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Terri Mauro

'Alphas,' Advocacy, and a Parent's Proper Place

By October 3, 2011

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David StrathairnWhat place does the parent of a child with a disability have in speaking for the disability community?

That was a question debated recently in a series of "Self Advocate/Parent Dialogues" on the blog Thinking Person's Guide to Autism -- sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes angrily, in posts and in comments and in posts about the comments.

It was also, unexpectedly, a question raised by the season finale of the Syfy drama Alphas.

If you haven't been watching, the show is about a team of Alphas, ordinary humans who have extraordinary abilities. They're led by Dr. Rosen (David Strathairn), a non-Alpha who is also their therapist and father figure and a scientist who has made uneasy peace with the government's role in his research.

Over the course of the season, as these five Alphas have been pressed to use their abilities to fight crime and rein in rogue Alphas, both they and Dr. Rosen have come to question the government's tactics and wonder if they're on the wrong side.

The season finale ended [SPOILER ALERT] with Rosen finally repudiating the government handling of Alphas in a big way, using an opportunity to speak before a Congressional committee to condemn the violence, imprisonment, experimentation, coercion, and secrecy that has been standard operating procedure when dealing with these differently abled individuals.

He also broadcasts that message to the world, through some mechanical finagling by his team that puts him on TVs and cell phones and the screen in Times Square. It's a bold and game-changing ending, concluding a story arc that saw Rosen go from moral compromise to outspoken advocacy.

And yet, as I've been thinking about that episode since it aired last Monday, I've heard that question ringing in my ears.

What place does the parent of a child with a disability have in speaking for the disability community?

For as we discovered in that same finale, Rosen isn't just the paternalistic leader of a team of Alphas, he's the father of an Alpha himself. His daughter's angry recollection of being more of a research object than a loved child is part of what kicks him over to Alpha advocacy. As a father and a leader and a friend, he uses his power and voice to do what he feels is right for a group of people whose fate he feels passionate about.

The show has invited us to see an allegory between the Alphas and individuals with disabilities by using neurodiversity rhetoric as the message of a terrorist faction of Alphas called Red Flag. So I think we can accept Dr. Rosen as one of us here, and look at how his actions compare to what parents of kids with special needs get accused of.

In this case, it's as if a parent was responsible for violently silencing a group of adults with disabilities who were planning to speak for themselves. Based on a snippet of overheard conversation, and motivated largely by guilt, he decides that he will speak for them, and uses his power and voice to make an announcement that affects all Alphas in ways some of them may not enjoy, and that a violent faction of Alphas -- including his own daughter -- actively oppose.

Way to big-foot the conversation there, doc.

I don't mean this as a criticism of the show. Rosen has always been the central figure, partly because he's the viewer's way in to an odd situation, partly because David Strathairn is the best-known actor in the cast and the most compelling (except, perhaps, for Ryan Cartwright as Gary, an Alpha with autism, who for me is the breakout star of the whole thing).

But I hope that Stanton Parish, the ageless Alpha set up in the finale as the Big Bad for next season, will ask why someone who's not an Alpha, who can never really know what it's like to be one, and who has often done regrettable things to Alphas out of ignorance or misguided necessity, should be the one who sets the agenda. Rosen's act sort of ceded the self-determination issue to the dark side.

Interesting that, between this and Fringe (which has inspired at least two posts), science fiction shows are starting the most interesting disability-related conversations in my head these days. If you've been an Alphas watcher, what did you think of the finale? Did Rosen do the right thing? Does the fact that his daughter's in cohoots with the bad guy mean that Dad still doesn't get it? Do I have too much time on my hands if I'm thinking this much about a TV show? Share in the comments.

And if all this has made you want to catch the show, there are four episodes up now on Hulu and Syfy (including "Rosetta," which introduced the neurodiversity theme, and "Bill and Gary's Excellent Adventure," a fun showcase for Gary), with more to come.

You can also read reviews of the final episode from A.V. Club and Maureen Ryan, and an interview with Ryan Cartwright at, to bring things back around full circle, Thinking Person's Guide to Autism.

Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

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