Autism and Savant Syndrome: A rant

20 May

In the US, ABC is premiering a series this Fall entitled, The Good DoctorRe-making a Korean series, it stars Freddie Highmore (of Bates Motel should-be fame) as a physician with autism and savant syndrome.

I have a burning hatred of savant stories in popular culture.

I think I’ve put my finger on the problem today. There are two things.

In virtually all movies and series foregrounding a person with autism, that person also has savant syndrome. Maybe 10% of people with autism, at least in Western studies, also show savant skills. Maybe half of people with savant syndrome have autism. (Source and source). But in pop culture, it’s close to 1:1.

(That’s not quite true: Most movies about child prodigies without autism also show them having savant skills, even though that’s not really a thing. I’m looking at you, Little Man Tate.)

Now, savant skills are often very showy and easy to highlight in media. I get that. But it’s to the exclusion of stories about the lives of any other people with autism (Temple Grandin is a rare exception.)

Why am I so touchy about this? I don’t have autism, though I do have a number of associated traits. Perhaps I have well-compensated Asperger’s. I don’t know and I don’t need to. And I do not have any savant skills. But I do have a ridiculous IQ and was a child prodigy. Some of my bitterest memories from childhood are when I was asked for what amounted to performing tricks for educators, evaluators, and friends of my parents.

So yes, a deep-seated loathing of a focus on “performative intelligence” (versus ability), paired with the distorted representation of people with autism. I don’t think I’ll be watching this.

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Posted by on May 20, 2017 in Daily Life


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