It’s Time to Stop Portraying the Lives of Disabled Children as Tragic for Parents.
By Derek Newman-Stille
I just finished watching the Netflix show “Atypical”, which seeks to portray the life of a family with an 18 year old autistic boy as one of its members. The show bills itself as a comedy and seeks to portray this autistic young man, Sam’s, attempts at finding a girlfriend. It is another show that cashes in on portraying disabled lives as an alternation of tragedy and comedy, counting on its viewers to alternate between finding Sam’s antics humorous, while simultaneously portraying his life and the lives of those around him as tragic.
Even though the show uses the tagline “normal is overrated”, it in fact reifies normalcy, putting the audience in the position of viewing Sam’s life as hilarious (even positioning students making fun of Sam for his neuro-atypical behaviour, while trying to play this scene up for laughs by the audience). It portrays Sam’s friends and girlfriend as people who have to constantly advocate for him, at one point even having Sam’s sister, Casey, tell his girlfriend that she shouldn’t get too close to him because then he will depend on her and she won’t be able to leave him (a sentiment that he then repeats later). These sentiments reflects and magnifies the already existing message that disabled lives are a burden on those around them – the image that we, disabled people are perpetually defined and shaped through the notion of dependency. Despite the fact that Sam is a competent, intelligent, capable person, he has to depend on his younger sister to give him lunch money at a certain point in the day. This is never explained and seems to be an uncomfortable fit with Sam’s capacity in every other part of the show. Yet, the writers seem unable to give Sam agency.
The most dangerous part of the messaging around this show comes from the portrayal of Sam’s interactions with his parents. His mother, Elsa, defines herself through her relationship with her son, taking on the identity of “parent of an autistic child” over everything else. The show focusses on the “sacrifices” she, her husband, and her daughter have to go through as part of having an autistic child. Parenting an autistic child is portrayed as tragedy, and the show focusses on the damage that has been done to Elsa’s relationship to her husband, justifies Sam’s father, Doug’s abandonment of their child because it is “too much” for most parents, and portrays Casey as the ignored child because her parents didn’t ever have time to care for her because their lives had to revolve around Sam. Sam is portrayed as a autistic bomb dropped on his family with continuing damaging results.
I have heard from a few people about this show that they admire the show’s bravery in portraying the mother of an autistic child needing to take time for herself, but I would argue that that isn’t something that is happening in this show. This isn’t about balancing caring work with personal time, it is about her feelings of having not had a life because an autistic child has damaged it. I think it is important to acknowledge the need for any parent, and particularly mothers who end up doing most of the caring work in their families, to have time for their personal growth and time for self care. However, the way to do that is not to portray parenting a disabled person as a perpetual tragedy. Although there is no doubt that the lives of mothers are shaped by a system that seeks to oppress them, it is my perspective that their liberation should not come at the expense of people with disabilities and that there is a way to liberate both groups without inherently portraying one type of life as tragic for another. There are very real social consequences to this portrayal particularly since government and private research groups continue to search for genes or conditions during pregnancy that can cause congenital disabilities and then suggest that any child that could have been born with a disability be aborted. Our society already has difficulty imagining disabled lives as viable, but the additional constant messaging that disabled lives are tragic for parents tends to encourage parents to not want disabled children. This has direct repercussions for the lives of disabled children, creating a situation where it is difficult to find people who are willing to parent disabled children.
Of course, this problem is magnified by the fact that there are relatively few portrayals of parents of disabled children who live happy lives. Our stories tend to focus on disability as tragedy rather than disability as benefit, so the overwhelming amount of portrayals of disabled lives as tragic tend to override any other possible portrayals or even the likelihood of our society viewing disabled people as anything other than a burden. We can see this in our governments, who tend to look at disability as an inherent negative, frequently preventing the immigration of disabled people, discussing the economic deficit of disabled people, and generally failing to provide accessible spaces because disabled people aren’t seen as beneficial enough to be permitted access to all spaces.
Sam’s narrative is one shaped by treatment, learning from his therapist and those around him how to be neurotypical. His mother attends a support group that at one moment is about sharing horror stories about having a disabled child and the next moment talks about person-first narratives and NOT describing disabled people as tragedy. This sort of mixed messaging is not entirely without grounds in a lot of organizations, because frequently organizations will focus on language around disability while simultaneously encouraging a view of disabled people as dependent and making decisions without the involvement of disabled people. There is a cadence of these meetings that reflects organizations like Autism Speaks, who tend to exclude the voices of autistic people, while elevating those of parents, also focussing on Autism as something that should be treated and eliminated rather than focussing on providing accessible spaces for autistic people, tends to raise money for attempts to “cure” autism rather than recognizing it as an important part of neurodiversity. Many of the messaging boards attached to Autism Speaks tend to provide a space for parents to talk about the difficulties in raising an autistic child. This approach mirrors some of the approaches taken in Elsa’s support group. This type of approach contrasts with groups like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), an organization run by and for autistic people that focusses on disability rights advocacy and provide a space for neurodiversity. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network focusses on the notion of “nothing about us without us”, and this approach would have been something beneficial for the creators, writers, and those involved in the production of “Atypical” to consider.