My girlfriend and I love watching Girl Meets World together. It’s a bit of nostalgia for us, since we were both avid fans of Boy Meets World when we were younger. I didn’t go into the show expecting any discussion of autism, but in the episode “Girl Meets Farkle,” I was surprised to find the characters dealing with the possibility that Farkle might be autistic.
Soon after the characters embrace Farkle as he is, autism and all, we’re dealt a plot twist: Farkle isn’t actually autistic, but Isadora Smackle, his nemesis-turned-love-interest, is. Immediately, I was both pleased and a little disappointed. The point they were trying to make, I think, was that Farkle would be exactly the same person if he were diagnosed with autism, and so is Isadora. I was also thrilled, because growing up, I never saw any female characters with autism on screen outside of the movie Temple Grandin.
Isadora fits the textbook definition of autism perfectly: she detests physical affection, struggles with empathy and emotion, and centers her life around science. And even though I’m not Girl Meets World’s primary audience, I was a little disappointed by the depiction of this autistic character. When I was in middle school, like Isadora is, most people didn’t believe me if I talked about being autistic, because I’m so emotional and I’m much more interested in fashion than I am in science.
When most people think about autistic women — or autistic characters in general — they typically envision someone exactly like Isadora Smackle. Which makes sense, as there simply aren’t enough portrayals of autistic women in the mainstream media. As a result, the few characters that are autistic represent all of us.
I’m thrilled that shows have autistic women on screen, but, even so, I’d love to see a little more diversity in how these autistic women are portrayed. Autistic women aren’t always adverse to physical and emotional affection, and many of us focus our autistic special interests (the intense and focused interested in a particular topic, which for most on-screen examples is science or math related) on subjects like literature, fashion, and the arts. I’m an autistic woman, and I’ve never seen an autistic character like me in the media: Someone who spends most of her time engaged with literature and the arts, who loves emotional conversations, and who is as adept with sarcasm as she is with fashion.
Because while I’m happy that people have a character they can relate to on screen, I’m also disappointed that it’s always via the same traits, namely trouble understanding sarcasm coupled with an intense, bordering on obsessive, love of science. The best autistic characters would mirror real people, not a set of diagnostic criteria. They would be as diverse and different as the real life autistic community is.
It’s rare for autistic women (or autistic characters, period) to be canonically diagnosed in TV and films. Many autistic people suspect characters like Tina from Bob’s Burgers and Rory Gilmore from Gilmore Girls are on the autism spectrum, but there’s nothing concrete from the writers to support this. And as happy as I am that shows like Girl Meets World are introducing autistic characters as part of the cast and in no way lesser than the others, Isadora Smackle doesn’t represent me exactly. I’d be happier if Riley or Maya were autistic, because it’s completely possible to be autistic and love hugs or sarcasm, and maybe viewers would finally see that not all autistic people are identical.
In addition to being autistic, I’m also queer and physically disabled, and it would be nice to see that diversity reflected back at me. Autism isn’t the entirety of a character’s identity, but just a facet of it. Yet, I’m still waiting to see autistic women on television who love glitter and are as quick with sarcasm and pop culture references as Lorelai Gilmore, as emotionally affectionate and empathetic as Riley Matthews, and as sharp and passionate as Hermione Granger. I’d also love to see more diversity in the portrayals — autistic women aren’t just white, straight, cisgender, and able-bodied. After all, women already have a harder time being diagnosed and so do people of color, and it would really benefit us to show the general public that autistic women are as diverse as non-autistic women.
We’re making progress, especially in introducing autistic characters as young as Julia in Sesame Street, but the real progress comes within dispelling myths about what it means to be autistic and how autism shows up in women. Or when Power Rangers includes a POC character on the spectrum. Whenever someone finds out that I’m autistic and asks me why I love reading instead of math, it makes me wonder if they got those ideas from a show or movie they watched. Why is it so hard to believe that I love fashion and am also autistic? It’s probably because, in the rare cases when autism is spelled out on screen, writers tend to rely on a checklist of certain quote-unquote autistic traits, rather than seek out alternatives or updated information.
As the saying goes, if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. I just hope television shows can keep the pace.