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Autism in Media

October 11, 2013

ASP Flicker Photos

[Reposted from an article published by Dang Koe in Manila Bulletin last October 7  – Autism in Media]

A quick search of #autistic on Facebook or Twitter will show you a long list of updates which use the word as an insult or joke.

Mag Cruz Hatol, secretary general of Anak TV — an organization that is at the forefront of media education efforts and campaign to promote responsible and child-sensitive television — opined on what this phenomenon means for Filipinos as a society.

“Philippine media is replete with stereotyping for as long as we can remember. Actors and directors milked laughter from audiences through comic and oftentimes insulting performances that were shamelessly prejudiced against physical deformities and mental deficiencies. In fact, local media perpetuated the idea that if people who were physically or mentally challenged were not to be pitied, they were to be made objects of laughter,” said Hatol.

Furthermore, he said that it was media, more than anything else, which swayed the Filipino mind into thinking and accepting what was portrayed for them as “the normal.”

“It does not surprise therefore, that in small villages, one gets known by little monikers that point to peculiar traits of his physique. Consequently, the disabled either became the brunt of painful jokes (painful on the part of the subject), source of cheap entertainment (again at the expense and embarrassment of the subject) or because they were considered “punishment” for their parents’ former sins, were shackled or kept away from public view. Keeping them indoors meant avoiding the snickers of the community and lessening the chatter of neighbors who always conjectured that having bred children who bore some form of disability was nature’s way of exacting vengeance on the family for its infractions,” he added.

Angels Talk asked members of Autism Society Philippines what media professionals can do to build an honest and compassionate public perception of autism.

Len Macasaquit, mother of a 10-year old girl with autism, believes that “truthful, honest and more complete depiction of what people with autism go through should be pursued. Enough with physical manifestations as focus but instead explore what goes on in an autistic mind.” The HBO film “Temple Grandin” is a good example of what goes on in an autistic mind.

Raissa Marian Cruz suggested “more documentaries and interviews of families of persons with autism (PWA), instead of the usual portrayals in mainstream movies and TV series.”

Independent director, writer and researcher Mirana Medina describes her documentary “ALYANA” as a “concrete example of a film on autism that fully recognizes the PWA’s being; it tells the audience who they really are through testimonies of their primary caregivers, as well as through information coming from people directly handling them or working for their welfare. The shared experiences evoke empathy that leads to a better understanding of the PWA’s condition, and greater appreciation of their presence in society.”

Medina focuses her work on special children and persons with disability.

“It is my advocacy as part of a personal journey to make educational and informative films about them with the major aim of breaking attitudinal barriers. With that in my heart, any film form that I’ll shape up I know will, in turn, help shape the public perception of my subject. That way, I have the heavier role of making the society understand their condition, recognize their BEING and their potentials, NOT to pity but welcome them instead to the fold.”

She also agrees with another autism advocate, JC John Sese Cuneta, that “media professionals should first do proper and extensive research about autism spectrum before writing their reports or a new film/TV series.” This brings to mind a lot of pseudo-autistic TV/film characters that can mislead people about understanding autism.

Wikipedia reports that “television programs featuring characters with autism or characteristics stereotypical of autism spectrum disorders have become commonplace, most notably in sitcoms. Series such as “The Big Bang Theory” have been criticized for their depictions of characters with ASD traits as whimsically detached, one-dimensional characters.” On the other hand, recent TV-series characters with autism were given super powers! Jake of “Touch” who never says a word but can predict future events, and Gary Bell of “Alphas” who processes information as fast as any computer.

But even with well-researched TV shows/movies, autism cannot be pinned down by just one well-portrayed autistic character. People have to also understand that while we have a near-genius “Temple Grandin,” a Raymond Babbitt (from the famous movie “Rain Man”) with savant abilities in Math and memory, we also have Dafu from “Ocean Heaven” who struggles to learn basic tasks, and the non-verbal Charlie from “Black Balloon” who strips half-naked while running in the neighborhood.

As another ASP member Chel Gan wrote, “PWAs can be as varied as any group of people, which is exactly what media needs to show.”

Finally, advocate mom Aileen Ni pleads for her 20-year old son: “Media, including social media, must help in promoting public awareness about autism. Netizens should be sensitive not to use words like “abnoy, autistic” to associate with corrupt and evil public servants. Every medium must be used not to malign but to advocate for them.” And this is exactly what ASP’s online campaign “1Pangako” calls for. (http//:bit.ly/1pangako)

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