said...

I kind of took the "you have aspergers" comment to be a joke about how every other character on TV is "diagnosed" as having aspergers, but maybe I'm giving them too much credit. I haven't visited TWOP in a couple of years, but back then you couldn't throw a rock without hitting a thread where a fan was diagnosing their favorite character.

Even if I'm wrong about the subtext, I agree...I'm pretty sure that was a joke, mostly so that Troy and Pierce could snicker and say "ass burgers".

Maura said...

That's exactly how I took it too, amysuzanne, and it totally cracked me up.

And the excessive arm chair diagnosis continues on certain TV message boards.

Tausif Khan said...

Great column I hope it and other shows being awareness to little known topics.

Anonymous said...

I honestly (as both a parent of and someone who works with others with it) don't see Abed as an Aspie. He has such a great handle on the relationships around him (it shows in his films) and relates well to everyone around him. He doesn't seem confused by emotions - in fact, he probably has a better handle on what the other characters are feeling than they do themselves sometimes.

Nor do I see House as an Aspie.

Bones and Sheldon - absolutely!

Dave said...

I have Asperger's and was so offended by the Community pilot in which several characters made fun of it by calling it "Ass Burgers." I have never watched the show since. I just watch the other three NBC sitcoms instead. I'm very much looking forward to Parenthood though, many are saying the new pilot is an improvement over the original one, I can't believe it's on this Tuesday.

Chrissy said...

I can't tell from the photo - assuming the character list basically mirrors the movie, is the son with Asperger's the older son from the movie (who had problems with anxiety but was never diagnosed with Asperger's as far as I remember), or the younger son who was confident and friendly in the movie, but clearly unusual? The older son was a major character in the movie, leading me to think this would be a big part of the show, while the younger son was much less central.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Chrissy, it's not a one-to-one remake of the movie. Some of the characters have a few similar elements (single mom struggling to deal with two teenagers, dad coaching his outcast son's baseball team), but they're not the same characters overall, and the longer the show is on, the smaller the resemblance will be to the film.

Craig Ranapia said...

Too Late:
In the earlier seasons of 24, Chloe seemed to have Asperger's syndrome. They've toned that aspect of her way down in recent seasons.

Really? I just thought Chloe was just another case of 24 being unable to write convincing and engaging women.

olucy said...

I didn't think the kid in the film version had Asperger's, I just thought he had anxiety. Much like Joe's son in Men of a Certain Age. Or does Asperger's and anxiety go hand in hand?

Mac said...

Hi Alan,

Very interesting article. I'm glad it made the front page!

I'm a therapist specializing in working with children with autism/Aspergers from 2 years old through college. I'm often asked to give presentations about Asperger's syndrome at the university where I work and I use clips from the Big Bang Theory in all my presentations. My favorite ones are the clip where Sheldon creates an algorithm for making friends (a great example of not understanding the unspoken rules of social relationships) and the one where Leonard makes a sarcasm sign (which gets at Sheldon's literal thinking). I haven't made an algorithm for making friends that is as sophisticated as Sheldon's, but often my job is to help children and young adults with ASD understand the rules of whatever situation they are in, be it dating, college lectures, or playing on the playground. I'll be looking forward to Parenthood and may be recommending it to the parents I work with if the character's autism is handled well.

Lou H. said...

Bones has only recently shown Brennan with signs of Asperger's. If you go look at season 1 (on hulu) there are basically no outward signs of it. So much for consistency.

Molly, I'd love to see another 30something, but we've had Once And Again (which even had Miles) and I think Brothers And Sisters is close. Looking at Parenthood, it looks more like a family drama. 30something was more about the relationships among adults who happened to have kids..

Emmanuel said...

As the uncle of a high-functioning autistic kid, one thing that drives me crazy about the depiction of autism in TV and films is that Asperger's is often shown as the only form of high-functioning autism. I'd love it if Abed on Community would mention he was diagnosed as mildly autistic but not an Aspie.

Rachel said...

I too am looking forward to the show ... my own son Max is also 8 and just diagnosed .. same name and age as the boy in the show.. I heard that there is shock amongst the parents w/this diagnosis and this surprises me a little... especially amongst educated people since surely, the child didn't just awake with symptoms.. My own son has been receiving services since age 3 and symptoms of aspergers were noticeable even at that age but didn't yet know about aspergers... When we heard the DX it was more of an AHA moment than a -- WHAT! moment... That aside, I'm interested to see how the character is portrayed... I've heard he's bright .. but I'd like to see lovable, some anxiety and most importantly - the poor socialization skills.... That's what we most grapple with at this age.

Medrawt said...

I want to second that while I have a lot of affection for Bones, the portrayal of what, exactly, is up w/Brennan drives me nuts, and is probably the worst thing about the show. Early on, what was wrong with Brennan - and everyone not named Booth or Angela - was that the show seemed like it was created by writers who presumed that extremely intelligent academics are socially maladjusted as a matter of course. Sometimes it goes back there with Brennan, while at other times she seems like she might have something in the neighborhood of Asperger's, and other times not. Sometimes she seems most affected by the psychological scars of being abandoned by her family as a child, and sometimes not. Sometimes she's oblivious and ignorant of basic cliches about how human beings behave with each other to an extent that seems...let's say highly improbable for someone with a background in anthropology. She is or isn't whatever the writers need her to be for that scene or episode.

JanieJones said...

Alan, your article was wonderful! Congrats on the front page!

Saines hit the nail on the head regarding making the public aware and informed about Asperger's.
I agree with Shery in that it has to be done in the right way.
I have a close friend who has Asperger's. She is one of the most amazing people I know and am lucky to have her as one of my dear friends.

I am looking forward to Parenthood.

Speaking of armchair diagnosis of television character's, there is a character on Criminal Minds, Dr. Reid and there has been speculation that he has Asperger's. It's a procedural crime show so I don't think it will ever be addressed in a realistic way.
He does fit the parameter of having Asperger's. I think it's a pity when something like that goes to the wayside and is ignored.

Dave T said...

I haven't visited TWOP in a couple of years, but back then you couldn't throw a rock without hitting a thread where a fan was diagnosing their favorite character.

I haven’t gone there either lately, but I’m guessing they got tired of insisting every other character was gay (which at the time was the favored subject of speculation) and picked something else. But knowing that site, they probably hit Sheldon on both counts.

I have Asperger's and was so offended by the Community pilot in which several characters made fun of it by calling it "Ass Burgers."

That’s a fair point, but the characters who did that were smacked down for it.

Hannah Lee said...

Interesting article Alan.

I’m concerned, though, with the idea that every TV character who doesn’t have a cookie-cutter or average personality has to be labeled with some kind of diagnosis. (You weren't pushing that idea, I've just seen it whenever this topic comes up.)

In some cases, like Parenthood, having the diagnosis makes sense, since having the parents know why their son behaves as he does can give us storylines about them trying to connect with him and help him reach his full potential (which is what parenthood’s all about). And Jason Katims is a talented storyteller who can use the show to share some of his own personal experiences.

But, I’d rather have some characters, like Abed on Community, just be who they are and have the audience get to know them and enjoy them for who they are. Forcing a diagnosis on every non-standard character can take some of the fun and creativity out of things if writers/actors get too caught up in “getting things right”. I don’t want every tv show to play like a documentary and every character to be the poster child for some cause. Plus, it seems like once a character is labeled in some way, it gets difficult to have discussions about that individual character without some people who have real life experience with that diagnosis taking every comment personally and shutting down the give and take of the discussions.

I’m looking forward to Parenthood. It will be interesting to see how they handle the son’s diagnosis and the family’s dynamic going forward.

Bix said...

Lou H.:

What about when Bones accidentally starts that fight in a nightclub in one of the first few episodes? That was pretty clearly on the "Bones has Aspergers" side of the continuum.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Sometimes she's oblivious and ignorant of basic cliches about how human beings behave with each other to an extent that seems...let's say highly improbable for someone with a background in anthropology. She is or isn't whatever the writers need her to be for that scene or episode.

I would agree with this assessment (or would have back in the days when I still watched the show), by the way, particularly as it relates to Brennan's side gig writing bestselling mystery novels. I'm not saying an Aspie couldn't be a successful fiction writer, but the kinds of books we're told she writes (i.e., Kathy Reichs books) would seem to require a more innate understanding of human behavior than Brennan usually displays. It's a gag meant to pay homage to the show's roots, but one that only sometimes fits with the writing of the character.

medrawt said...

There was a very early episode where someone mentioned Hannibal Lecter and, as she always did in the first season, she said "I don't know what that means." I believed Temperance Brennan had never read a Thomas Harris book, nor seen one of the film adaptations. I could not believe, though, that a wealthy, successful young author in the criminal suspense genre had never been told about Thomas Harris, or his most famous character, particularly by, say, her publishers.

I'm aware the people behind the show have tipped their hat towards Asperger's, but honestly Bones is one character I prefer not to interpret that way, because my read on the evolving relationship between her and Booth is that they're changing each other in some pretty fundamental ways, which I find interesting and somewhat sweet if she's a prickly woman with a troubled psychological history, but I find somewhat troubling if she's supposed to have Asperger's, and only Booth of all her friends and lovers is magically special enough to melt her Aspie-ness. Of course, that's based on my subjective attitude towards what the show has portrayed, which (again) I think has been pretty inconsistent, but every time the show leans on the idea that Booth is helping Brennan become a more genuinely empathetic person (as opposed to a person who's learning more successful tools for how to navigate social interactions where people have certain expectations of her) I think the Asperger's slant gets uncomfortable. Of course, there was also a scene where Dr. Sweets demonstrated Brennan didn't really get basic facial expressions, so that's a pretty heavy thumb on the other side of the scales.

Geoff said...

I also have ASD symptoms lending towards a diagnosis of Asperger's, but I usually don't get very defensive or critical of portrayals on TV/Film (moreso with "geek" stereotypes being perpetuated than anything else).

I'd agree with Emmanuel in that if there should be greater awareness of anything, it's the diversity of those with autistic symptoms, and how they don't all fit under easy labels.

And that's a big part of my own devotion to autism awareness. While a lot of common symptoms can present, no two people are the same, no matter a similar diagnosis.

All of the characters speculated about may or may not be autistic at all, but it's probably better for a lot of people to consider them as such.

Also, why all the hate for McDonnell on Grey's? Maybe her behavior was too extreme for people to accept as Asperger's, but she certainly read as a person with high-functioning autism to me.

It's hard for me to say a character's portrayal isn't "real" because it's not what I've witnessed, simply because the autism spectrum has a large gap in people's behavior (though the Bones case seems to be inconsistent writing/writing flaws for the sake of plot, and that's just gonna make headaches and unfortunate implications for everyone).

I know I'm often mistaken for neurotypical by people who only see me sporadically and when I'm on my best behavior, rather than in a tense or aggravated mood and my bluntness is exposed to the world. Reading characters to "fit" a profile of Asperger's is usually as problematic as reading a patient's personality quirks as symptomatic of psychological disorder. Where does the disorder stop and the personality begin?

m said...

"Where does the disorder stop and the personality begin?"
I think it's as all personality. Is that not what others think, really?
It serves a function to identify certain shared personality traits as 'disorder': for people whose personalities are less like the expected norm, ideally a diagnosis can help them to find commonality with others who are similar and to learn ways of dealing with a world that is set up in ways more amenable to other personality types. But I think it's misleading to think of people 'having' Asperger's as this definite thing. It's just a useful description, much like the personality types on the Myers-Briggs or other classification systems.
I am repeatedly surprised when this seems not to be how most others view various DSM diagnoses.
Is my point of view even offensive to people, as seeming to undervalue the experience that the diagnosis names?