A summary of important health news from the past week.
5 Ways The Government Shutdown Could Be Bad For Your Health
The government shutdown effects everyone in this country because it means that it is not fulfilling its role in protecting our public health. The government shutdown means that flu fighters were furloughed during one of the worst flu seasons that we have seen in a long time. Other health concerns related to the government shutdown include longer wait times for veterans hoping to get disability, interruption of lifesaving drug discovery, and many others.
Got Your Flu Shot Yet? Consider This A Reminder
A recent review of international research shows that reminders increase the likelihood that adults will get vaccinations, including the flu vaccine. Among the types of reminders looked at—phone calls, texts, email, and post cards—phone calls were most effective. This could be particularly important for ensuring older adults, whose immune systems are weaker, get their flu vaccines.
This blood test may be able to detect 8 types of cancer, study says
Progress has been made on a blood test, called CancerSEEK, that could possibly detect tumors of the breast, colorectum, ovary, stomach, liver, esophagus, and pancreas. While this test lays the foundation for cancer blood screenings, more work and research is needed before CancerSEEK can be used in a clinical setting. This blood test has a lot of potential, as it is non-evasive, fast, and could cost $500 or less.
This week's podcast of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) focuses on herpes zoster, or shingles, including important vaccination information. Follow the links below for a brief overview or a more in depth discussion.
A Minute of Health (1:00)
A Cup of Health (4:20)
By: Robert Watkins
“I really hate the mom!"
“I really hate the mom!” Comments similar to this are rife in social media groups for autistic people. They, like many others, are taking about Netflix's recent series, Atypical. There have been many strong reactions to recent depictions of autistic characters on television, and a significant proportion of the reactions have been negative.
Yes, Atypical is flawed. But it is also amazing. Comments such as the one above, expressing disdain for Sam's mom, Elsa (played frenetically by Jennifer Jason Leigh), are really, as I see it, unintended compliments. The discomfort brought on by the mother on Atypical is likely due to the fact that she reminds many of us of the classic, overextended, overbearing, hovering Autism Mom.
I've also seen comments such as, “Watching the show gives me hope for my autistic grandson”. That alone is huge. It is clear that these portrayals will help to shape the public perception of autistic people going forward. Discussions about portrayals of autism are incredibly important and long overdue. Keep them going!
This is the kind of scene that will bring a more realistic understanding of autism into the mainstream
Have a look at this clip from the third episode of Atypical. The father, Doug (Michael Rapaport) and sister, Casey (marvelously played by Brigette Lundy-Paine) come in after their morning run, Mom is organizing the family calendar and Sam (played by Keir Gilchrist, a neurotypical actor) is pouring over his high-school yearbook. It's a pretty normal morning in many households: the mom is trying to take on everything, the dad is supportive but preoccupied, the sister teases her brother. The fact that the calendar is bursting at the seams is a pretty good call in an autistic household. Casey teases Sam, but it's because he's her brother, not because he's autistic: she teases him, not his autism. This is the kind of scene that will bring a more realistic understanding of autism into the mainstream, showing autism to simply be a part of everyday life for many families:
But what of the complaints against Atypical? Are the legitimate? The show been criticized for overusing stereotypes, which is pretty much on point. One social media commentator said, “After trying to watch Atypical, I gave up watching the same stereotypes over and over.” But think about it for a moment: we are each unique, autistic or not. With so few representations of autistics in the popular media, there is no chance that any single character will please everyone. Sam is a composite character. Is that ideal? No. But they are truly marvelous representations, given their place in the history of autism on television. I should imagine that there are parts of Sam's characters that will resonate with almost everyone in the autistic community.
And this isn't an easy problem to solve. You've got to create a character that will bear the weight of trying to be the “right” representation of the whole of this thing called autism. How would you “place” such a character? If you make the character a very specific individual, you'll get complaints about the character not being representative enough; if you give the character a very broad representation, it will come across as just a stereotype. Atypical has been criticized for both faults. Frankly, I applaud the show for doing as well as it did. Sam Gardner is among the very first openly autistic protagonists on the small screen. Could his depiction be more nuanced? Of course. But think back to the 70s, when Black roles started to become more prominent on TV. Where the characters subtly nuanced? Goodness no! Did that change with time? Yes.
Laughter only becomes a problem
if there's judgment behind it
Atypical has been brought to task because of the perception that Sam is the brunt of most of the jokes. Again, let's put this into context. The show is a half-hour sitcom. The main character is autistic. So, yeah: his autism is going to play in the jokes. It's the nature of sitcoms to have the protagonist be the fall guy or girl. And sitcoms almost always use exaggeration to try to be funny. If we want to be accepted into the mainstream we need to learn to laugh at ourselves and to accept being laughed at. Being laughed at, by itself, is no big deal: laughter only becomes a problem if there's judgment behind it.
In Atypical there are numerous clunky scenes that awkwardly inject mini-lectures about autism into the dialog. Is it great script writing? No. Is it inevitable? Probably. Again, this will improve with time. Right now, the general public still needs to be brought up to speed about autism. I have no doubt that public awareness and understanding of autism will improve as a result of these clunky, ungainly lectures. Better writing will come.
Atypical also has moments of brilliant clarity
But the show also has moments of brilliant clarity, where autism is shown in its raw, unfiltered state. There is an emotional, evocative scene from episode eight of Atypical, in which Sam has a meltdown in response to having been called to task by his therapist. It's one of the best depictions of what can go on inside the mind of a stressed out autistic.
Atypical has been called out for not involving autistics more in the creative process. And it's true, they really missed the boat here. The creators spoke with spectrumites pre-production, but there were no (self-declared) autistic writers, producers, consultants, etc. Knowing this makes it difficult, at times, to assess what the show is trying to communicate. In the fourth episode, Sam's father uses the phrase, “my autistic kid” in a support group. He is told, by the “professional” in the group, that he should use person-first language (“kid who is autistic”) rather than identity-first language (“autistic kid”). This is a huge point of contention within the autistic community, with most self-advocates falling firmly in the identity-first camp. The fact that the scene blows off the debate with, “it doesn't matter”, does not bode well. Fortunately, however, the public outcry, especially from within the autistic community, has been loud enough that, going forward, any show would be foolish not to be far more inclusive.
To it's credit, Atypical does have an autistic cast member, Anthony Jacques, who appears in two episodes of the first season. Interestingly, Jacques originally auditioned for Sam's part, and although he didn't get that role, they wrote the Christopher character in response to his audition! While I've not seen it publicly declared, it looks very much to me as if Jacques' character, Christopher, is going to turn out also to be autistic.
Early representations of autism on television is breaking ground, and that doesn't always happen very smoothly. But the ground has been broken. Discussions are still lively. There will be more shows, there will be more characters. As presence grows, as inclusion grows, as awareness grows — as autism is seen as more of a difference than an oddity — the nuance in our representation will also grow.
An autistic self-advocate, Neurodiversity Ambassador and public speaker, Robert Watkins is reinventing the workplace with and for autistic people. His writings on http://autistic.ly focus on increasing awareness, understanding and accommodations for people on the spectrum so that they can contribute their best and lead fulfilling working lives. Robert, on the board of the Atlanta Autism Consortium, lives in Atlanta with his neurotypical teenage daughter and their cat.
Destination HealthEU will post more pieces from Robert on the representation of autism in media, including in the new show, The Good Doctor, so stay tuned!
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