Joanne Lara, MA
(Executive Director Autism Works Now!)
In 1988 Dustin Hoffman won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Charlie Babbitt in Rain Man, an autistic savant with a knack for numbers and counting cards. For many, Hoffman’s character remains the quintessential archetype when they think of a person with autism. Netflix and ABC intend to change that misconception and hopefully the public will come away with a clearer idea of autism because of two distinctly different characters, Sam (Keir Gilchrist) in Atypical and Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore) of The Good Doctor, who currently portray individuals with autism on mainstream media.
Atypical, the new Netflix show, with a 10 show second season pick-up, features Sam, an 18-year boy with autism struggling with all the ‘coming of age’ challenges any high school student would encounter; how to get a girlfriend, have sex and form a relationship. The family members, mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh), dad (Michael Rapaport) and sister (Brigette Lundy-Paine), all terrific well-written supporting characters, help us the viewer to experience what “a typical” autism household looks like, ironically the same as any other American household with an 18-year-old high school student. So, possibly a more fitting name for the series might be, Not So Different. The producers wanted to show that our youth and families with autism experience the same cultural mores and hit the same bench marks as their neurotypical family unit equivalent would.
ABC’s The Good Doctor, with a second season renewal as well, is based around a lead character who is an autistic savant surgeon, Dr. Shaun Murphy. Played by Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), The Good Doctor tells the story of a mid-west country boy who is employed, against all odds, at the prestigious St. Bonaventure Hospital in San Jose, after President Richard Schiff lobbies the staff to hire him. Lending itself to countless story lines, like ER, Highmore’s character must toe the line when the entire hospital surgical team is out to see him fail. The same challenges our Asperger’s individuals, sadly, in real life often experience on the job.
What these two shows have in common, and are getting right, is that they both work to depict individuals with autism who are employed. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 1 in 68 children (or 14.7 per 1,000 eight-year-olds) in multiple communities in the United States has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (CDC, 2014). And each year over 50,000 individuals with autism graduate from high schools across the country, 80% of these individuals remain unemployed even seven years after they graduate (Autism Speaks, 2015).
If we could place 1/3 of these 50,000 students in meaningful employment during that seven-year period after graduation we could successfully decrease the amount of taxpayer’s dollars spent (265 billion in 2015) on state and federal benefits (Autism Speaks, 2015).
The solution just might be to bring back middle and high vocational training centers and teach our youth with autism skills sets, like horticulture, bakery, medical data coding, car detailing, gardening, lawn care and the like, along with the low income, at-risk students we lose to the gangs and subsequently to the prison system annually, we would significantly reduce our cradle to grave SSI spending and at the same time this disability group would actually be paying into taxes rather than the opposite.
The problem is that our American youth with autism are graduating from high school at 18 or 22 years of age with no real skill set that equates to a pay check, leaving them vulnerable to the next 60 years of their lives filled with nothing. Many insiders in the special education field refer to this as the “School to Couch” model.
The majority of these graduates don’t have email accounts, you can’t have a job if you don’t have an email, if you aren’t Google savvy and it you don’t know your way around the internet. Employers want entry level employees who are not just basic technology literate, they are looking for advanced computer know-how skills along with basic knowledge in a particular area of expertise.
We need to educate employers and the general population that individuals with autism are capable and able to work in the job market just like their counterpart. It’s imperative that we teach the pre-employment skills needed to land and keep a job all the while addressing this populations core deficit in the social skills and oftentimes speech and language areas.
If we can be successful in getting the small and mid-sized businesses in our neighborhoods and communities to employ our youth, if we can convince corporations to buy into internships, paid internship programs, and get the federal government onboard with restructuring the tax credit incentives so that small and mid-sized businesses benefit from hiring employees with autism and disabilities, if can bring back vocational centers across the country then we might be able to change the way that autism is viewed in this country, increase these persons quality of life as they age and decrease the federal and state hand-out money all in one fell swoop.
Who of us wants to wake up and not have a place to go each day? We need to all be a part of the solution and ensure that our youths lives are full and meaningful, and that this group has the opportunity to be vital contributors to our communities. We need to help these individuals take their Seat at the Table.
As television shows like The Good Doctor and Atypical find homes on mainstream media, replacing the stereotypical Dustin Hoffman character in Rain Man, as autism begins to reveal the truly wonderful characteristics that are so often found on the spectrum and whether it be through Sam or Dr. Shaun Murphy, we must see these shows as progress, as making enormous strides in the right direction. If we can possibly be successful in replacing Charlie Babbitt with Sam or Dr. Murphy, just think of the possibilities in employment, residential options and community acceptance for future autistics? If we can take a leap of faith, go out on a limb and say, “hey they may not represent my family, my son or my daughter, but I see the good in representing autism in a light that shines bright and strong and that says, we are a community who embraces all our members, we are a community that wants the very best for each and every person with autism. We stand strong and support portrayals of 18-year-old high school students with autism struggling to fall in love as well as savant professional medical persons who are helping to better the lives of others through their extraordinary gifts.
We must be united in this front in our movement to educate if we want the mainstream world to employ us, to seek us out for our extraordinary gifts and talents. There is no time to waste, this is our hour, this is our time to show the country and the world who we are and what we can do. Let’s seize the moment and run with it!
Autism Speaks (2015). Retrieved online 5/1/2017 at https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2015/04/21/report-1-3-young-adults-disconnected-work-and-school
Autism Speaks (2015). Retrieved online 5/1/2017 at https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/autism%E2%80%99s-costs-us-economy-estimated-top-265-billion-2015
Center for Disease Control & Prevention (2014). Retrieved online 5/1/2017 at https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2014/p0327-autism-spectrum-disorder.html
Joanne Lara, MA, CTC Mod/Severe Education Specialist, ABA Graduate Certificate ~ Executive Director Autism Works Now, Joanne is the founder of Autism Movement Therapy, and author of Autism Movement Therapy Method: Waking up the Brain! with Keri Bowers. Joanne is core adjunct faculty at National University in Woodland Hills and produced the documentary Generation A: Portraits of Autism & the Arts with Temple Grandin. Lara is a columnist for Autism Asperger’s Digest and the co-author of Teaching Pre-Employment Skills to 14-17 Year Olds: The Autism Works Now! ®Method with Susan Osborne, out now! Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London.