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'Touch' and Autism

Advocates split over Fox show whose hero seems to be on the spectrum, with superpowers 

Beth Arky

Child Mind Institute

For the past several weeks, Fox's new Kiefer Sutherland vehicle Touch has been the subject of much intense scrutiny in the online autism community. Conflicting, confounding reports as to whether the nonverbal boy who has a genius for patterns and numbers would be autistic had bloggers, parents and adult self-advocates angered at the prospect of yet another Hollywood portrayal of a child on the spectrum having mystical "superpowers" and worried about how the show would present the disorder to a broad TV audience. 

One of the big problems leading up to last week's preview was the fact that while Sutherland (24) had said the 11-year-old Jake (David Mazouz) was autistic, creator Tim Kring (Heroes) said Touch wasn't about autism. Instead, he told TV critics at the January press tour that he had "sort of backed into" the show's conceit," thinking "Wouldn't it be interesting if that character who has this very profound gift was someone who was the most disenfranchised person on the planet? He's small. He's unable to communicate." In other words, he's mislabeled.

It certainly seemed early in the pilot—a mish-mash of Lost, 24, and Numbers—that Jake was autistic, given his plethora of behaviors. The first time viewers saw the boy, he was perched at the top of a cell phone tower after he'd wandered away from his special-needs school. (It turned out he'd already done this twice before.) He did not speak, show emotion, have eye contact or allow anyone—not even his father, 9/11 widower Martin (Sutherland)­ to touch him. He was fascinated by old cell phones and numbers, silently writing them into a notebook, and saw patterns in everything.

Parents of ASD kids could certainly relate to Martin's pain at being unable to connect with the adorable son he so clearly loves, and his struggles to keep Jake safe. But when a social worker called Jake autistic, Martin quickly dismissed her, saying the label had never "fit." After a series of bizarre "coincidences" involving numbers, Martin was on the computer searching for "mutism & cell phone." This led him to a professor (Danny Glover), who told him that children like Jake are misdiagnosed; rather than being autistic, they represent a "shift in consciousness" in an "evolutionary step." Kring would seem to be riffing off the so-called indigo child, one of a supposed wave of higher human development proposed by New Age theorists and psychics, who say these children are more spiritual, empathetic and intuitive beings.

Even before the episode aired, advocates were railing against this notion, with the web site io9 asking, "Why do we want autistic kids to have superpowers?" Steve Silberman, a frequent contributor to Wired who's writing a book about autism, noted that this type of "autistic" character was much like the "magical negro" or "noble savage" in popular culture. He worried that Jake would be one of those "characters that [are] significantly disabled in a social sense, but had a kind of innocence and purity that enabled them to play their central role in the narrative: that of redeeming the hero"—in this case, his father—"who wasn't disabled and as only temporarily an outcast."

Blogger Shannon Des Roches Rosa added that while "we want autistic people to want to be like us, like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation," we're "obsessed with exceptionalism. People can't handle the fact that some people are just different without having something fabulously acceptable as balance, because otherwise we'd just have to accept autistic people on their own terms, and that's hard and challenging and takes patience and work." (Rosa had earlier stirred the pot at Thinking Person's Guide to Autism, when she revealed that Kring did not consult with any adults on the spectrum when making Touch; instead, he felt that his experience as the parent of a child with ASD was enough.)

After thAutcast's's Landon Bryce saw the show, which he called "dangerous, offensive, cowardly, stupid, and bad," he picked up where Silberman left off: "What concerns me the idea that Jake, or any other disabled person, exists only for the people around him, that he is not meant to have any life of his own." The Aspie blogger was particularly upset by a conversation in which a social worker on a home visit told Martin that his "life was now dominated by a child you can no longer control. Have you ever truly communicated with him? Does he even know who you are?

"That is a terrifyingly regressive attitude," Bryce said. "I guess I have to spell this out. You don't have to be able to spell 'father,' or even say it to know who your dad is." Even worse, the entire angry exchange took place in front of Jake. "Don't do that," Bryce said. "Don't ever assume that because someone doesn't talk you can say whatever you want to in front of them. Don't ever make the assumption that an autistic child does not understand every word you say. Please." 

Over at the web site Television Without Pity there were more harsh comments such as this one: "I know the boy is magical and special and more evolved because that's what is ALWAYS said about the kid who has autism spectrum behaviors (but only the cool, not messy or extremely difficult behaviors) who does magical genius savant things on TV. Evolved beyond us? Fun idea but not how evolution works.... If left to survive on his own, he wouldn't."

But Aspie Lynne Soraya , who blogs for Psychology Today, does credit the show with doing a good job of showing the "prejudice that many parents and children experience 'in the system' with social workers and professionals. Having some experience with that, I really appreciated that they covered it." She notes the social worker's judgment of Martin's parenting skills "and how blithely she dismisses the abilities" Martin sees in his son. "The underlying assumption to this is black-and-white thinking regarding diagnostic criteria," Soraya says. "They say he can't communicate, can't show empathy, so any attempts to call out abilities in those areas must be wrong or wishful thinking." 

There were also plenty of glowing accolades from caregivers, including this from a mother posting on thAutcast's facebook page: "I loved the show. I'm a parent of an 18 year old with autism; he had special brilliant things happen early on, and it reminds me of some of the shocking ways he communicated to me like reading overnight at 4 years old and it shows how the public sometimes reacts to people that have disabilities. And if there is a little made up magic in the world so what my son liked it too."  

And Hillary Glatt Kwiatek, whose 11-year-old son has Asperger's, could appreciate why parents might want their ASD kids to have superpowers. "Don't we all wish for it a little?" she tweeted. "I hope like hell M's gifts will help him in wider adult world."

It's understandable that the autism community would show such a keen interest in how pop culture presents ASD to a broad audience, especially at a time when more autism-related movies and TV shows are being released. Touch's debut coincided with the wide release of the film version of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which features a boy named Oskar who may—or may not—have Asperger's, but exhibits a myriad of undeniable spectrum traits. ASD also looms large in Parenthood (creator Jason Katim's teenage son has Asperger's); The Big Bang Theory, and the HBO movie Temple Grandin.

It's unclear whether autism will be mentioned again when Touch returns on March 19, but given Jake's behaviors and the lure of the mystical, it wouldn't be a stretch, setting the stage for more heated debate. When one viewer commenting at thAucast claimed, "It's just entertainment. It's just TV," another responded, "NOT JUST TV to those in the community, who feel autism is so misunderstood and are hungry for more realistic portrayals that will advance, not set back, understanding and acceptance." 

To learn more about ASD on television, read How Should a Mom React When a 10-Year-Old Calls Her a Bitch? 'Parenthood' episode on defiance strikes a chord

Published: January 31, 2012

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