Why Do We Want Autistic Kids to Have Superpowers?

By Charlie Jane Anders | February 1, 2012 11:13 am

Charlie Jane Anders is the managing editor of io9.com. Read her novelette Six Months, Three Days here.

Last week saw the debut of Touch, Kiefer Sutherland’s show about a father whose non-neurotypical son turns out to be able to predict future events. This comes on the heels of Alphas, which also gave us Gary, another person who appears to be on the autism spectrum but who has the ability to see hidden energies. And the notion of autistic people as savants or special fixers has been around forever.

Why do we create these fantasies about autistic people having superpowers? We talked to a few experts to try and find out.

In Touch, Sutherland plays Martin Bohm, a man whose wife was killed on 9/11. His “emotionally challenged” son Jake is mute, unable to connect with others, and “shows little emotion.” Jake is obsessed with numbers and discarded cellphones—and then we discover, via Danny Glover’s expert, that Jake can see the threads of invisible energy that bind the entire world together. And Jake sees where they’re broken by our crazy modern world, and needs his dad’s help to fix them.

So basically, it’s New Age spirituality rolled in with “autistic savant” fantasies. Already, it’s gotten some criticism. ThinkProgress’ Alyssa Rosenberg referred to the show as creating “a magical alternative to autism.” Meanwhile, Ellen Seidman at Love That Max was happy to see a special-needs kid on television, but also worried the show would “take the focus away from the amazing reality of our kids.” And she thought maybe some people would think autistic kids really could predict the future. And that could be bad.

Over at the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism blog, Shannon Rosa talks to Joanne Lara, an autism and special-education expert who consulted on Touch. Among other things, she reveals that the show explicitly said that Jake was autistic at one point, but then that scene was reshot and all references to autism were removed. Also, no autistic people were consulted in the creation of the character.

And finally, Lara also says that it’s not just about the dad, Martin, but that the kid is the real focus, and his explorations are what matter in the show. He’s as much the protagonist as his father. And that seems to be a huge question that people are asking about this show — is Jake really a protagonist, or is he just a vehicle in his father’s journey of self-discovery and personal growth?

The danger here is that the autistic character could be akin to the “magical negro” or the “noble savage” in popular culture, says Steve Silberman, a frequent contributor to Wired who’s writing a book about autism to be published in 2013. Silberman explains that these are

characters that were significantly disabled in a social sense, but who had a kind of innocence and purity that enabled them to play their central role in the narrative: that of redeeming the hero, who wasn’t disabled and was only temporarily an outcast. Those characters usually faded offscreen when the hero attained his rightfully high status in society; they were only valuable for what they could render unto the mainstream characters—very much like the gay “best friend” in a million TV shows who coaches the female lead on her romantic problems but never has a sex life of his own (“gross!”), or the fat girl who’s “like a sister” to the geeky-but-hot male lead.

Adds Rosa, “I like Gary in Alphas, damn it. He’s happy, functional [and] gets the support he needs. He told his mom to back off. [And he's] OK with being autistic.”

So why do we want autistic people to have superpowers? I talked to Rosa, and she says that there are two conflicting things at work. We want autistic people to want to be like us, like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. And secondly, we’re “obsessed with exceptionalism,” says Rosa. “People can’t handle the fact that some people are just different without having something fabulously acceptable as balance, because otherwise we’d just have to accept autistic people on their own terms, and that’s hard and challenging and takes patience and work.”

Why do we want autistic kids to have superpowers?Partly, it’s because we want any disability to be countered by a contrasting superpower, says Carol Greenburg, a special needs consultant and the East Coast director of the Autism Women’s Network, who’s been diagnosed as autistic herself. She explains, “The difficulties that can come along with autism are undeniable, but I see neither my life, nor my minimally verbal son’s life as unrelentingly tragic simply because of our communication impairments. But if you really do believe, as I think the dominant culture implies, that humans are the sum of their language, then you damn well want the universe to balance out and compensate for the lack of it, and all that goes along with it. Reality usually doesn’t provide that compensation, but fiction, especially fiction in this genre, can.”

Says Silberman, it all goes back to the “autistic savant” notion, which is what got the mainstream media interested in autism in the first place:

The first autistic person that most people can remember seeing was Raymond Babbitt, a savant played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 film Rain Man. His ability to count the number of toothpicks dropped by a busy waitress at a glance was like a very humble form of superpower—an enhanced cognitive ability that didn’t have to be “super” to be real. Oliver Sacks’ memorable portrait of the “calculating twins” in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat built on the interest in autism sparked by Rain Man, and established the stereotype in popular culture of autistic people as secretly-super-abled disabled people. This stereotype, like most stereotypes, does an injustice to most people in the stereotyped category—what if you can’t calculate prime numbers in your head, and instead face poverty because many firms don’t want to hire even skilled employees who aren’t good at navigating social hierarchies?—but it has also succeeded in bringing a vast amount of media attention to what was once considered an extremely rare disorder.

Greenburg says she’s not sure whether the rise of superpowered autistic people in mass media will be good for the autism community or not. “That knowledge would require superpowers that would allow allow me to see into the future, powers of which I am sadly bereft.” But she adds that she’s inclined to “support all storytelling that has anything good to say about autistic people’s potential to make a positive difference in the world.”

Silberman, meanwhile, says he hopes we’ll eventually stop seeing all autistic people as “Rain Man-style savants.” And that we’ll recognize that people on the autism spectrum are all around us, and “always have been, whether they had or needed a diagnosis or not.” For her part, Rosa hopes Touch busts, rather than perpetrates, stereotypes about autism.

io9logoThis post originally appeared on io9.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain
MORE ABOUT: autism, savants, Touch, TV
  • http://www.gamesandtoysforautisticchildren.com JJ

    Thanks for the post. You have a great point that in fiction there’s always some magical ability that comes with a condition, while in real life that may or may not be the case. I don’t know if there’s a way to get around this since, after all, it is a TV show and it needs a hook to attract readers. But I do hope that over time they will bring forth some real life autism issues, kind of like Glee has with teenage pregnancy and other similar shows.

  • Em

    Good point. However, there actually are autistic individuals with special gifts. I have a son who takes pain away. Seriously. I discovered this when going through a bad illness, and he has done it many times since then for a few other people as well.

    Perhaps part of the reason we “invent” these stories is that deep down we sense the possibility. The human brain is capable of so much more than we even know. People whose brains are wired and function differently may be able to access parts of it that we can’t. Yes, there is a psychological need to “invent” these stories but there are many real-world examples out there that suggest something else is going on here. I rarely tell people about my son’s gift but I am hoping others might see this and chime in with their own stories.

  • http://asd2mom.blogspot.com Elise Ronan (@RaisingASDKids)

    I think its alot simpler than everyone is making out. People need autistics to have superpowers because there has to be a reason…there has to be some compensation for the loss of “normalcy.” There has to be a payoff for a child not being able to talk, toilet train or lead a typical life. Its how those outside of the autism community deal with our realities.

  • Aspie Mom

    I disagree with this article. Everyone has something special about them, many just don’t see it or it goes untouched. They have proven that if you lost the sense of sight or sound others will become more sensitive. In the autistic, they have proven some of their senses are hightened and this creates their own imbalance with the world. If something is off, we compensate. I have seen my own son learn to cope with the world in his. Many “normal” people still refuse to do that. There is untapped potential in everyone and in everyone’s mind. To put everyone in the sterotype of “normal” or put them in a sterotype of “retarded” is wrong. And this is one person’s “opinion” who is not an “expert” in Autism.

  • Anne

    Very interesting discussion. I think the solution is to have austic people write their own stories, rather than having other people write their stories for them. Then the characters will be authentic, rather than a projection of how society wishes autistic people would be.

  • AG

    Hollywood underdog stories. Scare bullies off.

  • http://www.cerebralwriter.com Lisa

    When I saw ads for TOUCH, I got excited, hoping it would work to humanize autistic people, but the mystical properties to the show thoroughly turned me off. The producers turned autism into a joke, and that’s just sad.

  • http://www.wantapeanut.com Jennie B

    This is a tough one, because ultimately the show needs to be entertaining, and it was. (Though I suspect it isn’t going to hold up over time.) There are plenty of shows about NT people with special powers, so why not have a person with autism have special powers? (The social worker in the show did actually use the word “autistic” at one point.)

    On the other hand, we don’t have enough accurate portrayals of people with autism to counter the ones with hidden powers. Agree with Anne that it would be great to see stories written by autistic people themselves.

    As the parent of a non-verbal child with autism, I do spend a lot of time wondering what he is thinking about and how he sees the world. With all his daily struggles to get through a complicated and overwhelming world, and people who underestimate what he can do, these stories are fantasies where we can say “see – he’s smarter than the rest of you.” There are stories like this everywhere. But of course, I know my son doesn’t need to have special powers to be a smart, wonderful person exactly who he is.

  • Lea

    Amen Elise Ronan! You said exactly what I was going to.

  • Tracy

    We keep hoping that our don with autism will develop some useful special talent or interest or something so that he has a chance to be self sufficient and self supporting one day. We had Jim in our forties and our greatest concern is what will happen up him when we are gone. So if he developed a superpower that would be awesome. But right now we’re focusing on ordinary life skills.

  • Laura

    I have two sons who are on the autism spectrum. My older son is severely autistic, has limited (but growing) verbal communication skills, and is generally considered to be relatively low-functioning. He has no “splinter skills” or “savant skills” as far as we can see. My younger son has an Asperger’s diagnosis, is very verbal and high-functioning, though he also has significant issues with social skills and some academics. But he has an amazing memory for details, dates, and the like; can perform calendar calculation (you tell him a date, and he can tell you what day of the week it will be); can multiply large numbers in his head; has perfect pitch and is very accomplished at the piano. So I have a hard time seeing the splinter skill as “compensatory.”

    Ever since my older son was diagnosed, I absolutely cringe at Rain Man references. You may recall that in the toothpick-counting scene, the Tom Cruise character’s perception of his brother completely changes. Suddenly, he’s not just a middle-aged burden with a really rigid TV-watching schedule and intense preferences in underwear. Suddenly, he sees that Raymond has a skill that is useful, that he has something to contribute. And I see this pattern over and over in media portrayals of the person with autism. Here’s a person who is uncommunicative and isolated, often with behaviors that are painful to watch, a person who seemingly has no way to connect with the rest of us. But wait! He can play Mozart by ear! He can draw the entire London Underground map from memory! He can count cards in a casino! NOW suddenly he’s worth a second look and worth getting to know. Now the typical person has a way of connecting with the person with autism. In reality, connecting with many people with autism can be difficult, but it is intensely worthwhile for everyone involved. No superpowers required.

  • http://latedx.wordpress.com Shanti

    @Anne: Give it about a year and a half if you really want to see how an autistic author takes on savant ability. Although I never refer to it as that and I don’t like to make things obvious. It’s got more to do with synaesthesia and a special relationship with colours because of it.

    As someone with autism who has only ever had a natural ability at artistic skills and word puzzles I’m sort of on the fence about savantism or splinter skills, as they are sometimes called.

    Through my mimicry of certain author’s styles I learnt how to write. I’ve been struggling with reading and writing all my life even after all the English remedial classes. Now I’m trying to write my own novel that will hopefully give people a glimpse into the everyday experience of an autistic. Those things the experts can only guess through observation and research studies.

    My skills to me personally are compensation for my lack of interpersonal skills, severe sensory processing issues and even basic skills that I still haven’t got the hang of. To me they offer me comfort. Sometimes savants can feel me with hope or with dread.
    But on those really stressful days it’s just good to know I have some talents. Not savantism by any means, unless you count barely a second passing in between looking for words on a find-a-word puzzle, which helps me block out distressing sensory information.

    As for Touch…I was a bit disappointed. One, because they could say Jake had special needs more than being autistic which must just be such a horrible thing to call a child. There’s still a stigma attached to autism that says we are these empty vessels with no emotion and all we care about doing are those silly purposeless rituals. Those silly purposeless rituals are actually quite calming but there is more to us than them.
    It just made me think of Indigo Children which people believe in. A lot of people actually believe autistic people can be psychic. And everything being connected it was just illogical to me. Maybe I’m just too literal and boring for the show.

    I think the math genius stereotype has been done to death too. Yeah it exists but some of us are actually quite talented artists too.

  • vel

    parents want to imagine their children are something “special” and not the same children we once often called “mentally retarded”. I would have probably be classificed as someone with Asperger’s if autism were the catchphrase back in the early 70s. I was just seen as a bit odd then, and not particularly special. If you are intelligent you can compensate for being not innately interested in being social, autistic or not.

  • vel

    oh and Em? if this is so true that your son has magic powers, take him to a veteran’s hospital. Or is that a bit too much for you to keep your delusion?

  • Brian Too

    Why do we create these fantasies about autistic people having superpowers?

    It’s all about hope. To lose hope is a terrible thing. Therefore autistic superpowers give us hope for those who lack something in their makeup. No one really wants to say “that child is permanently impaired and will lead a life defined by their limitations.”

    Fortunately I don’t think this is entirely delusional. The brain is wonderfully adapable and most children can be reached. It may take a while but if you find what makes a child tick, what motivates them, they can flourish. However in most cases this is not a superpower per se.

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