Autism and Us: A Collaboration with Jaime Rebanal

Being autistic and being in love with films only seems to have brought us a greater sense of connection with the films that we watch, but it seems that there’s another sense of difficulty that gets in the way: when a film addresses its own characters as being autistic and oftentimes, it feels like a stereotyped portrait that casts ourselves in a negative light. With all the Sheldon Coopers, the Rain Mans, and Forrest Gumps that have supposedly wanted to portray a “typical” representation of the autistic spectrum, it seems that we find more compassion in yet another area, characters that we read as having autism rather than directly being a part of the spectrum.

Take a look at Peter Sellers as Chance the gardener in Being There. He has lived his whole life behind bars, and only learns about the outside world based on what he sees on television. When he finally has to confront the outside for once, all he carries with him is his remote because it’s where he finds his own sense of comfort. It’s a film that I point to when it comes to defining characters that can be read as having traits much like autism because it questions how people outside his perspective see him, yet carries a sense of compassion for his own. Everyone thinks that he’s a prophet, offering his own philosophies to the political scene of the time – yet he’s only talking with gardening terms because it is all he knows. I only imagine myself to be a polarising figure among the many people I talk with and I’m paranoid about what they think of me, because much like Chance, all that I learn comes from a screen, watching movies and interacting via social media.

It isn’t just this that makes Peter Sellers’s performance resonate. It’s the fact that director Hal Ashby keeps locked into Chance’s own eyes so that everyone knows exactly what he’s making of the world around him. It isn’t just television he’s watching anymore, almost like it isn’t just a film I’m watching when I walk through the hallways of my college campus. I try my best to keep a straight face, and when I’m being pointed out to share something to say, I only utter out the layman because I know it’s what everyone understands. And it’s what I like to express when I write my own film reviews for others to read, just what I pick up from experience. But I stick to living my life as an introvert in the same way Chance does, because upon social interaction up close I feel overwhelmed to the point I even stop myself from saying what I want to, worried about embarrassment.

And how does the world see him? Some said he was a genius. Others were not so fond. But Chance doesn’t know much beyond what he sees on television in the same way I, as mentioned in the prior paragraph, don’t know much beyond the many films I watch and the way I always measure how I interact with others on social media. And how I talk with others just follows along with what I know everyone else seems to be fussed over, and I barely even have time to express myself properly. Because the “proper” me is behind this image of what everyone makes of me. And it doesn’t seem to instill a good sense in people who I wish to talk more actively with at my own campus, whether it be with other students or teachers. And once my own feeling of comfort is gone, I just feel stunted. I can only imagine it’s what Chance seems to feel, when he’s away from his television or his beloved garden, just as I would be when I can’t watch a film or have access to my phone.

A film that I consider to be defining of our generation (and one that anyone who’s met me will say I talk about way too much) is David Fincher’s The Social Network. A movie that not only succeeds as a snapshot of the development of human communication, but as a Shakespearean drama in which the protagonist is equal parts vindictive as he is empathetic. My main point at which an attachment is formed is the concept of Facebook itself; I am not a sociable man, communication is a concerted effort on my part that can cause great distress and upset. Facebook – and social media on a larger scale – has allowed me to talk with others on my terms, where I’m not struggling with words or eye contact.

In watching The Social Network, I see a lot of myself in Mark Zuckerberg, which I do not think of as a negative association. It is very much a film about obsession and defying those who are obstructing one’s pursuit of a goal. In Mark’s own head, Facebook is very much his and what he says goes, and I can honestly identify with him. When I have an idea that I like, it will become an obsession, an all-consuming flame that takes over my life for an indeterminate amount of time. And while I try not to alienate those around me, it’s not as if I don’t understand the thought process of those who do. Paranoia has plagued me for years, and is only amplified by my autism. Forming friendships is not easy, I have no natural inclination towards it. So, when I do have a friend, accepting it is not as easy as it should be.

A line from the film I particularly adore that resonates with me is Mark’s exclamation that everyone who makes a nice chair doesn’t owe money to the person who invented the chair. After hearing that, I was convinced Mark was in the right. He didn’t steal Facebook from anybody, he took an idea and “made it better”, in his own words. From there, I was sat in his position, rooting for him to succeed and finding anger in other characters not seeing his brilliance. While much of the film is fictionalised, the portrait painted through the writing of Aaron Sorkin and the performance of Jesse Eisenberg speaks to me as if I were watching my own biopic. Sometimes, I’m moved to tears just thinking about it.

It’s not that filmmakers shouldn’t strive to create characters who are representative of ASD, but it’s somewhat egregious when the mark is missed so spectacularly. Perhaps the best approach is to simply write characters who happen to be autistic, and not make that their defining characteristic. Autism does not define us, it merely aids in shaping us. Characters who are defined by a single quality, be it autism or otherwise, are one-dimensional at best and damaging at worst. So please, do not pigeonhole us as nothing more than “autistic”, we’re people, just like you, the creative process should not affect that.

 

Continue Reading

Autism and Me (and Relationships)

I don’t really believe that everyone on Earth has a soulmate, hell, I don’t even believe in the concept of soulmates. My worldview has been called pessimistic in the past, but I just like to think of myself as a realist. Not everyone is destined to find somebody, live a full life with them, share beautiful experiences, all before reaching old age and passing on into the unknown. It’s a symptom of romance being peddled to us as if it’s something that is an A1 guarantee, as opposed to something that can break a person down before they build themselves back up again. Relationships and even that dreaded word, “love” are hard enough for everybody. It’s one long, laborious process of trial and error for most, and it involves putting up with a fair share of unpleasantness before finally settling down with “the one”.

Now, if you throw a disability into the mix that impairs one socially, disallows one from understanding facial expressions and social cues, and instils a fear of physical intimacy in one that is so crippling that just hugging a member of the opposite sex is a huge challenge, we can see where the problems arise. In less than a week, I’ll be 22 years of age, very much still a spring chicken in the grand scheme of things. When you’re in your 20s, you think you’re an adult and you must be doing something wrong because your life isn’t as together as a normal grownup’s. Really, we’re still children, the only difference is height and the chemicals inside us making our bodies do strange things. But, as I look back on my life up to this point and measure it against most neurotypicals in my age group, I am certainly far behind on the whole romance thing.

As I look to my Facebook feed, it seems that I have various peers who update their status to “in a relationship with…” every other day. Sometimes, couples I’ve known for a long time are getting engaged (although I’m not in any way bitter about that, I’m happy for them and hope it works out), and a shroud of doubt is cast over me. I’ve never had a relationship, not really, nothing that would match up with how I define the word. I’ve never been on a date, something even the most socially inept people that I know can say they’ve done. And while I think that society tends to put far too much emphasis on virginity being a big deal, when you’re rapidly approaching 22 having never had sex, you do start to wonder if having a girlfriend is just something that isn’t in the cards for you. It is frustrating when people I know assume that I mustn’t believe in sex before marriage and that’s why I’m still a virgin. No, I’m just autistic.

Expressing myself emotionally is a skill I lack, at least when it comes to talking in person. The Internet is a godsend for people like me, it’s a wonderful communication tool that allows me to choose who I talk to, and how and when it happens. I don’t have to run instructions through my head as I do with a real life encounter. I don’t have to weigh up how long it’s been since I last made eye contact, I don’t have to check to make sure I’m not coming off as rude because of my lack of apparent empathy. I’m very much capable of empathy, but I’m uncomfortable with showing it. So when it comes to communicating with a woman, the fear that most warm-blooded males feel is harshly amplified. Flirting is off the table, simply because it’s like asking me to walk on water. You can talk me through it as much as you like, but to quote Arnie in Terminator 2, it is something I can never do.

I’d like to clarify that I do not identify with those bitter single “nice guys” who moan about how they’re still not getting any, despite being kind and attentive to a female friend of theirs. Being nice is something that you do because you want to be nice, not because women are required to sleep with you if you are friendly towards them. It’s not a McCafé stamp card, you don’t listen to a woman’s problems eight times and get to go to bed with them. There does seem to be a groundswell of intense misogyny among bitter single men, who like to blame all of the women around them rather than themselves for the pornography-ridden wasteland that their lives exist in. I love and respect women because that’s what my mother raised me to believe. Women are strong, they are beautiful, they are essential. I was given life by a woman, fed by her, clothed and sheltered by her. For me to expect that every woman should want to be in a relationship with me because I’ve been single my entire life is just the kind of entitled attitude that leads to men becoming aggressive and hateful.

But do I want to be in a relationship? Honestly, more than anything in the world. I don’t believe in soulmates, but I do believe in romance, and I do believe in love. I want to have a friend who I can walk down the street holding hands with, someone who I can cuddle up to on the sofa as our heartbeats sync up while we binge on the latest season of our favourite show. I want there to be a person who makes me light up with unrelenting joy when I think about them, because I know that they feel the same way about me. But as I said, I’m a realist. The reality is that I’ve liked the same girl for around ten years now, but will never do anything about it. The reality is that I nearly have an anxiety attack when the thought of dating or physical intimacy enters my mind. The reality is I have no idea how to demonstrate my affection towards another human being and never will be able to. Autism is my blessing and my curse. I can memorise a wealth of information, which would ironically be helpful in a relationship. I’d never forget a birthday, a favourite restaurant, likes and dislikes. I view being in a relationship as something that people are lucky to have, and would cherish every moment I had with somebody, devoting myself to them wholeheartedly. But all of that is performing the marathon, I just have no way of training for it.

Continue Reading

Autism and Me (and RPGs)

Last week, I talked about the brilliance of how the recent Power Rangers movie handled its portrayal of autism and the effect it had on me. The piece received a response that I found emotionally overwhelming, I was even invited to write a guest post for a website called GeeksGamers.com, which can be found here. Such positive feedback has inspired me to start a series of sorts, linked by title and what popular culture components have done for me and my autism. While last week was focused on my own interpretation of the representation of autism, today, I’ll be exploring my own integration of autism into role-playing games, more commonly referred to as RPGs.

Video games in general have always played an important role in my life. Along with autism, I also have dyspraxia, a neurological condition that drastically hinders my motor skills and hand-eye coordination. My earliest video game memories involve Spider-Man on the PS1, an action-oriented game and a fan favourite. Through relentlessly playing this game and teaching my brain how to associate the movements made on a controller with the actions that were happening on screen, video games were rewiring my neurological connections. My dyspraxia is not as severe as it once was, but it’s changed the way I live exponentially. I couldn’t walk in a straight line on my own until I was 14, for example, and my right foot still twists at an awkward angle whenever I take a footstep. I’ll most likely never learn to drive, either, so relying on the temperamental luxuries of British public transport is my only real option.

Those early developmental stages of my gaming life planted the seeds for a world I was yet to discover, one that would spark my creativity and love of narrative storytelling. I’m not sure what the first RPG was that I ever played with an emphasis on character creation and influence over the story itself (I, like most in my generation, was a Pokémon addict as a young boy), I just have a whole host of favourites. I can remember being 8 and the hype surrounding the hotly anticipated Fable. Despite Peter Molyneux pulling a, well, a Peter Molyneux in hyping up his game far too much (trees growing in real-time, come off it mate), I was still about to devote my life to this game.

Fable opened my eyes to a world in which I could control what happened. I could be good or evil, thin or fat, a mage of extreme power or a warrior wielding his sword with deadly precision. In retrospect, Fable’s approach to RPG mechanics was relatively one-dimensional, ultimately condensing every decision down to whether or not you wanted to be naughty or nice. But if you put that aside, a video game love affair had begun, I was having an influence, I felt important. The biggest issue I’ve faced throughout my life has been social interaction. Initiating conversations scares me, making friends and keeping in contact with them is not a natural instinct. I’ll go long stretches without talking to my friends, not because I don’t like them, but because I don’t understand how friendships work.

My life is defined by rules, the fact that our time on this Earth isn’t dictated by rules, but rather by having to understand the complexities of the human mind has always been a source of distress for me. There is no real step-by-step programme on getting a girlfriend (aside from ones that expect you to already possess the ability to read other people) or getting friends, we’re just expected to know how to navigate this elaborate minefield. The clearly defined rules of video games are comforting to me and stimulate my very human needs of social and romantic fulfilment. I can have a strong circle of friends that look to me as a leader if I play Mass Effect, I can have a wife and a home in Skyrim.

Purpose is something we all search for, even though I don’t believe we all have one. It sounds bleak, but sometimes there are people that are born, they live and then die, having never achieved anything of note or making a lasting impact on anybody. Was their purpose to be a forgettable face in the crowd? No, they never had a purpose to begin with. RPGs endow the player with purpose through their very nature, the sense of empowerment one gets from creating an avatar and being granted with a mission of great importance is like a high for me. The world is looking to my guidance to save them, along the way I’ll meet people who I can choose to love or fear me. The intention of an RPG that relates to providing a sense of power is an escapist fantasy for neurotypicals, but for me, it’s an alternative lifestyle in and of itself.

In terms of character development, I’ve been presented with the chance to retroactively add autistic representation into the games I play, creating an environment of autistic empowerment. I particularly enjoy the freedom afforded to me by Bethesda’s Fallout games, most notably Fallout 3. Through the dialogue options in the game, the personality of my character can be shaped into an ASD badass that roams the Capital Wasteland of Washington D.C., executing tasks and threats with the cold efficiency of a well-oiled machine. Legends quickly spread about a man who has no connections, drifting from settlement to settlement, accruing bottle caps and lending a helping hand to the good, preferring to terminate the evil. The life I want to live will never be accessible to me in the real world, but that blow is softened with the soothing digital splendour of gaming.

With the sheer volume of RPGs currently out there on the market, there’s a lot of putrid waste to sift through in the search of a true diamond in the rough. I still have my criticisms of the Fallout and Elder Scrolls franchises, as for whatever reason, I’m even more critical of video games than I am of films. But the sense of escapism I’m given through the genre gives me purpose in a realm that I have full mastery of and, most importantly, I get to feel like a normal guy.

Continue Reading

Autism and Me (and Power Rangers)

To open up about how one feels when they have autism is akin to defusing a bomb with plastic scissors, you’re not cutting that wire no matter how much you need to. This may just prove to be the single most personal piece of writing I’ve ever composed. No Facebook status, tweet, blog post or even private message will be able to compare. But my lack of comfort and acceptance surrounding my autism recently received somewhat of a jolt, a jolt that came in the form of the 2017 Power Rangers movie.

Yes, from such an unlikely place, a big screen reboot of a franchise from many of our childhoods hit my person in a way that I cannot recall happening prior or since. The decision to make Billy Cranston, the iconic original Blue Ranger, someone on the spectrum was met with scepticism by some and curiosity by others. It was a major point of interest that drove my decision to see the film as soon as I could (that and my undying nostalgia for a crazy Japanese monster show re-edited into a teen sitcom). As I sat there in the cinema, a feeling washed over me like no other, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Without a shadow of a doubt, I was witnessing the most relatable and accurate depiction of how autism has affected me for these last 21 years.

Could it be so? Were the tears that were filling my eyes the wet, salty response to something I never thought I’d see in a film ever? As each minute ticked on, I merely grew to be increasingly engaged, hanging on every word that came out of Billy’s mouth. Everything was there, we both tell everyone we meet that we’re on the spectrum as a warning for doing weird things, we both have a hard time moderating our volume of speech depending on the situation, and we certainly do not have the ability to detect sarcasm or read social cues. Was I going mad, or had the screenwriters for goddamn Power Rangers nailed autism?

Autism isn’t fun, that is my true and honest opinion. I do not like it. Instead of being able to properly interact with people, I can remember minute details that ultimately don’t matter. I’ve never been on a date, I had a girlfriend once when I was 16 and it fell apart after a month because I do not know how to connect and relate to people on an emotional level. I had a mental breakdown when she broke up with me because I thought I’d been personally attacked, but from her point of view, I now realise that I looked like an uncaring bastard. It’s tough to come to terms with the fact that I may never have a long term relationship or find love. And I’m not saying that for sympathy or out of hopelessness, I know that I lack the capacity to commit to someone that I don’t share blood with on such an emotional level. I do not want to get married, I do not want kids, I don’t even think I want to experience sex as the idea of physical intimacy is a little repulsive to me.

What I do have is a brain that has been endowed with some truly extraordinary features. When focused, I am able to produce lengthy and detailed essays with minimal effort, rarely even having to look up the facts I state, as I can recall them so clearly. I do not have hobbies, I have obsessions. I will select a thing, and that thing will then consume me as I strive to learn everything there is to know about it. I’m aware that this sounds boastful, but it’s cold, hard, objective fact. I will spend many a night crying myself to sleep because I would happily trade in autism to understand how to read a person, or to know how to talk to a girl. You know exactly what flirting is, right? Because I don’t, the concept makes zero sense to me, I do not know when or if I’m being flirted with, and I certainly don’t know how to let people know I like them. My life is a series of me talking to a girl as a friend for months, never once giving an indication that I see them as a potential romantic partner. Then, usually at around 2AM, I shall produce an indefensibly long message in which I pour my heart out to her because that’s how love works in my head. Then I’m rejected and spend the next few days confused and upset. I hate it and I want it to stop.

This is where I find the truth in RJ Cyler’s performance as Billy Cranston. Art must always contain a measure of truth, whether it is being told through the artist’s vision or the actions of their tools. In film, the artist is the director, the tools are their actors. I would like to personally commend the work of RJ, you could consider this part as somewhat of an open letter to the man. Sir, you moved me in a way that no other actor has done, and I’ve seen every damn “autistic” performance there is to see. I never once saw truth in them, just an actor playing pantomime, having no clue what day to day life is like for those with autism. Simply put, your work was beautiful, comprised of soul and compassion. I don’t know what research you did for the role or who you consulted to prepare for it, but you knocked it out of the fucking park.

As depressing as this peek into my life seems, I feel relieved that I’ve gotten it out there. I may have gotten too personal, but that’s the only way I could possibly express my love of what Power Rangers did in relation to my autism. And it is just that, my autism. It’s no one else’s, it affects everyone differently and there are likely those that didn’t see truth in Billy’s characterisation. That’s because this is my blog and thus, my views. Thank-you to the Power Rangers creative team and thank-you especially to RJ Cyler, you made me feel like a superhero, and that’s what I’ve always wanted.

Continue Reading