Activate4Autism: Hear Our Spectrum of Voices

This Comic Artist Is Crushing Autism Stereotypes With a ‘Spectrum of Voices’

Rebecca Burgess released “Understanding the Spectrum” last year during Autism Acceptance Week and it went viral when autistic people, parents and teachers discovered her comic and felt it helped them explain the autism spectrum in a more accurate way.

Burgess was contacted by Geek Club Books to lend her talent to their #Activate4Autism movement with “Hear Our Spectrum of Voices,” the next generation of her comic to include other autistic  voices. She says:

“People are hugely misinformed, and to be able to build upon my first comic that breaks myths and stereotypes is so rewarding. It was so amazing to be able to incorporate the quotes from other autistic advocates. This will really help people have a deeper understanding about the autism experience.

I was so happy to be a part of #Activate4Autism and help to inform people about autism through comics! I hope others will contribute and share their own stories.”

Discover more and download a PDF of the comic at #Activate4Autism.



The Problem With How Hollywood Tries to 'Accurately' Portray Autistic Characters

Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Elizabeth Cassidy, The Mighty’s News Intern, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway. 

A recent study published in Psychiatry Research showed that many portrayals of autism in Hollywood align “unrealistically well” with diagnostic criteria in the DSM-5, a manual doctors use to diagnose mental disorders and conditions. The study said:

The large majority of the characters evaluated obtained a very high score against DSM-5 criteria for ASD. Even the lowest scoring character scored at 50% of the possible total in both the social communication and restricted repetitive behaviour domains. This is in line with Garner et al. study (2015) on ASD-characters in film where they reported “very high levels” to “extreme levels” of autism related [characteristics]. This raises the question of whether meeting all diagnostic criteria (seven portrayals scored at the maximum possible, indicating that every characteristic used in diagnosis was apparent in that portrayal) can be described as “accurate.”

“The characters portrayed on screen might be better described as ‘archetypal’ in relation to diagnostic criteria,” the study’s authors wrote. “This could in itself lead to difficulty if people form a stereotypical view of persons with ASD.”

The autism spectrum is incredibly broad, but Hollywood’s portrayal is specific. By portraying a small section of the spectrum, Hollywood enforces stereotypes about autistic people.

“A single film or TV series cannot capture the richness and variety of experience that resides within the autism spectrum,” the study’s authors wrote. “Thus we conclude that for portrayals of ASD on screen to have true value in developing public understanding of the condition, a larger and more varied number of autistic characters need to be included in the cultural canon.”

Many shows have a character who is verbal, has an intense interest in a certain subject, and displays genius-like skills or traits mostly associated with savant syndrome.

According to the National Institute of Health, people with savant syndrome have exceptional ability in a certain skill like music or mathematics while also having an intellectual disability. It only affects about 10 percent of autistic individuals.

Dr. Shaun Murphy, an autistic character played by Freddie Highmore (who isn’t autistic) in “The Good Doctor,” has savant syndrome.

“Most people I’ve met who don’t have a personal connection to someone with autism think they’re all geniuses, and I believe that is largely due to how autism is portrayed in the media,” Hillary LaFever-Ceja, a member of The Mighty’s autism community, wrote on Facebook. “In reality, most autistic people can’t count cards or understand quantum physics, but they still deserve respect and support.”

The representation of economic status and demographics of the characters is also limited.

Characters tend to be middle- to upper-class white males. Yes, ASD is more likely to affect boys than girls, but it can affect all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

A study published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, showed the increased costs associated with caring for a child on the spectrum. Additional costs for children on the spectrum surmounted to over $17,000 per year for services that included health care, school systems and related therapies.

It is unfair for Hollywood to mainly portray families who don’t seem to be struggling to pay for the added expenses, and characters who are primarily white males would have people believing autism doesn’t affect other races or females.

Hollywood should also hire autistic actors. Most portrayals are done by actors who are not on the spectrum or are considered “neurotypical.” Lack of diversity in casting is nothing new and has been a point brought up repeatedly in the disability community. Autistic actors would add authenticity to their roles and could consult with the writers to help with the accuracy of the portrayal.

While Robia Rashid, creator of the show “Atypical,” did talk to people on the spectrum, an autistic individual wasn’t on staff to read the scripts. They did employ an autism researcher and “expert,” but no matter how much of an expert someone is, nothing can equate to someone who is actually autistic. They’re the ones who live with ASD and truly know what it’s like. Shows like “Atypical” add a human element to a diagnosis that people might not otherwise encounter. Why not talk to the humans who live on the spectrum and can add an authentic human element to the storyline? Don’t get rid of the expert, just hire someone on the spectrum in addition.

David Shore, executive producer of “The Good Doctor,” said they consulted people on the spectrum for the show. But he also said the character is “not there to represent autism, he’s there to represent Dr. Shaun Murphy.” While each character will be unique, just like each person on the spectrum is unique, to say someone in the media who has autism doesn’t represent autism is wrong.

Media in itself is representation, and they should take into account how they are representing autism. As the study first mentioned said, representations of autism can lead to stereotypes. Since there aren’t a lot of shows out there portraying autism, each show that does is adding to people’s understanding of it.

While portraying autism has become more popular with shows like “The Good Doctor” and “Atypical,” Hollywood can do a better job of representing those on the spectrum, no matter how broad. Include more characters who are nonverbal and don’t have genius-like abilities, and hire autistic people for cast and crew.

Hollywood can start with adding characters to shows like “Atypical.” Just because a show has one main character on the spectrum doesn’t mean it has to be the only main character.

ABC Picks Up 'The Good Doctor' for a Full Season

On Tuesday, after just two episodes of its new fall medical drama, ABC announced it will pick up “The Good Doctor”  for a full season.

The show tells the story of Dr. Shaun Murphy, played by neurotypical actor Freddie Highmore, a surgeon who is on the autism spectrum. Murphy also has savant syndrome — a rare condition characterized by an extraordinary ability, such as mathematics or, in Murphy’s case, medicine.

Speaking on a panel, the show’s executive producer, David Shore explained the steps the show took to portray autism. “We saw a lot of doctors, we consulted with people, we’ve got people on the spectrum who we’re working with,” Shore said, according to Deadline. “But he is a specific character, he’s not there to represent autism, he’s there to represent Dr. Shaun Murphy.”

According to Entertainment Weekly, “The Good Doctor” premiered to an audience of 16.9 viewers. The show has received mixed reviews within the autism community since it was first announced.

“The Good Doctor” airs Mondays at 10 pm ET on ABC.

Twin boys playing in the tide at the beach.

3 Reasons Why I Tell Strangers My Son Is on the Autism Spectrum

My son, Julian, was diagnosed with autism about six months ago. I wasn’t shocked when he received the diagnosis. Julian is completely nonverbal, walks on his toes and doesn’t have the best eye contact.

At first, it felt odd telling complete strangers about Julian’s condition. I’ve always known that spreading awareness was important, but it felt different now that it was my baby. I didn’t want to wear a shirt with his diagnosis on it. I didn’t want people to judge him before they even got to know him.

But as time has passed, and new situations have arisen, that feeling  has changed. Here’s why:

1. Julian doesn’t “look autistic.”

I’ve heard that comment several times during the past few months. I’m guessing it means he doesn’t look like he has a disability. Julian looks like a typically developing 4-year-old. He walks, runs, laughs and plays.

We live a couple blocks from the beach and Julian loves crawling in the surf with his twin brother, Dominic. Every so often, another child visiting the beach will approach Julian to play. I don’t get involved. I simply watch to see how it all plays out.

Most of the time, he will simply ignore the other child. This makes Julian appear rude and inevitably hurts the child’s feelings. Occasionally, he’ll engage to play. But there’s a couple barriers to overcome: he doesn’t talk and he doesn’t acknowledge what the other kid is saying. This also makes Julian appear rude. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but kids don’t like it when other kids are rude to them. They always run and tell mom.

That’s my cue!

The standard protocol for a mom in this situation is to tell her kid to play nicely, or something to that effect. That’s obviously not going to work in Julian’s case. Instead, I go straight to the other mom. I let her know he has autism. I’ve found that it eases the tension and promotes a more accepting environment. It even creates a dialogue that wouldn’t have otherwise been started.


2. I used to be “that mom.”

Until a couple of years ago, if I saw an older child “being bad” or “having a tantrum,” autism probably wouldn’t have crossed my mind. I honestly would’ve thought the child needed to be disciplined. None of my friends had children with autism. I simply wasn’t as aware or as informed as I am now.

So I tell others about Julian’s diagnosis — not for sympathy or attention, I simply want to add a drop of autism into their brain soup. So the next time they see an older kid “having a tantrum,” they might have a different perspective or view of the situation. Then they might offer a kind smile, instead of a disapproving glare.

3. Julian is getting older.

Julian has always “visited” other groups of beach-goers. We live at a quiet neighborhood beach, mostly frequented by locals. He would walk among them while they talked. He might even sit in their chair or play with a toy. Nobody ever minded. They would always dote over how adorable he was. That won’t be the case for long.

As Julian continues to grow at a typical rate, his speech and cognitive development is progressing at a much slower pace. Behaviors that used to be tolerated or seen as “cute,” will quickly become viewed as inappropriate and annoying.

Most people aren’t mean. We simply have societal norms — an unwritten rule book — that everyone is expected to follow. When people like Julian deviate from those norms, they are viewed as rude, intrusive, or unmannerly…unless people know they have a disability. And how would they know that if I don’t tell them?

Now that I’ve started opening up to complete strangers about Julian’s autism diagnosis, I’ve found that many people are interested in learning more about the condition. Some even have friends or family members on the spectrum. There have even been a few people who have given me advice or tips because, they themselves, have been in my shoes.

What are your thoughts on spreading awareness? Do you talk about your child’s disability to strangers? Have you found it helpful?

Follow this Journey at Not an Autism Mom

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Galaxy-themed colorful art of a woman.

What My Autism Has Given Me

My disability is what makes me, me. It is like an invisible cloud all around me. This makes understanding people hard and social activity frightening. It is a bear that chews my confidence towards myself and others into little pieces the size of fireflies in a bear’s paw. Other days it is the firefly, guiding me in the dark and showing me ideas where others see nothing. It is also a hungry monster, wanting to be fed by simulations, electricity, and moving pictures that hold no value. Yet at the same time it can be a hungry scholar, wishing to devour all the knowledge that books possess and learn as much as possible.

My disability is an anxious warrior, longing for negative conflict while other times it is a monk, looking for nothing but peace within solitude. Sometimes my disability is a subject of ridicule, for being strange and unsettling to those who do not understand. Other times it is admired by many for what it helps me to create. My autism makes things everyday teenagers do seem impossible, as I do the incredible through art in their eyes. It gives me the ability to see through time, but makes me long to live in the past.

My “Special Gift” is also a difficult one to handle; I have both learned much and lost many things due to it. Lost is the sense of normalcy from a young age; gained is an entire universe of my own design, my ability to take words and create something rare and beautiful. Those without imagination, however, sometimes find my worlds built upon words to be “pointless” and “childish” and even “worthless.” My autism makes interacting with these kinds of people unpleasant for both parties involved. My passion for what the people my age generally enjoy is a mere ember, but for the many worlds I create, it is a roaring inferno of joy and passion.

My autism has drawn me to dark and frightening things, but now in this day it has led me to history and to people who respect my gifts. It has taken much courage to finally say that I would not be who I am today without my precious gift of being unique.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock image by Quantiumpix.

How Green Day's Music Helps Me in My Life With Autism

I’m in my 20s, have autism and I’ve experienced a lot of things in my life. I love rock music. I’m a big fan of the band Green Day. I hope to see them in concert one day. I admire Billie Joe Armstrong and the way he expresses his feelings when he sings Green Day’s music.

I can relate their music to my own experiences with autism. I’ll start with “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)”. I’ve had to move on from some jobs and even high school, and have found some of them to be good and bad times at the same time. I think of this song as I had some good times in high school, but it ended badly. One of my jobs in a warehouse had good times but ended badly. Same thing with the job after the warehouse.

Their song “Wake Me Up When September Ends” reminds me of the time I found a long lost half-sister I never knew about. We met, but then she stopped talking to me the day after Christmas of 2011 after I thought we started to love each other as siblings. She stopped talking to me due to personal issues that weren’t my fault. I felt like she died and isn’t coming back, as she still won’t talk to me. I think of my experience as “Wake Me Up When December Ends” as it still affects me to this day. I never got over it.

The last song that relates to my experiences with autism is “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” I feel like I’ve walked alone in a lot of my experiences with autism, just as it’s sung in that song. I feel alone a lot when I go through life, as I don’t have a girlfriend and don’t always feel my friends are there.

I think many of you with autism love a musical act whose songs relate to your life experiences. Try not to let the tough times get you down. Admire your favorite artists and hold on to their words, no matter what.

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