I can’t get this episode out of my head. Normally, I find Law & Order SVU to be tepidly provocative, if clumsily, a show that at least tries not to traffic in stereotypes, with mixed results. But I watched Episode 4 from Season 16 last night and it made me so angry that I went on a lengthy, apartment-stomping tirade after the episode was over that my significant other was the innocent and unfortunate recipient of.
The show is entitled “Holden’s Manifesto.” It features a socially estranged teenager passionlessly documenting his hatred of women for their stupidity in passing him over, a clean, polite, intelligent young man, for attractive but manipulative brutes that use women and toss them out like garbage. The teenager’s name is Holden March, and the episode is entitled “Holden’s Manifesto,” after a 300 page work he composed outlining the details of his personal philosophy towards women.
When the episode begins, it becomes apparent that this misguided young man has just snapped. He films himself with his phone calmly discussing that he is finally about to exact revenge on all of the people who wronged him. The screen goes black and the next scene is of a young woman on a stretcher being wheeled into an ambulance, the victim of multiple stab wounds.
Holden manages a small but surprisingly effective killing spree before finally being killed himself in the final climactic scene. Typical crime show, right? Nothing new here, right?
Sure. Almost. Actually, no.
About a third of the way in, SVU detectives track down Holden’s parents to talk to them about their son. And the father mentions that he suspects Holden is “on the spectrum.”
Cue my annoyance.
I kept watching anyway, hoping that at some point during the remainder of the episode, some possible reason for the casual slandering of autism as producing murderous sociopaths would present itself. But it didn’t. It was never mentioned again. Not one other person in the episode who had ever come into contact with Holden ever reaffirmed the father’s suspicion. The word “autism” never came up, not once, not even at the very end.
Cue my fury.
You know, it’s almost worse that it was so casually inserted, instead of being explicitly addressed or at least woven into a plot point. It’s just more subliminal negative messaging about the neurologically divergent, in this case, that autistic boys are destined to become psychopath killers before they reach adulthood. His father blurts out “on the spectrum” in such a way to indicate that it causes him both disgust and shame. The result is that the entire episode associates this sadistic teenager with autism with the kind of insidious subtlety that colors people’s views about something without them consciously knowing why.
But I know. And even my significant other, Captain Ape, who you wouldn’t think would otherwise be attuned to subtle disability discrimination, looked at me right after the father said it, in anticipation that I would have a negative response, an intuition that proved correct.
TV takes a lot of liberties when it comes to people who are intellectually or psychologically disabled. The former, the intellectually disabled, are usually physically imposing, heavily overweight men who have been manipulated into committing violence either by circumstance or bad actors who are generally family members. Things tend not to work out well for them in the end (that is, they die a lot).
The latter, the psychologically disabled, are nearly always both schizophrenic and unhinged killers when off their meds, and the show typically broaches the conundrum of medication side effects vs. mental disease without ever offering an opinion about it beyond stopping the unhinged killing.
And then there’s autistics. There are two kinds of autistics on popular media. There are nonverbal male children who wail and howl in response to people coming within a few feet of them, coupled with physically distorted flapping and hitting themselves, who, if necessary for the plot, can only be suddenly calmed by some special cast member.
Then there are the adult male hyper-articulate but monotonic, emotionless, and nonreciprocal savants who also howl and hit themselves when upset.
Notice there aren’t any women. Notice that they are universally portrayed as physically acting out, sometimes in violent and dangerous ways. Throw that into the stew with the SVU episode I just mentioned and there’s nowhere for someone like me to go, to be, to be real or realized. And there’s no wonder society’s views about autism remain stuck in flawed research from the 70s and 80s and a targeted disinformation campaign by a well-known charity claiming that having an autistic zombie, I mean child, is the worst tragedy a family can suffer, even worse than death.
For every person who with an autistic loved one who gets it, there are countless others who associate autism with wailing and howling and barely-contained violence. Who see autistics as underdeveloped humans, a subspecies in the no man’s land between man and chimpanzee.
And I can’t, I just can’t, I can’t let it go, not even a little thing like this, which isn’t a little thing at all to those who live on the business end of autism falsehoods and myths, about being incapable of empathy or communication or reciprocal relationships. About being lassoed into a vaccine controversy that still claims far too many proponents who think disfiguring and fatal childhood diseases are preferable to being autistic. Where people look at me and assume that I am lying about being autistic for some nefarious purpose of my own. I can’t not be emotional about it, not scream and rant and rave while at the same time just wanting to throw up, give in, and curl up into a ball because the social construction of autism is too deeply embedded, too indelibly calcified into our culture for it to ever change.
So instead I just go on and on about a single episode in a series with literally hundreds of them because that single episode explains my entire life story and sometimes you just need someone or something to blame. For the years and years of abuse, the infantilizing, minimizing, belittlement and disbelief that have carved psychological scars in me that are so deep I might never be able to fully heal from them.
This is what I think about people who think of autism with disgust and shame. Stop spreading around your insecurities and calling them opinions, stop ignoring disabled people in hopes they will disappear for your convenience, and for the love of god please stop thinking that autistic people are zombie sociopaths. (Or alternatively, go f*** yourself.) Thx.