There's been lots of worry lately over the upcoming DSM-5 guidelines for autism and how they may kick some kids off the spectrum. So perhaps Fox's new series Touch is just ahead of the curve in showing a child losing his diagnosis. The new series, which stars Kiefer Sutherland, gets an advance preview tonight at 9 p.m. on Fox and then comes back for weekly episodes in March. If, like me, you've been looking forward to this show after hearing that Sutherland plays the father of a child with autism, you may be surprised to see that diagnosis fall away in this pilot episode. Times we live in, eh?
Actually, Fox's summary on the show's site still refers to the character of Jake (played by David Mazouz, pictured) as a "mute, severely autistic 11-year-old." But recent articles, including an interview with a consultant on Thinking Person's Guide to Autism and a Hitfix review by Alan Sepinwall, indicate that a scientist played by Danny Glover believes the boy is not autistic but has special powers that allow him to see connections and communicate with numbers. Perhaps the DSM-5 specifies that such spectacular and world-saving splinter skills disqualify one for a diagnosis.
I think Sepinwall makes an interesting point in his review when he writes of Jake's non-autism, "Given the autism epidemic in this country, it's this part of the show that has the most potential to cause problems. While [show creator Tim] Kring tries to make it clear that Jake has been misdiagnosed, the show still trades off of assumptions about autism and the 'Rain Man'-like notion that the condition can also grant those afflicted with it with seemingly magical powers as a form of compensation. It's uncomfortable at a minimum."
We've talked here about shows like The Big Bang Theory and Bones that use our awareness of Asperger syndrome to inform characterizations while not specifically tying the characters or writers to a diagnosis. Other shows, like Parenthood and Alphas, have gone ahead and embraced a diagnosis, making for a richer experience for those of us invested in depictions of special needs but also inviting all kinds of nitpicking. According to the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism post, Kring is the father of a child with autism, and had definite opinions about how Jake should be portrayed. So why duck the diagnosis? Doubt it's going to get people to stop analyzing the depiction and embrace the magic.
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