Aspergers + media = ?
November 22, 2010 9:07 PM   Subscribe

What connection could there be (if any) between rates of Asperger's and autism and styles of media being consumed?

Earlier today there was a post about Joss Whedon not doing the upcoming Buffy movie over on MeFi. I was thinking about Whedon's shows, why I don't care for them at all, and the people I know who do. It occurred to me that many of them have mild Asperger's or Asperger's-like tendencies (not diagnosed by me, but by honest to goodness experts.)

It seems that lots of these shows have an emphasis on long narratives that require remembering lots of dates and names (and lots of things that happen off screen and in other narratives not explicitly depicted in-show), but the focus on people's motivations—their emotional makeup—isn't entirely there. Often it seems like particular care is paid to making their struggles seem authentic from a certain point of view, but it's almost as if the behavior is being described and presented to someone who might not understand it readily. The reboot of Battlestar Galactica struck me this way many times, as does a lot of sci-fi from the last ten years in general.

Given that these are just the types of things this group deals with (difficulty reading motivations and other emotional cues), could there be more than just a passing connection between them? Could there really be a subconscious shift toward writing for this audience as we start to understand that more and more people are finding themselves somewhere on the autistic spectrum? Might it be instead that Whedon has some of these tendencies himself, and is just writing to his own taste?

I realize it's hard to quantify this without hearing from the writers themselves; still I wondered if any writing or research was ongoing that might point to a link. I also realize this might read like a really long troll of Whedon or his fans. It isn't. I'm sincere in wondering, and no insensitivity/jerkiness/value judgement is intended. I should also possibly mention that I'm a huge Star Wars nerd, which happens to fit most if not all of my ad-hoc criteria for Aspy-friendly media!
posted by littlerobothead to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
How do you explain the intense popularity of the novels of Charles Dickens, which were published in serial form, had large casts of characters, and required the audience/reader to recall the various plot twists and turns? Or War and Peace? Was Tolstoy writing for an audience composed entirely of persons on the autism spectrum?

I loved Buffy, and I could not be farther off the Asperger spectrum. My own experience isn't anecdata, nor is that of your friends. If anything, Buffy herself is exceptionally good at reading small shifts of behavior and expression (Willow, not so much, which is why she's the stereotypical nerdy girl--although she's really only unskilled at reading male behavior--she's very sensitive in the later episodes.)
posted by Ideefixe at 9:20 PM on November 22, 2010

Response by poster: @Ideefixe Your point about Dickens is a good one, except that most of his novels are either deeply poignant, maudlin or both. It's not so much the minutiae as the emotional tone of the proceedings that makes me ask the question; remembering dates and endless lists of names of the hallmark of lots of different kinds of storytelling, for certain.
posted by littlerobothead at 9:25 PM on November 22, 2010

Something that may be too obvious to point out is that the grossly overwhelming majority of the consumers of these popular media narratives are not on the autism spectrum. Even if these shows were easier for "Aspies" to watch, or somehow created the illusion of understanding others' emotions, there would be little or no reason to cater to this particular audience.

I suspect that what you've hit on is the straightforward and unambiguous motivations that characters in these types of shows have. Many people enjoy feeling perceptive and insightful, and transparently motivated characters are one way to get viewers to experience this.
posted by Nomyte at 9:25 PM on November 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

It seems that lots of these shows have an emphasis on long narratives that require remembering lots of dates and names (and lots of things that happen off screen and in other narratives not explicitly depicted in-show), but the focus on people's motivations—their emotional makeup—isn't entirely there.

You are so mistaken on this one aspect, it's not even funny. One of the main reasons for the popularity of Buffy and BSG was the characters, based in terms of motivation and plot, which was explored over the course of both series. I realize you're not trying to troll, but the fact that you're saying both of these shows didn't delve into their character's motivations makes me wonder just how much of them you've watched.

Seriously, you should way off with your hypothesis, especially if you're basing it off those two shows.

I realize it's hard to quantify this without hearing from the writers themselves;

Battlestar Galactica had a weekly podcast that was done by the show's creator and executive producer, Ronald D. Moore. He often went into detail about conversations in the writer's room and why certain things done or how they got to certain points, story wise and yes, the motivations of the characters.It was a really interesting look into the creation of the show and I highly recommend them.
posted by nomadicink at 9:49 PM on November 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: @nomadicink I remember seeing those, but never listened. I will now, I think. Out of all these shows, BSG was by far my favorite. Thanks.
posted by littlerobothead at 9:53 PM on November 22, 2010

You are accusing the wrong shows of catering to mildly autistic viewers; the one TV series which seems to be actually doing this is "The Big Bang Theory" which has characters who exhibit Asperger's syndrome. At last, people to whom I can really relate. Of course, lots of viewers who do not have Asperger's syndrome also like the show, because it turns out to be an interesting topic, somewhat in the manner that you do not have to actually be a cowboy to enjoy westerns, or a policeman to enjoy CSI, or a doctor to enjoy watching House.
posted by grizzled at 5:42 AM on November 23, 2010

I'm not familiar with these shows, so I can't say whether you're right or wrong about your premise as it pertains to them, but holy cow you have put your finger on something about why my wife and some of my friends just LOVE this stuff and I, who lean towards literary fiction and movies based on it (and believe me, there aren't many), can at best sorta enjoy them as a "guilty pleasure."

I'll throw out an example that will probably cause a shitstorm: Star Wars. It's got this long-ass plot arc and seems to be trying to do something subtle vis-a-vis thematic and character development, and bits of it I find enjoyable, but oh. my. god. the actors feel (to me) that they're chewing the scenary(sp?) , and this had always bothered me because some of these actors have done better work elsewhere. One little concrete example - who the hell says EVE-il (evil) like that?

Marketing guy that I am, it had at least subconsciously occurred to me: they're doing it this way on purpose, to appear to a certain demographic. The result (to a brain like mine, anyway) is that you feel like you're watching a bunch of action figures come to life.

You're on to something there...
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:03 AM on November 23, 2010

Why do you mention "remembering dates and names?" I didn't have any trouble watching Buffy even if my memory of the characters is, "Buffy, English guy, vampire, dark-haired guy, red-head" and don't remember a lot of witty banter mentioning, "12th of May, last year."

And Battlestar Galactica was one show that I kept hearing people liked it that "don't normally watch science fiction." So among science-fiction shows that's probably more likely to target the neuro-typical.

A lot of genre shows try to work both for the casual viewer and the uber-fandom that likes picking apart the minutiae. Wasn't there people picking clues out of Lost using freeze-frames?

But those uber-fans are the ones that end up being evangelists for the show, so there's some marketing value in maintaining their interest.
posted by RobotHero at 10:23 AM on November 23, 2010

With Whedon's shows, I'd argue that it might be the opposite situation -- that people who trend towards the autistic end of the spectrum relate better to fiction where the characters' motivations are very clearly defined and the emotional stakes are amplified. I think that Whedon's hallmark is taking situations and tropes that are often hokey, but building them around and centering the story on the emotional stakes for the characters. Because the emotions are paralleled, say, with a monster of the week reflecting the emotional problem encountered by Buffy earlier in the episode, it can be easier to identify with the emotions.

Any lack of characterization found it Battlestar Galactica problem has to do with the show being primarily an allegory for ideas about terrorism and the war on terror. And while many of the characters were very well-defined, others (Lee) were more malleable so that they could fit in to a situation that would illustrate a particular dispute, conflict or position. (I think that the show was generally very good about basing its story on character, but did suffer from building some storylines about Issues.)

But I would agree that Star Wars suffers form the problem of focusing on plot and details to the exclusion of realistic emotions.
posted by andrewraff at 10:41 AM on November 23, 2010

long narratives that require remembering lots of dates and names (and lots of things that happen off screen and in other narratives not explicitly depicted in-show), but the focus on people's motivations—their emotional makeup—isn't entirely there

You have just described the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett to a T. Also, George Eliot (except for Middlemarch). Also, Fanny Burney. Also, most mystery novels of the 1920s-1930s.

I think it's just one style of artistic endeavor. Is it possible that that approach has a larger-than-average number of people who are diagnosed as or who self-identify as non-neurotypical among its fans? Maybe.

I myself have the hyperlexical/hypersensitive to sensory overwhelm/hyperintrospective/hypermemorious flavor of atypical neurology (sometimes called "Girl Asperger's" by me for want of an actual diagnostic category, but obviously boys and men experience this too, just as girls and women experience Asperger's) and I find that the Joss Whedon fan community includes a lot of people who are in this group. But I am a non-fan myself, despite my love for Ivy Compton-Burnett (a love I was delighted to find I shared with John Waters, yay!) So obviously it isn't determinative.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:38 PM on November 23, 2010

Anecdatum: I'm on the spectrum and I've never liked anything with a remotely fantastical flavor. This includes Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, et al. I find it far too difficult to suspend disbelief in order to be sufficiently absorbed by the plot. I feel the same way about books, for what it's worth.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 5:38 PM on November 23, 2010

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