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Debate Heats Up: Is Glee Making Fun of Asperger's?

Sugar Motta, back for Episode 2, has viewers divided 

Beth Arky

Writer
Child Mind Institute

Call it The Great Glee Debate. Ever since obnoxious new character Sugar Motta announced last Tuesday that her "self-diagnosed Asperger's" gives her carte blanche to say "whatever she wants," a heated discourse has been raging in the autism community. Tonight's episode will only fan the flames; TV Guide critic Matt Roush confirms that tone-deaf, mean-spirited Sugar will again chalk up her arrogant put-downs to autism.

Roush calls Sugar "too ridiculous to pay attention to," but try telling that to parents and adult Aspies voicing wide-ranging opinions over myriad issues raised by the storyline. Many were offended by what they saw as a gross and hurtful misrepresentation of Asperger's Syndrome (AS), while others felt people were either missing what they saw as a joke on the "self-diagnosed" or asked, "Who cares?"

Elise Ronan, who has two sons with AS, spoke for many parents in her post "It Happened, Glee Pissed Me Off" at Raising Asperger's Kids. This (former) Gleek felt the show had "turned the Asperger's student into a laughingstock.... They showed [her as] just a spoiled brat with no manners and a huge sense of entitlement." D.S. Walker, the mother of a 16-year-old daughter with AS, went so far as to set up an email campaign at her site Delightfully Different Life calling on Fox to apologize. ( (In her next post, Walker clarified that this is her cause; her daughter is "not on board." So far, there has been no response from the network or Glee creator Ryan Murphy.)

Over at the Facebook page for wrongplanet.net, Steve Summers—diagnosed with AS after his son was—set off an at times meandering thread of more than 260 comments at last count. "Because Aspie kids have social difficulties and don't 'fit in' perfectly with the other kids," he wrote, "they often become a target for teasing and bullying. This negative Glee portrayal is like throwing fuel on the fire of bullying." Fellow Aspie Carmel Anne Jones had mixed feelings, noting that if Sugar's storyline "serves as an example of somebody adopting a diagnosis that they believe is trendy and gives them the license to act like a spoilt brat, it has some merit. If it only perpetuates the negative stereotypes about Asperger's, then I'm not so happy about it."

Count Wendy Kronenberg among the unhappy adults with AS. Over at  Nerd Fighters, she wrote that she had been excited at the prospect of an AS character, only to be "outraged" by Sugar: "I felt so appalled, so embarrassed ... This isn't what people think Asperger's is like... Is it?"

And then there was Shanna Yarbrough, another blogger mom who has a 5-year-old son with AS, offering what some might find a surprising take. In "Autism is the new black" at Don't Turn It Off, she wrote that "everyone is missing the point—and the comedy. Sugar Motta isn't autistic. Sugar Motta is a spoiled, over-indulged child [who] offers up her 'self-diagnosed Asperger's' as a manipulative way of behaving however she likes." Ronan disagrees: After receiving "nasty" comments from those who thought she missed the joke, she wrote, "'Self-diagnosed' was not the operative word, it was 'Asperger's.' They were not making fun of those who use Asperger's as an excuse for bad behavior, they were making fun of Asperger's."

Yarborough went even further. Noting that she was opening herself up "to a world of hate," she also likened Sugar's attitude toward AS to that of parents who insist their child receive an AS diagnosis, "whether or not it is medically appropriate." She attributed "at least some of 'epidemic of autism'" to these parents, who see ASD as the "champagne diagnosis of the day: It's not so bad to have your kid labeled as an Aspie."

Tonight's episode is the second of three featuring the character that have been shot; there's no word as to whether she'll be added as a regular. But one thing is certain: Sugar's Asperger's "excuse" isn't going away, at least not this week. Neither will the debate raging around her, and Glee.

Published: Sept. 27, 2011

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ds_walker · Sep 27 2011 Report

Thanks for mentioning the e-mail campaign. I found Shanna Yarbrough's blog and left a comment on her post, "Autism Is the New Black" that I hope she will respond to and that you will also read. One thing I will say, I am not sure how supporting a cause dear to your heart equates to lack of tolerance for others or their causes as she implies.

shannayarbrough@yahoo.co · Sep 27 2011 Report

Beth, thank you for your continuing examination of this story: while some of the debates have gotten heated this week, there have also been some really wonderful and thought-provoking discussions. What has most concerned me in the criticism of the show is the assertion that Asperger’s deserves a different level of sensitivity from Glee than gays/homophobia, women, Jews/antisemitism, Physical disability, racial discrimination, etc. These are also targeted groups who are bullied and against whom hate crimes are frequently committed. Justice and fairness are more than just protecting our own. Yes, our sensitivities are heightened when someone shines the bright light of comedy/commentary on the issues nearest our hearts (to paraphrase Burt Hummel, these are our kids!), but it does not do for us to take issue only with how “our” people are represented. If we are merely concerned with the depiction of our own identities, and we only put forth a plea for fair treatment on behalf of our own children, how can we expect others to fight with us, fight for us, care if we succeed?

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