Sunday 13 May 2012

Do not adjust your set

Saga Noren, the lead character in Scandinavian TV crime drama The Bridge.
Autism today has reached epidemic proportions. I don't mean in real life. There are complicated but sound reasons why the rate of diagnosis has increased. But there is one place which suddenly seems to be teeming with autistic people: the television.

We have become used to seeing autism on the cinema screen in the 25 years since Dustin Hoffman donned an ill-fitting suit to play Raymond Babbitt. Rain Man takes a lot of flak these days, some of it deserved, but the problem was not so much the film itself as the fact that for many years it was the only reference point available. People assumed that all autistics were like Raymond - that is, limited verbal ability, highly rigid, fixed on routine and given to intense fits of anxiety. If you didn't comply with that formula, you weren't 'really autistic'.

Nowadays it seems no serious TV drama is complete without a character who is either autistic or displays pronounced autistic traits. Sherlock. Lisbeth Salander. The surgeon in Holby City. Tireless, single-minded, highly focused individuals whose minds are so innately fascinating that they can dispense with trivial things such as friendship. ‘Oh God, what is it like in your funny little brains?’ wails Sherlock at one point. ‘It must be so boring!’ The latest such lead is Saga Noren in The Bridge, summed up by one critic as “a woman endowed with all the logical brilliance of Mr Spock but with even fewer people skills”. On reading this I realised why these characters were starting to disturb me. It’s the consolation of genius writ large: the myth of the ‘contented autistic’ who never feels sad or lonely and whose behavioural quirks are endearing, or empowering, rather than isolating. Most autistic people I know value the company of others, even if they find it hard work, and dislike people assuming they prefer Garbo-like brooding solitude to a night in the pub.

It is crime drama, a genre traditionally brimming with flawed geniuses, that seems to have jumped on the autism bandwagon with greatest enthusiasm. Autism has taken over from heavy drinking and divorce as a metaphor for unconventional, misunderstood brilliance, but without the failings implied by broken marriages and withering livers. Which brings me on to a wider problem about autism in fiction: a fully-fledged autistic character is a hugely difficult thing to achieve. One of the perplexing things about autism in real life is that the more you learn about it, the less you seem to know: as the cliché goes, once you’ve met one autistic person, you know one autistic person. Yet characters in fiction, even the best ones, are necessarily incomplete. We see them for a couple of hours, in a context where their personality is in service to things like the plot. Hans Rosenfeldt, head writer of The Bridge, has said of Saga Noren: “We never diagnosed her, but we got a lot of positive response from the Asperger community. They really, really liked her because we showed her as functional and great at her job, even though she was a little strange.” Which is nice, but in terms of exploring the complexities of autism does it really take us any further than Rain Man?

Perhaps the most fertile territory, then, for an autistic character to flourish is a soap opera. The closest we have is Coronation Street’s Roy Cropper, whose development over the last decade says much about how autism has evolved in television drama. Initially Roy was a cardboard cutout 'lone psycho' character who was meant to last a few weeks before departing in ignominy, probably after garrotting his neighbour's cat. Having dodged that particular bullet he hung around in the background for a few years, doing little other than making people feel uneasy, until one of the screenwriters decided to reshuffle the pack. Roy's obsessive traits were made endearingly quirky rather than frightening, fans warmed to him and in time he was rewarded with that soap-opera badge of honour: a partner. Though Roy’s evolution reflects well on the show, even today the words autism and Asperger’s go unspoken in the Corrieverse. He hasn’t been diagnosed, and I can’t be alone in having conflicting views about whether it would be a good thing if he was.

Seeing autistic characters on the screen, doing admirable things in lead roles, has undoubtedly raised awareness of the condition, and that has to be a good thing. I wonder, though, how far it has raised understanding. When Louis Theroux broadcast his documentary ‘Tough Love’, about families raising autistic teenagers and young adults, I was mildly shocked to see how many people on Twitter expressed sympathy for the parents. I long ago passed the point of feeling like someone who needs or deserves anyone’s pity: my children are the way they are, sometimes brilliant, sometimes tear-your-hair-out frustrating, sometimes terrifying, but always lovable. But perhaps this reflects the gap that still needs to be closed between the brilliant, self-contained autistics on screen and the autistic person living in your street. I can’t speak for every one of them, but if I had to guess I’d say they want to be understood far more than they want to be admired.