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Robots and Lawyers: What Being ‘On the Spectrum’ Really Means

In this final column, I want to have a look at a few examples of some stories on screen and in literature that seem to play into stereotypes about autism only to subvert or otherwise complicate them in interesting ways. I will mainly draw on the opening episode of the aforementioned Netflix series, and the first book in the wonderful The Murderbot Diaries series written by neurodivergent author Martha Wells.

The first season of the new Netflix K-drama Extraordinary Attorney Woo is looking to be a success. The show follows an autistic lawyer as she navigates the challenges that come from being on the spectrum, while also being competent at her job. The show has been somewhat criticised for ‘infantilising’ the main character, but in my view, judging solely by the first episode, to say this misses the point.

In this final column, I want to have a look at a few examples of some stories on screen and in literature that seem to play into stereotypes about autism only to subvert or otherwise complicate them in interesting ways. I will mainly draw on the opening episode of the aforementioned Netflix series, and the first book in the wonderful The Murderbot Diaries series written by neurodivergent author Martha Wells.

Extraordinary Attorney Woo stumbles only in the first few minutes, when the title character calls herself an ‘autistic genius’—a stereotype I have written about before in this Farrago column. However, unlike many autistic characters shoved neatly into the ‘genius savant’ type, Woo Young-Woo is depicted with all the usual skill and trait imbalances that are often exhibited by autistic people. She is a gifted lawyer with an encyclopaedic knowledge of legislature, yet she cannot get through a revolving door without practice and encouragement. At first, she is unable to represent her clients in court, instead experiencing shutdown and sensory overload; she does not overcome this, but she nevertheless finds the ability to speak well in court, albeit with some visible oddities. There is a scene before her first day where her father is reminding her not to bring up topics inappropriate for the workplace. Young-Woo is interested in sperm whales and finds it very difficult to avoid info-dumping about them, to the extent that she tells her boss many facts about the mammals before remembering her father’s advice.

This sort of dissonance between aspects of our functioning is a common occurrence in people with autism. Many are good at some things while being terrible at others, a fact which often confuses friends and family not used to such things. After all, they’re so smart—why all of a sudden can’t they complete a simple task? How come they can’t do up their shoelaces properly? These are common questions, and it is one of the perils of being a good masker: being able to pass as neurotypical or socially normative. Autistic people who possess a high IQ and have low support needs are often good maskers, hiding the ways in which they are still like a child. Woo Young-Woo is one of the few representations I have seen of both sides of autism, and it is why I don’t believe the show to be infantilising its protagonist. The childish qualities of the character are perhaps exaggerated, but in the name of good TV, I think such a thing can be forgiven. If the character were a good masker, it would be harder for audiences to understand the impact her condition has and therefore actually diminishes her achievements as a lawyer—she is just an ordinary woman, if a bit odd. Seeing the oddity of her, and the ways in which she struggles to function as a ‘regular’ member of society, makes her legal prowess all the more impressive for how it stands in contrast to the struggles she has with other aspects of her disability.

It is also true that, unless we are made of stone, children are very easy to identify with. Infantilisation was a word I saw thrown around in relation to the Netflix series Love on the Spectrum, as well. This, however, is a documentary-style show featuring real autistic people looking for love. There was not much discussion of it for the first two seasons, as they took place in Australia, with most of the participants being located in Sydney.

The most recent season of the show, however, took place in America, and with this added exposure, it began to come under fire for how it portrayed autistic people. Some viewers believed the show presented a very narrow range of presentations; others pointed out the fact that the voiceovers used in the episodes portrayed the show’s participants as childish or immature. As I have already discussed, this is not inherently a bad thing, and I think in this case, it may have helped viewers to identify more with the participants. I also think that having good maskers on the show, those who you wouldn’t guess were autistic from a brief acquaintance, would not make for as interesting TV.

However, there was one person on the show, Kaelynn Partlow, who I felt presented much more subtly than the rest. She is a blogger who writes about autism and has commented that despite the critiques of infantilisation, she was happy with how she came across on the show.

While I do think it’s important to showcase a wide range of autistic presentations, particularly when the show in question is reality television, I don’t think it is necessarily a condescending or patronising choice to present the show with a somewhat whimsical or child-like tone. There are other potential issues: I suspect that the editing may have misled people about some aspects of the dating experience for autistics, but overall, it is giving exposure to autistic people. While they could certainly improve, this is a good start. It is also important to remember to listen to the autistic community because any problems that exist in your representation can be fixed by doing so. Although it’s preferable to do this before release, learning on the job is fine too, as seen in the case of Love on the Spectrum, whose creators continue to listen to autistic people to improve their show.

Before I finish, I would like to comment briefly on another potential stereotype—the autistic person as unfeeling robot. Martha Wells’ sci-fi series The Murderbot Diaries takes this to the logical extreme—the main character, although coded autistic/neurodivergent, is, in fact, a robot. But Wells is neurodivergent herself—though she has not used any specific label—and she presents an extremely sympathetic portrait of this robot, subverting the stereotype. “Murderbot”, as it calls itself (its real name is simply SecUnit), is a very sensitive being and constantly needs to recharge its batteries, both literally and figuratively, after spending too much time with humans. It dislikes showing its face, instead staying hidden behind an opaque mask whenever possible; the group it has been assigned to is “restful to be around, as long as they didn’t try to… interact with me in any way” (30).

While at first Murderbot is very distanced and unemotional, it forms something like a bond with the group it has been assigned to protect, even referring to their leader, Dr Mensah, as “my favourite human” (149). In a life and death situation, it risks itself to save them. This shows that these robots—or autistic people, to take up the analogy once again—actually can and do have feelings. In the case of this particular robot, it may be that it has learned a kind of emotional intelligence by watching hours and hours of television—what it refers to as “serials”. For the most part, the humans also treat Murderbot with a great deal of respect: they worry about it when it is in danger, they make sure to treat it the same as they would a human being; in fact, they seem to believe that it is human. This, of course, endears them to Murderbot.

In presenting the difficulties and strengths of autism and by showing the humanity underneath the “unemotional” exterior, the various pieces of media I have briefly examined here have managed to create a fuller picture of this still misunderstood disorder. I hope more media properties take note and start to create similarly respectful portraits of autistic characters.

 
Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Five 2022

EDITION SIX 'RETROFUTURISM' AVAILABLE NOW!

Our last print edition of 2022 is here! This wild, visionary edition is filled with burning nostalgia, glittering hope, and tantalising visions of the future, past, and present.

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