If we want to help autistic people, we have to change how we see them
By Breanna Himmelright, Contributor
There’s a scene in the film Wreck-It Ralph that, to this day, continues to haunt me. The character Vanellope von Schweetz, who experiences glitches due to damaged coding, paused from racing to do a checkup on her car and was confronted by the other racers led by Taffyta Muttonfudge. After a few snide remarks, Taffyta and her cohorts started pulling Vanellope’s cart apart, all while mockingly imitating her “glitching.” After having broken her cart—and her heart—Taffyta simply says to Vanellope “You see? You’re just an accident waiting to happen.”
It is not scenes from the many horror movies I have watched, but instead this scene from a Disney movie about arcade games, that has stayed with me the most over the last three years.
And why? Because I’ve seen the same situation play out again and again in the real world with autistic individuals, albeit with more subtlety.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a term used to describe a variety of neurodevelopmental disabilities affecting an individual’s social skills, verbal and nonverbal communication skills, and behaviours and interests. As the name suggests, these disorders occur on a spectrum, with Asperger’s syndrome being at the highest-functioning end and childhood disintegrative disorder being at the lowest-functioning end.
According to the Centers for Disease Control in the US, 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with an ASD each year, and if a parent has one child with autism, the chances of them having another jump from 1 in 68 to 1 in 5.
What are the chances of those autistic children growing up into autistic adults? 100 per cent. And yet, this is a statistic very few people choose to acknowledge, and an autistic adult is an individual even fewer will actively support.
As the president of the David Lam-based DSU Blue Club and a high-functioning autistic Douglas student, I’ve seen this apathy firsthand. Whenever I’ve talked to individuals about the Blue Club, I get students wishing me well and I even get a few signatures. Yet very few of the people who sign up actually show up, and of those that do, even fewer actively contribute. I can’t help but feel incredibly disappointed by this lack of involvement, which I now understand may be due to a lack of information about autism in adulthood. More to the point, on autism in general.
When most people think about autistic people, they think about Rain Man, Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, Max Braverman from Parenthood, or even Sherlock. While I can definitely see the correlations between Sheldon’s behaviour and Asperger’s, these characters are a shallow scoop of a very deep pond.
The supposed “charity” Autism Speaks (which most actual autistics hate) is no help either. Founded in 2005 by Bob and Suzanne Wright, the organization has continually portrayed autism as a terrible scourge that has to be cured, rather than a disability that can be worked with. Add in the stream of misinformation coming from devout anti-vaxxers and the overall overrepresentation of autism as a “childhood” disorder, and it’s no big surprise that actual autistic voices are having trouble being heard. Nor is it any surprise that, when people think of autism, they think of a 5-year-old boy obsessed with Minecraft and not a 19-year-old female college student currently studying Environmental Sciences but thinking of switching majors. This attitude means that autistic adults don’t get the help they need. And if we want to make progress and strive towards being a more inclusive society, then this is an attitude that desperately needs to change.
Towards the end of Wreck-It Ralph, Vanellope finally learns how to use her glitch to her advantage and (spoiler alert) finishes the climactic race and restores the memories of the citizens of Sugar Rush, who come to realize that she was originally the game’s princess. However, she rips off the princess clothing, and tells Ralph that the whole princess garb isn’t who she is.
This scene—along with Ralph’s line towards the end “And the players love her, glitch and all”—gives me hope that those with autism spectrum can still contribute our talents not in spite of our differences, but because of them, even if the neurotypical world may dismiss us for being “glitches.”
After all, glitches still have their place in the game.