Ever wondered about the role of neurology in storytelling? These creators are challenging mainstream assumptions about autism, creativity, and empathy.
This Friday, April 2nd, is World Autism Awareness Day. However, autism advocates are pioneering a shift towards autism acceptance.
“Awareness” may be well-intentioned, but acceptance is the goal for those who truly want to support neurological diversity.
What’s the difference? Kassiane S. from the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network explains:
“Acceptance comes from a place of understanding. Understanding isn’t generated by soundbites and posterchildren. Understanding takes work. To accept us, people first need to acknowledge us as individuals-as three dimensional, growing, developed characters. We are not all the same, and we are not but a collection of deficits.”
To work towards understanding and acceptance, allistic folks can start by examining our current culture narratives about autism, and learning to recognize the ways they’ve fallen short of reality. This will make room for new stories that can actually help us understand each other.
Human beings have been in love with stories for as long as we’ve been human. We use them to make sense of our lives, and we idolize the people who tell these stories and the characters they create.
Stories may be the most powerful force in shaping our cultural narratives, for better or for worse. So far, most of our cultural narratives about autism have been “for worse.”
From the “vaccines cause autism” myth (a documented case of medical fraud) to the stereotype that autistic people don’t have the same interior depth or emotional range as allistic people, too many mainstream cultural narratives about autism are based in prejudice.
These stories are compelling because they feed on fears of any “atypical” neurology.
Good news, though! Stories that are based in reality and told with compassion can be equally compelling.
So what’s the real story of autism?
Spoiler alert: it’s actually lots of stories! There is no one autistic story, just like there’s no one human story. Autistic stories are human stories first, just as the autism spectrum belongs to the larger human spectrum.
Telling more of them will help do justice to the complexity of our species. They can also disempower the prejudices that have allowed malicious stories to sink their roots into our cultural narrative. The emotional resonance of these stories helps people develop empathy for experiences that are very different from their own.
What does it take to create a story that resonates? First, you need a unique perspective and the creativity to explain it to others.
Hans Asperger was the researcher who described Asperger’s Syndrome, which was once used as a diagnosis for those on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum, but was abandoned in favor of the umbrella term of “Autism Spectrum Disorder” or ASD (however, many autistics still self-identify as “Aspies”).
He was also an early advocate for the creative power of the autistic brain, writing: “Not everything that steps out of line, and thus abnormal, must necessarily be inferior.”
In fact, abnormality can be a catalyst for creating art. After all, a life of being labeled as abnormal will naturally give a person a more unique perspective, and creative thinking is a byproduct of learning to function in a society that isn’t built to meet their needs.
In that spirit, here are a few stories about autistic creators who are already well-loved for their ability to express themselves. Let’s explore how they have used their unique neurology as an asset for their art:
Famous for: His role as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Red Dragon, and more recently, starring in HBO’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Westworld
Early life: “I was fairly stupid in school. Maybe I had dyslexia. I couldn’t understand what everybody was talking about. I was an unruly little kid. I didn’t know what I was doing most of the time. They put me in the boarding school because they didn’t know what else to do with me. So, my school history was poor and I think that breeds in any child a lot of anger and loneliness. So I said, 'Screw it. I’ll become an actor and be successful in life.' But that attitude has stayed with me all my life. I’m happily grateful I’ve survived all these years,” explained Hopkins in an interview with Desert Sun.
How he got into acting and art: Partially inspired by the example of fellow Welsh actor Richard Burton, Hopkins enrolled in the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff. In the 1960’s, he worked in live theatre and he gradually moved to film and television roles in the early 1970’s. Although he’s best known as an actor, he’s also had success as a director, composer, musician, and visual artist.
When he was diagnosed with ASD: Last year, he revealed a recent diagnosis of Asperger’s, in his early 80’s.
How ASD has contributed to his creative work: When asked about his views on his own artistic process, he responded, “I like to deconstruct, to pull a character apart, to work out what makes them tick and my view will not be the same as everyone else.”
Just as Hopkins credits his early difficulties functioning in a school environment with his perseverance in becoming an actor, he acknowledges that his working-class upbringing and his quest for self definition both inform his approach to acting.
“I didn’t know Asperger’s even existed. But, I became an actor with a rather worker’s approach to it. My father was a baker. But, I was never sure what the hell I was. That led to years of deep insecurity and curiosity. I could never settle anywhere.”
As a man in his eighties, Hopkins now feels more at peace with himself: “It’s a great gift to be all of the things that you are – you can either die of them or make light of them. Any discomfort from the past, any pain… use it!”
Famous for: Ghostbusters, Blues Brothers, Saturday Night Live
Early life: During childhood, Ackroyd was extremely nervous in social situations due to his Tourette’s syndrome tics, but learned to manage these via therapy by age 14. He devoted himself to researching his two special interest areas, ghosts and law enforcement.
How he got into acting: He began performing in the Toronto comedy scene after dropping out of college. When SNL began in 1975, he was originally hired as a writer, but ended up being a cast member until 1979.
When he was diagnosed with ASD: Ackroyd was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome during childhood, and later diagnosed with Asperger’s in the 1980’s.
How ASD has contributed to his creative work: Many people with autism have special interests, to which they happily devote hours of research. According to Ackroyd: “One of my symptoms included my obsession with ghosts and law enforcement — I carry around a police badge with me, for example. I became obsessed by Hans Holzer, the greatest ghost hunter ever. That’s when the idea of my film Ghostbusters was born.”
Ackroyd used his creativity, passion, and wit to create stories that helped everyone else appreciate these interests the same way he did.
Famous for: Splash, Blade Runner, Steel Magnolias, Kill Bill, being arrested for benevolent environmental hooliganism
Early life: She was diagnosed with ASD as a child, and doctors recommended that her parents drug her up and institutionalize her, but her mother refused to do so and took her to Jamaica for a while instead, hoping the change of scenery and connection to nature would be more beneficial for her mental state.
How she got into acting: She became obsessed with film during childhood. She was shy and socially isolated, and as a chronic insomniac, she’d often watch movies instead of sleeping.
How ASD has contributed to her creative work: Her early difficulties socializing led to her passionate investment in movies. Girls with autism are also documented as putting a lot more energy and focus into social mirroring, which is a skillset that naturally feeds into an interest in acting. For Hannah, acting was a way to relate to the world and connect with others: “Acting for me was about going to the Land of Oz and meeting the Tin Man," she says. "It still is."
She needs to rock to self-soothe in social situations, and would often skip premiers and interviews due to fear of overwhelm. Autism has been a conduit for her creative work, and has only been a hindrance in the area of self-promotion.
Despite her success, she still refused to be booked on talk shows or attend her own movie premieres. She was terrified of the overwhelm those situations would cause, and of being judged for having autism.
She still has these fears, but has learned to manage them enough so they can’t keep her from her artistic projects and activist work: "I wasted too much time scared, self-conscious and insecure… Life is too short to stress the small things anymore."
If we want to move past our own fears and alienation and focus on connection and joy, what’s the next step?
To celebrate the complexity of our species, we first need to empower many different kinds of storytellers. Since people who have autism are obviously the most qualified to tell their own stories, empowering creators with autism is the first step to accurate and complex media representation.
Right now, there’s a void of nuanced, compassionately portrayed autistic characters. Popular representations in media are usually one-dimensional caricatures: socially awkward, cold or robotic, and overwhelmingly white and male. Each oversimplified portrayal is a missed opportunity to show the rich inner life of an autistic person.
Identifying with characters in stories is a uniquely human experience, and it’s not just fun, it’s vital. We need stories to understand ourselves, persevere through imperfect lives, and motivate us to grow.
Better representation will allow more autistic people to experience this transformative power, and for allistic audiences, it’s an opportunity to increase understanding and empathy, and to broaden their minds to the richness of human experience.
This is the goal of autism acceptance: working towards a future where the diversity of human neurology is cause for celebration rather than fear and assimilation.
At Conquer Life, our goal is to build a community that celebrates those who work hard and follow their passion, to remind each of us that we have the power to do the same. To inspire, motivate, and empower.
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Image Credit: Jr Korpa