Alphas is a (sadly) cancelled show in the Sci Fi channel (ok, ok, Syfy; I never quite got why they changed it). It narrated the life and lore of Dr. Lee Rosen and his relationships with “Alphas”, people that showed superhuman abilities like super strength, hypersensitivity to sounds, smells, etc. and so on. They even had an immortal man, kind of a clawless Wolverine but way more fearsome. Yes, in my opinion Alphas had more than a passing resemblance to the X-Men, but with somewhat more credible powers, at least in the first season.
The show had a lot of potential; we’ll never know what it could have become. Among other things, I wanted Dr. Rosen to be revealed as an Alpha down the line, but that did not happen and again, now we’ll never know…
One of the reasons why I liked Alphas so much is that one of its main characters, in fact, my favorite character in the series, Gary Bell, had high-functioning autism. He also had THE coolest “superpower”, he was able to see parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that normal humans are not physically capable of seeing, like radio waves for example (they never addressed the source of his ability in the show, but perhaps he had additional photoreceptors?).
In a wonderful allegory to the autistic condition, Gary literally saw the world in a truly unique way. He would kind of “see” frequencies invisible to the rest of us. In Gary’s case one of the consequences of that is that he did not need a computer to use the Internet. He could just see the signals with his naked eyes and was even able to manipulate them. Now if you ask me, that’s really what “online” was surely meant to be. Moreover, Gary saw the internet directly, exactly as it is; he is the ultimate hacker!
To construct this character, the writers masterfully took advantage of the hand gestures that many autistic individuals make. These gestures are a little bit like conducting music and the actor that played Gary (Ryan Cartwright) played it perfectly. I know that because my own son who is in the autistic spectrum, frequently moves his hands in a very similar way!
Wait; what if…?
Anyway, Gary was a remarkable character in multiple ways, but besides the obvious, the thing that I liked the most about him is that he saved the day more than once. He did not depend on the others for help; I remember one of my favorite scenes of the show; an episode where Gary was in an undercover investigation at a high school and one kid called him a “retard” (fellow parents, don’t you love it when that happens? O_o…). Gary’s reply was nothing short of epic. I will let you find the episode and watch it for yourself. At any rate, the main point is that Gary could hold his own and fend for himself in society. Also, in more mundane matters, he could manage doing things like hailing a cab, get groceries, etc. We all know that this is not true of many people with autism.
About Eureka (oh, how I miss Eureka!), it was another Syfy show, this one about a fictional town founded in the 1940s that was called home by arguably the best minds if not of the planet, at least of the US. Maybe I will talk more about Eureka in another post, But for now I wanted to mention that Eureka also had an autistic character, albeit way less developed than Alphas’ Gary. Let’s talk about him.
In Eureka, one of the main characters was Dr. Allison Blake (whom I find really, really pretty with full knowledge of my dear wife). Dr. Blake has a son, Kevin, who had autism and also had high mathematical ability. He actually saved the day in an early episode (I think that it was actually the very first episode if I’m not mistaken).
As I said before, Kevin’s character was supportive, not central and therefore he was not in every episode. However, when they showed him, they often returned to the autistic storyline. In at least three of these storylines that I recall, they explored how Kevin was cured of his autism.
- The first time was by the exposure to a mysterious radiation from a mysterious artifact, which cured him, but this radiation proved harmful and when they blocked it to save Kevin’s life he went back to being autistic.
- In another episode (I think it was a dream sequence, but I am not positive) Kevin had a contraption attached to his head that somehow cured or neutralized his autism.
- Finally, in a time travel accident, an alternate reality was created in which Kevin did not have autism. They even speculated that Kevin himself fiddled with the timeline on purpose and in a very precise way to cause the accident that cured him. Over time, the show was heavily criticized by their handling of the autism-related stories, but I will not explore these criticisms here.
One of the most delicate aspects in this matter is that the very concept of “curing” autism is quite controversial in some circles, with understandable passion on both sides of the issue. I have said before and I emphatically say again that I love my son, but I hate autism. If you disagree with me, it is your right, but it is also my right to hate something that puts the welfare and general safety of my son at risk and which especially terrifies me when I think what is going to happen to him when we are not around. This is not a trivial matter; among other things I worry about whether people will be kind and understanding to him and I also worry about more serious things… If it not were for these concerns or if I we able to take care of him forever, his autism would not matter to me one tiny bit because he is delightful. If you want to know more about what I think about this, I explore it a little more extensively in my original post. I encourage you to read it entirely before reacting to it.
Going back to topic, what is really important in my view about how autism is portrayed in science fiction, particularly in TV is that until very recently, the word “autism” implied a child hurting him/her self or the image of “Rain Man” at best. Actually, in a very personal note, when my own boy was diagnosed, those were the images that came to my mind and it was devastating. With time and through various sources I educated myself. Now I know that autism is a true spectrum disease (and by the way, the very idea of calling it a disease is also controversial to some). As a consequence of this variability, we will see people that have severe symptoms and people that are “almost normal” whatever that is.
At the very least, I for one am happy that autism is getting more “air time” so that more people are aware of it. I am very happy that there are several other science fiction TV series that touch upon autism as well and even a few novels that explore it. To all that I say, keep them coming! That helps by providing information and educate the public on what autism is and what it is not.
This is important, because in serious matters like this, there is no such thing as too much information. Do you know why?
Information truly is power; it truly is because the more information we have the more we can celebrate what’s been called “neurodiversity”, of which autism is part of. By understanding and (why not?) embracing neurodiversity we can come up with ways to help those who cannot take care of themselves because their neurobiology betrayed them.