So Sesame Street is to introduce a character with autism. It’s clear the producers have good intentions — their goal is to educate children watching the show. But I am not one of those celebrating the news. The reason? I fear a repeat of the Rain Man effect.
People with autism face great challenges. I know this because I have lived with the condition for nearly 28 years. Some people with autism have trouble doing the most basic tasks while others, like me, face different challenges in the social sphere and in the area of mental health.
About one per cent of the general population in the western world have a form of autism, so it’s true that more awareness is hardly a bad thing. But representation in popular culture can be double-edged.
Years and years after Rain Man was in the cinemas (and you can’t deny that Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise were very good in that movie), people still talk to me about it when I mention that I have a form of autism. People think that having autism means that you are always good at counting cards. (I am not good at counting cards — please don’t bring me to a casino in a quest to hit the jackpot.)
This kind of pop culture representation can be very good for some people who are forced to inquire about a given condition. But it can perpetuate half-true stereotypes that take years and years to correct. Rain Man did this and now some people really think everyone with autism knows how to count cards.
A big problem with the word ‘autism’ is that it is such an umbrella term. You have to be very careful in how you represent a character who is on the autistic spectrum.
My fear is that, especially in a context like Sesame Street, the character risks doing more harm than good for children with autism. You can have the best advisers in the world, but the trap of falling into stereotype is hard to avoid.
Rain Man did a lot of bad and only a little good for people in my generation. Sesame Street puppet may do the same for children with autism now.