Autism is in the media a lot at the moment and I felt that I needed to write about my viewpoint of autism in the media. I think there's a lot of points to cover so I'm creating a series. You may have read my reaction to the recent viral blue cup in my post But What About My Child? and this is sort of an exploration of how autism is presented by the media and the positive and negative effects it has.
Like most people, my first experience of autism in the media was Rain Man. If you are too young to remember Rain Man, it was a film starring Tom Cruise looking after his severely autistic brother, played by Dustin Hoffman, who had extreme abilities and could memorise the Yellow Pages and count a load of matches that fell on the floor in seconds. That really shaped my opinion of what autism was. This was furthered by various documentaries on autistic savants. The effect of these portrayals can still be felt today as most parents of autistic children will at some point be asked 'what is his/her special talent'. I tell people that my daughter's is climbing and then mention the last time I found her on the roof of a building. But truth be told, autistic savants are a very rare part of the spectrum. Most autistic people do not have a special talent. A special interest, yes, and they may be able to talk to you for hours about Minecraft or Thomas the Tank Engine or the solar system or Kelly Clarkson, but this is the result of intense focus on a subject, not an almost supernatural ability.
The other problem with the Rain Man effect, was that it has become a by-word to refer to someone who can recount statistics or shows a slight autistic tendency. And it's very rarely in positive context.
The next mention of autism in the media that sticks in my mind was one of the Extreme Makeover Home Edition shows. There was a family with several autistic children, and it was the first time I was introduced to the concept of a spectrum. The children varied on the spectrum from non verbal to Aspergers, as I recall. It was the first time I was aware there was variety within autism.
After that, I can't really remember having much awareness of autism in the media. It was there I suppose but not something that held my attention. I didn't become expose to autism until I found myself facing it within my own family. And it turned out to be something completely different to what I had expected. And nothing like Rain Man.