I wrote an email today. it took several hours and ate many head spoons, but hopefully it makes sense and shows the powers that be an alternative perspective. maybe they'll even do something about it...
Dear BBC Newswatch,
I am a 24 year old autistic woman who enjoys watching documentaries. because of this, I have watched the majority of documentaries featuring this condition that have been broadcast in the last decade. I have noticed a certain lack of variety in the portrayal of the autistic community in these programmes, and there are several potentially harmful stereotypes perpetuated that I would like to bring to your attention, as well as some underepresented groups
Firstly, gender. While I am aware that around 80% of those with an autistic spectrum diagnosis are male (although many in the neurodiversity movement believe this is due to diagnostic bias) I can only remember seeing 1 autistic female portrayed on TV. not only that, but she wasn't even one of the featured autistics. the documentary team followed 3 adolescent autistic BOYS as they tackled the issues of growing up and one of them went on one or two dates with a girl, who happened to also be on the spectrum.
the vast majority of autistics featured in documentaries are children. thinking back over the programmes I've seen, I can't remember seeing any autistics older than the typical university age. while I do understand that diagnosis is much easier with children, there are many people living with an autistic diagnosis and identity in their 30s, 40s and beyond. a more varied portrayal with respect to age would help tackle the steriotype of autism as a disorder primarily affecting children far better than the familiar voice-over telling us that "autism is a life long, developmental disability". seeing positive but realistic portrayal of adults on the spectrum would also reassure parents of autistic children who, both in documentaries and real life, often express concerns for their children's uncertain future.
when adolescent or university aged boys are shown, they are usually either "low functioning" individuals intended to inspire pity or highly intelligent geeks, studying maths, science or computers. this reinforces stereotypes both in the minds of the young autistic community and in society generally. I have heard a lot of people (tragically both on and off the autistic spectrum) express the view that it is ok to be autistic, but only because we have "special skills" in these areas. this view is damaging to autistics who don't fulfil the stereotype, by implying that they are somehow failing at being acceptably autistic, as well as those who do, by implying that their intelligence and hard work are just a symptom of their autism.
there is also a strong focus on the ways in which parents are affected by having autistic children, to the exclusion of the experience of autistics. this is unfortunately reflected in the attitude of many larger autistic organisations towards autistic people who attempt to self advocate. further, by encouraging the view of autism as the demon responsible for parents misery, you are denying a truth that autistic people know instinctively; autism is not separable from the autistic person. knowing this, while hearing that autism is responsible for all the problems our family might be experiencing, can be very damaging to a young autistic, preventing them from accepting their diagnosis and themselves for years.
in addition to all this, there are many other minority groups not represented in these programmes, such as ethnic minorities and sexual minorities. while I cannot comment on the specific experience of black autistics (as a white person) I am a neurodiverse queer. intersectionality (where someone belongs to more than one minority group) often leads to feelings of isolation far more acute than those who belong to a single minority group. I have met several autistics (and other disabled people) who's sexuality was dismissed because society views us as inherently non sexual and unable to know our own minds (possibly, in the case of autism, this is linked to the practise of focussing on children in the media, which infantalises everyone on the spectrum). in addition to this, many LGBT spaces and events are not autism friendly and the negative views present in society at large are often reflected in the LGBT community.
I understand that this issue is not unique to the BBC, and will be contacting the other channels in due course. I also appreciate that it is difficult for the (I'm assuming) majority NT (neurotypical) programme makers to see where they may be reinforcing stereotypes, and I'm grateful that our British TV seems to take a more progressive view than our US counterparts. however, there is definitely room for improvement. I have a few suggestions for future documentaries.
1. A documentary about autistic parents (as opposed to parents of autistic children). there are a lot of members of the apsies for freedom forums who are raising children of various neurotypes, often in neurologically mixed marriages (most commonly NT/HFA or NT/Aspergers) which presents a unique and interesting set of challenges (negotiating different communication styles within a couple, for example). while parents don't have favourites, it is interesting to note that autistic parents seem to see a lot of their younger selves in their autistic kids. this could be part of a larger series on different parenting challenges (for example, an episode on polyamourous families could explore similar communication difficulties between parents)
2. as a way to introduce the neurodiversity movement, a documentary team could follow several autistics, but focus on their opinion of the diagnosis, rather than the practical issues. the team could look at the way a recently diagnosed autistic is affected by their families views, and contrast that with an autistic self advocate (who could probably describe their own journey towards self acceptance). they could also compare the views of those diagnosed in very early childhood to those diagnosed much later.
I hope to hear from you soon,