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Autism in the Media: Why Children Need to See Themselves

The Centres for Disease Control and prevention define autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. It can manifest in children in many different ways and as someone who has studied the history of medicine extensively I find it fascinating and uplifting how quickly we as a society have advanced in our treatment of those children and young people on the autism spectrum. 

One way in which we have improved in our thinking surrounding ASD is in the way we represent people with ASD in culture, whether that be on television, film or in books. As Daniel Perez, a Director at Seneca Family of Agency, a children’s mental health charity has said “representation can empower children to embrace their identities proudly.’’ 

However, getting representation alone is insufficient, creators must also get representation right. As Eric Garcia, author of We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation, has said “whether you know it or not, you know someone with autism. We often talk about autism while talking past autistic people,” that is even more the case with autistic children.   

One of the most nuanced representations of autism in a young person, for example, is  in the 2017 Comedy-Drama film Please Stand By. The plot centres around a young  girl who travels from San Francisco to Los Angeles to submit her Star Trek script to Paramount Pictures. The girl, Wendy, feels a kinship with the character of Mr. Spock, an alien living among humans who struggles to understand and interpret others’ emotions. Heavy handed? Yes, but as Wendy’s imagining of Spock says “Captain, there is only one logical direction in which to go: forward.” 

As educators and parents it is our responsibility to ensure that we are cognisant of the varying needs of neurodivergent children, especially those who are autistic as we guide them on their learning journey. Please Stand By’s Wendy ultimately has her script rejected but that is not what is really important. The main point is that the audience, autistic and not, get to witness Wendy exploring unfamiliar places, meeting strange people, and going on adventures, just like both the characters in her beloved Star Trek and a successful classroom experience.