Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Hollywood Autism: Vice News: "Autism Under the Lens" and The Accountant, Starring Ben Affleck

Last night's episode of "Vice News" on HBO was entitled "Autism: Under the Lens." "Vice News"' Executive Producer (its only Executive Producer, apparently, in an age where it's more and more common for movie and TV credits to have long lists of Executive Producers for every show) is Bill Maher, well-known for advocating anti-vaccination positions. Anti-vaxxers have promoted the thoroughly-discredited notion that vaccines cause autism, as well as the notion, which I certainly hope is in decline or at least being re-examined by a significant amount of people, that autism is, in anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy's words, a "horrible disease." (And seriously, what's up with calling all of these shows "Vice" in the first place? "Vice," "Vice News," and a whole "Viceland" network. Surely I can't be the only one who finds the name ridiculous.)

And so I was pleasantly amazed that vaccines were not even mentioned once in the entire episode, and that -- along with some researchers and therapists specializing in autism who referred to autism as a disorder as if there where no debate about that, and who might be inclined to refer to the condition as a "horrible disease" -- significant air time was also given to the point of view sometimes referred to as neurodiversity, which considers us autistic people as not disabled, but just different, as atypical. At least one autistic person on the referred to achievements of his as being possible because of his autism and not in spite of it.

Is this evidence that Bill Maher, unlike some of his anti-vax and New Atheist pals, can learn? Maybe not. Maybe all it means is that Bill's position as Executive Producer of "Vice News" does not include him paying any attention to the show. I would like to think that Bill is learning, and becoming more sophisticated on topics on which he has been led astray.

My one major criticism of the episode was the weight given to the belief that autism is becoming more common. It's true that diagnoses of autism are becoming more common. But I myself feel that this could be entirely explained simply by the fact that diagnosis is getting better and becoming more widespread. The term "autistic" is barely 1 century old. As recently as the 1970's, the vast majority of people, including the majority of physicians, had still never heard of autism, let alone understanding it well or diagnosing it. People in general are still just beginning to learn about autism. So of course the diagnosis of autism is becoming more common. People who believe that autism is becoming more widespread, and that it is a horrible disease, say: Oh no, oh no, it's a plague. People like me, who think that autism is about as common as it has always been, and that what's changing is that we're understanding it better, think that things are getting better. Understanding is key, and it's definitely happening: neurologically-typical people are understanding autistic people better, and we autistic people are understanding the rest of the population better. It's not a plague, it's a healing. That's how I see it.

In any case, this episode of "Vice News," along with other things such as the 2016 Ben Affleck movie The Accountant, whose title character, played by Ben, has been described as "the first autistic superhero," gives me hope that Hollywood in general is getting smarter about autism. (And of course, just like anyone else who is opposed to actual plagues, like plagues of measles and influenza, I hope they're becoming better informed about vaccines too.) I don't know whether the Accountant actually is the first autistic superhero, and The Accountant, although not a bad movie at all, is far from the masterpiece that The Dark Knight is: it copies some of The Dark Knight's style in cinematography and editing and music and the back-and-forth chronology of the plot, without giving you the same level of thrills and chills as the Batman movie. The Accountant does have some very nice moments: the montage at the end with Sean Rowe singing "To Leave Something Behind," for example, should leave you pleasantly verklemmt whether you're autistic or not, I should think, if you've been watching carefully up until then.

Although the superhero stuff in The Accountant is occasionally somewhat silly, the movie is very smart and realistic about autism. It doesn't say that autism will make a child grow up to be a superhero: the superhero part has more to do with Affleck's character having been intensively trained in various martial arts all during his childhood, and then someone close to him having been murdered by the Mafia. But when it comes to the characteristics and behaviors of autistic people, The Accountant does a better job than any other movie or fictional TV show I've seen with the exceptions of Rain Man and Temple Grandin with Claire Danes in the title role. The real-life Temple Grandin was a technical consultant on Rain Man and the Claire Danes film. I haven't been able to find out yet whether she also worked on The Accountant. I didn't see her name in the credits. Maybe, at last, Hollywood can get portray autism realistically without Dr Grandin's help.

As far as I know, Ben Affleck has not been on Bill Maher's show "Real Time" since that particularly unpleasant (for Ben) episode in 2014, during which Sam Harris mocked Ben for asserting that Islamophobia exists and is related to racism. That was Ben's 7th appearance on the show, dating back to 2005.

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