Wednesday 17 April 2013

Putting a Face and Price on Autism

This clip is from The Price is Right and it features a player who I would strongly suspect is autistic.  (This is my first time inserting a video clip and I apologize in advance for any technical difficulties.  Just in case, here's a link to the video on Youtube.)

If your family is newly diagnosed, I think this clip might be a great one for friends and extended family to see.  Michael shows a lot of subtle signs and provokes many of the typical reactions.

There are a lot of misconceptions about autism in the popular media.  People like to point to the character Sheldon on Big Bang Theory as an example of someone with autism.  But while Sheldon is certainly obsessive compulsive with poor social skills, he doesn't really match.  People also tend to equate autism with being a jerk, but missing social cues isn't the same as being hurtful.

Michael clearly has a prodigious memory for details.  He knows the exact price of the scooter and the fireplace.  He remembers that Bob is supposed to give him $500 for getting the exact price.  He knows exactly how to play the game, technically.

But he doesn't know how to play the "game" of being a contestant.  He's not smiling at the cameras (his face is impassive as he concentrates on the game, despite clearly being excited to be there), he doesn't pump the audience for suggestions, he doesn't wait for Bob to finish his patter, he doesn't act anxious about the outcome.

He has obviously learned some basic social steps (perhaps specifically for this trip).  He shakes Bob's hand before and after and is unfailingly polite and respectful.  He simply doesn't get some of the cues.  When he explains his opening bid, Bob and the audience laugh.  Watching his reaction, he's not sure if he's made a mistake.  He tenses, waiting to see if it is going to be a problem.  When Bob comments that Michael makes him feel useless, Micahel takes it as a serious concern and hastens to reassure him.  The audience laughs again and once more, you can see he's not quite sure why what they're reacting that way.

On Bob's side, there are a few brief moments where you can tell he is irritated by Michael's unusual social style.  He is a gracious host but he's also trying to keep up a certain level of tension to maintain interest and Michael isn't cooperating by being an anxious guest.  For six minutes of television, it's not so much of an issue.

But imagine how quickly the irritation could escalate if Bob were Michael's boss.  Or if they had to ride the bus together.  Failing to pick up social cues tends to make other people upset.  People don't like it when other people don't react the way they expect, even if they aren't being deliberately offensive.

If more people could recognize these sorts of subtle signs, then I think people with autism would be more generally accepted.  Michael's lack of eye contact and intent focus become a part of who he is rather than something other people need to take personally.  We would be more willing to celebrate their abilities rather than being offput by their differences.

April is Autism Awareness Month.  So maybe this is a good time to spread the word.

And remember how much a scooter costs.

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