Autism and Art: The Way It Speaks to Us and How We Respond

Note: The first portion of this piece is written by me. The second portion is written by our new co-writer, Mercedes May.

Jaime Rebanal

There’s no such thing as a definite portrait of the autism spectrum, but the way it is represented on film ends up having another effect upon how we are seen as people. The most important aspect about listening to how media can speak to a single person on the spectrum for one portrait can already say a lot for how the outside world would respond. But sometimes there’s much more that we’ll end up seeing in one specific form of media that we know others may not be able to see under our own eyes. But as human beings, we all have a specific response to something that we feel so strongly about – whether it be in the positive or the negative. I think that even in my own love of cinema as a whole should be indicative of how I respond to the way I see the world turning itself around me, because for myself – it has been my gateway.

Take a look at a film like Being There, for example. This is a film about a simple gardener who learned everything about the world that he possibly could through watching the television. But when he went outside to see the world as it is, his simple utterances all about gardening end up being interpreted as philosophical statements about the state of the world around oneself. Sometimes, I think to myself about how Peter Sellers’s character, Chance the Gardener, feels like – being overwhelmed by the circumstances around himself, only resorting to what it is that makes him most comfortable; that being the garden. Chance doesn’t let the outside’s perception of him ever deter him from being the sort of person that he is, perhaps it could be a means of suppressing bad thoughts? I can’t bring myself to ever think that someone who knows so much about one specific field of interest would really be dumb, but I feel that’s what makes this movie as great as it is.

But how I have this sort of a response to one film that covers an experience that I find to be so resonant with me will also have another effect on how I view another film. Of course, film is perhaps the one thing that I feel most passionate about in my lifetime for I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker since my early teens and my own discovery of more films only continues to push me forward through my life – but the way I take it is that it helps me recognize stigma all the more and sometimes I think that happens to be frightening. I wrote once in a blog entry that I don’t ever want to be thought of as being under the same light as I Am Sam or Forrest Gump, because these two are also films that explicitly show their characters as being part of a similar spectrum regarding their own mental health and because of such, they reinforce societal stereotypes about such people – something that I don’t think in the slightest to be okay. And when these images are reinforced, there’s always that fear on the inside that people won’t be listening to what I want to say because they paint that image of autistic individuals as being dumb.

Yet I kept moving. I kept moving because I knew that if I remained vocal enough, I would be able to get people to listen in on what I have to say about my own experience. We, as human beings, always have a certain response to the films that we watch that is driven by our own emotions and they end up becoming the key to forming a greater understanding of what it is that we are like as individuals. This response isn’t something only limited to films, but other forms of media – and it’s an important factor as to what makes us human beings the way that we are. I’ve always believed that different forms of media and our response to them would have a lot to say about what we are as people, just as the way we listen to other perspectives about such do. We choose to understand something one way because of one specific lens we have regarding how we look at the world, but sometimes I wonder who will be there to listen to the way I see things happening around me. Some have said I was hysterical, others have just outright dismissed my point of view – but I remained vocal because I knew there were other people who wanted to listen.

I think to myself that maybe there’s still a glimmer of hope for people like myself. The only way you can really share your own experiences is to speak of them from your own point of view, because no one else will be doing that for yourself. Like Roger Ebert said of the movies, they are a machine that generates empathy from the public, and it’s a sentiment that I wholeheartedly agree with – for the stories being told can open our eyes to look at a world from another lens and that’s what I find to be the most beautiful thing about films. It doesn’t matter what sort of film it may be, but only one person can speak about how they affected you the way they did, and that’s yourself. And from my experience, I find that it’s still important that we talk about and listen to how portrayals of mental health play a big role in our lives – whether it be the explicit or the implicit. What I know people like us would want is for others to listen, and see the world that we do, maybe even temporarily.

Mercedes May

The experiences of autistic people are all utterly different, no one autistic person is the same as another. Yet, there will always be one concrete thing that connects us all: passion. Our interests allow us a haven from our usual worries, responsibilities, and reality, and while that is a universal occurrence, the way interests inhabit an autistic person is a distinct experience – and one I am very grateful to have.

I cannot recall a single moment in my life that I wasn’t completely invested in one of my many, everchanging passions. When I was younger that passion manifested itself in a common interest for girls of the same age: Bratz. Every day, without question, I would come home from school and watch it. If I wasn’t watching the show, I was watching one of the films, or playing one of the PlayStation 2 games, or dressing up the dolls. I had Bratz everything; from lunch boxes, to towels, to hair bands, if it had Bratz on it, I wanted it.

It also introduced me to the first character I remember relating to, Yasmin. She had brown eyes, and brown hair, she cared about animals and the environment, and as far as five-year-old me was concerned, we were one and the same.

That is something I have always been drawn to, whether it be in books, television shows, films, paintings. Somebody I can see myself in. It can be difficult, as an autistic person, to consume so much media and see such little representation. For the few canon autistic characters that exist, I relate to an absolute zero. They become caricatures rather than actual human beings, devoid of any personality or meaning besides stereotype. But I could name an endless amount of characters I see as autistic coded, who are allowed to exist out of stereotypes, whose media I can enjoy more than I usually would.

When my interest inevitably wanes and I find a new one, I have an uncontrollable craving to indulge in every piece of media surrounding that interest. To absorb every piece of information that is possible, as fast as I can. It becomes all I want to talk about, to think about, to do, and anything that is not in any way related to my interest becomes an unnecessary chore. While this passion fuels me, it also creates a new feeling of insecurity, and fear. To voice my love for this newfound preoccupation would be to subject myself to becoming something I dread. I could talk about my interest once in a week and still it would feel too much. As if I could palpably feel people becoming agitated with my new obsession, that it is weird someone should be so invested. That my love of something is somewhat of a burden to witness. And thus, I never truly express everything I feel towards the art I love. Some small percentage is locked away and ignored, for though I cannot imagine not connecting to art specifically as an autistic person, for some reason I feel it should be my goal.

That part of me fades just a little bit more every time my passions change, however, and I still resist succumbing to it. My connection to the art I enjoy is the biggest part of me and of my life. Without it, I think I would be a mere shell of a person.

My passions have shaped me into the person I am, and I’m sure they will continue to do so. They have gifted me so much happiness and knowledge over the years and I can only hope that continues. My interests have changed. My interests will continue to change. But the unique experience I have with my interests will not.


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