What Is The Role Of Autism in Art?

Some autistics rehearse interactions and conversations in their heads, sometimes repeatedly. It’s a tool that helps us mimic and participate in neurotypical social behavior. But it can also be a coping mechanism, a means of bringing order and routine to potentially unknown, uncomfortable, and/or anxiety-inducing situations.

I’d had all of my Accountant-related activity mapped out since well-meaning friends and colleagues started talking to me about the new action/thriller — truthfully still not sure exactly what it is — starring Ben Affleck as an autistic math savant and remorseless assassin a few months ago. In response to their enthusiasm, I’d express trepidation and then politely change the subject, insisting I had to see it first to weigh in.

Then, I thought to myself, if it was as ridiculous as the trailer and early coverage made it seem, I’d simply eviscerate it with a sarcastic takedown, or by wryly observing that the most frustratingly enduring autism stereotypes — an apparent lack of empathy, a capacity for failed relationships, and the ability to count cards — are so off base that they more accurately describe the Ben Affleck that we see splashed about the tabloids. Perhaps I’d argue that Affleck’s greatest contribution to culture was inspiring the meticulous anti-Argo rant in Richard Ayoade’s book.

If the movie was worse than I was expecting, I would also detail the offense and pain the film was causing the autism community. On the off chance that it was any better than I feared, then I could very happily resort to being pleasantly surprised instead.

When I was making all of these plans for how I might feel about The Accountant itself, however, I failed to take into account that the act of watching a movie about autism, no matter how crudely caricatured, in a theater full of neurotypical people — people who laughed at the titular character’s awkward attempts at conversation, cooed at his even more awkward attempts at flirting, and applauded the film’s pandering Autism Awareness-laden conclusion — might inspire some emotions of its own. As Alexandra Haagard wrote in her analysis of the film’s dangerous tropes, “the pain of witnessing the perpetration and perpetuation of stigma against the autistic community” was palpable.

Nor did I consider that reading reviews of the film by those who are not autistic might exacerbate the whole situation. And it just never occurred to me that a film explicitly about an autistic character and all of the surrounding coverage would make an autistic person like me feel so incredibly invisible.

But here’s how my invisibility was so meticulously wrought: A neurotypical screenwriter, Bill Dubuque, decided to make the main character of his financial thriller autistic on little more than a lark because he thought that it could be an interesting new twist on the genre. Another neurotypical, Gavin O’Connor, directed it. They hired yet another neurotypical man to play their autistic anti-hero. Then they consulted a bunch of neurotypical experts, neurotypical parents of autistic children, organizations that are almost entirely run by neurotypicals, and the occasional token autistic in an effort to make sure that their portrayal was as authentic as possible.

Now, in the wake of the film’s release, neurotypical journalists are interviewing these men and earnestly presenting their good intentions; meanwhile, Autism Speaks (whose track record with autism and film is almost worse than its track record with autism and everything else) gave it a “fantastic response.”

Neurotypical reviewers — whose expertise ranges from having an autistic child to talking to the parent of an autistic child to having interacted with an autistic person at some point — are taking it upon themselves to decide what is and isn’t realistic and/or offensive about the film’s portrayal of autism. Outside of a few allies amplifying our views on Twitter, every single thing about The Accountant has been by and for neurotypicals, as if we don’t also go to movies, write about movies, and maybe even write our own movies — as though we can’t watch, read, and listen to what the rest of you are saying and thinking about us.

Yes, I’m offended by The Accountant, both as an autistic and a film writer (neurotypicals can be so undisciplined in the storytelling). I find it infuriatingly absurd that anyone who’s done a modicum of research on autism would think that making their white cisgender male main character a seemingly remorseless killer, even one with a Dexter-like moral code, was a great way to challenge stereotypes about autistic people.


We don’t even get a person of color, a woman, a romantic hero, a wizard, or even just a run-of-the-mill everyman; instead we’re presented with the painfully persistent stereotype that real life autistics face every day. And no, I’m not impressed with any of the professional writers who claim to be offended on our behalf, but never took a moment to see how the autistic community might feel about person-first language (i.e., nothing about us without us) and functioning labels before littering their reviews with terminology that a large portion of the community clearly opposes.

More than anything, though, I just feel deflated. I love pop culture. It has been, at various points in my life, a special interest, a means of escape when life gets too hard, and a way to help me understand and interact with the outside world. I believe in the power of representation in art. I’ve seen it foster empathy and understanding. I’ve also borne witness to the importance of dialogue, spurned on by the embrace of a fictional character with autistish qualities as one of our own; these characters can serve as a salient way to help explain ourselves to other people. I’ve also personally benefited from dialogue like that.

I can’t even imagine what explaining my own diagnosis would have been like seven years ago if I hadn’t been able to reference Abed from Community to illustrate that some autistic people are more into language and stories than math and trains. I’ve also embraced unapologetically weird and autistish characters like Moss from The IT Crowd and Laurie from Silicon Valley as aspirational figures of sorts in my less confident moments.

But an experience like the one I’ve had with The Accountant leaves me wondering what kind of place there is for us in art, if there is one at all.

It’s not just the way that autism is portrayed in narrative fiction that concerns me, but the role that it plays in art in general. Does my life amount to little more than a cool hypothetical concept to be played with by artists, debated by critics, and consumed by audiences who don’t share my neurology, or is anyone actually interested in including us as more than props in neurotypical culture? Are people only interested in stories about us, or are they interested in hearing from us as critics and artists with our own stories to tell?

I’m not entirely opposed to neurotypical people writing autistic characters. Ideally, my vision of autistic inclusion would involve people writing about us as fully-formed characters who have a place in their universes. But neurotypicals can’t be the only ones writing about us — which is, with the exception of non-fiction writers like John Elder Robison and Temple Grandin and fiction writers like Corinne Duyvis — what’s happening right now. Especially not when other people’s understanding of autism is still in its infancy. Especially not when fiction is still so hung up on what autistic looks like and not what it feels like — which is something only an autistic person can describe.

If we’re ever going to have any social or artistic growth in the portrayal of autism in art, then that art will have to include autistic voices at every level. We need to find and support autistic artists, autistic critics, and autistic experts.

We need to convince non-autistic artists to reach out to the autistic people they’re hoping to portray in a meaningful way. We need to help autistic artists — people who are neurologically-inclined to have issues surrounding socialization — navigate a world as shmooze-laden and networking-based as the entertainment industry in order to fund and promote our own work.

We also need to work to make life better for all autistic people so that the realities of living with autism don’t drain us to the point where we have almost no energy and resources left to create our own work about the realities of living with autism. With a little investment in us — perhaps in the form of mentorship, arts grants, or helpful agents who are sensitive to any issues that might make us unlike a “normal” client — we’d definitely pay you back with things far more interesting and boundary-pushing than The Accountant.

For all that The Accountant got wrong about autism, there is one thing that rang true in its very saccharine, if very important, lesson about the value of autistic people: Every single person on the spectrum has potential. I’m just hoping that once people have exhausted their obsession with us all being math geniuses, emotional voids, and vehicles for failed witty banter, they might be willing to consider us as actual human beings with our own stories to tell. Or even just people who exist in the same theaters, websites, and world.


For another #actuallyautistic perspective on ‘The Accountant,’ read “How ‘The Accountant’ Victimizes The Autistic Community.”

Images courtesy of ‘The Accountant’ Facebook

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