autism is not a supporting character

I will be starting today’s post with a confession: I truly enjoy the Disney Channel show Girl Meets World. I know, it’s weird, because I’m a grown-up dude with a beard and a real job. I could explain it away to the fact that I work with young people so it’s important for me to keep up with what they might be watching, or the fact that it has been on the television multiple times when I have done home visits for work. But in all honesty, it’s just a fun, goofy show that my wife and I like watching together.

Like its predecessor Boy Meets World, each episode of Girl Meets World deals with real issues, some of them rather difficult. Recently, the show aired an episode called “Girl Meets I Am Farkle.” For those of you who don’t know, Farkle is the eccentric, lovesick intellectual prodigy who makes the show fantastic. In this episode, Farkle’s aptitude test officially determines him to be a genius, but also reveals a potential for Asperger’s Syndrome, an anachronistic term for a strain of autism that is commonly referred to as milder. Of course, his friends initially become upset and deny that he could have autism, which is likely a pretty typical reaction for family and friends when a loved one is diagnosed with something so gigantic. They support him through the whole testing process and waiting period, determined to remain his best friends no matter what happens.

Initially, I was very excited that Girl Meets World was going to address mental health, especially with one of its main characters. Few shows, it seems—particularly shows for young people—take the time to address or include the rather large portion of the population dealing with mental illness. And if they do, they usually deal with it in a pejorative or inappropriately jocular way. I expected Girl Meets World to handle it differently and it did, although I was a little disappointed by the way the episode turned out.

At the beginning episode, Cory (yes, that Cory) teaches Farkle’s class about how, like atoms, every human is unique, and that they shouldn’t allow the labels put on them to define who they are. Naturally, I assumed that Farkle’s autism diagnosis would provide the opportunity to teach kids that Farkle might have autism, but that autism is not who he is. He is still goofy, girl-crazy, and gifted, no matter what his mental health diagnosis may be.

The episode didn’t go that route exactly, though. As it turns out, Farkle doesn’t have autism. Instead, the writers pawn off the autism diagnosis on a minor character named Smackle. Now, they portrayed autism in this minor character in a tasteful—albeit supremely caricatured—way, so that wasn’t the issue I had with the episode. I just wished they had let Farkle have autism instead of pinning it on a supporting character.

When young people are diagnosed with things like autism, they’re not just supporting characters. To their friends and family and in their own lives, they are main characters, just like Farkle is a main character on Girl Meets World. By giving away Farkle’s autism diagnosis, it seemed like the writers were willing to tackle the issue from a distance, rather than the scary-close reality of it. In real life, autism can’t be passed along to someone else. It sticks and has to be faced head-on. It honestly felt like the writers brought the big issue out into the open only to sweep it back under the rug again.

One in sixty-eight kids are diagnosed with autism. That’s a very high number, and I can guarantee that many of them watch shows like Girl Meets World. It’s too bad that those kids can’t see someone with autism portrayed on-screen as a fun-loving, intelligent kid with a close-knit group of friends that care about him. Of course, autism doesn’t look the same across the board (hence the reason it is often referred to as “the autism spectrum”), so Farkle will certainly not look like every kid who has autism. But I do think Girl Meets World had a great opportunity to help kids—particularly kids who are frequently viewed as different—learn that there is way more to who they are than the label that is given to them, and that it’s okay to have a label that sets them apart.

I do understand that maintaining a main character with autism would be difficult for the writers of the show, but I just feel like it would have been worth it. If we want to eradicate the stigma attached to mental health, then it needs to be presented front-and-center as something that isn’t scary or shameful, but as something real.

It’s strange to say, but Farkle would have been a great candidate for autism. Because we’ve already been introduced to him first and foremost as a really loveable human being, it would have been an easy way to show kids that people with autism are people primarily and that Farkle’s autism does not define him. Of course it has an influence on his personality, but it does not pigeonhole him into the category of merely autistic.

But alas the writers decided to impute Farkle’s autism to a supporting character. However, for so many people, autism doesn’t take a supporting role, nor can it just be pushed off to the side. For one in sixty-eight families, autism plays a prominent, messy, joyful, uncertain, difficult, and exciting leading role. I would have really liked to have seen Girl Meets World explore that more than it did in “Girl Meets I Am Farkle.”

Oh well. It’s still a great show. And I’m still a member of #FarkleNation.

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