I don’t usually watch much in the way of ‘reality TV’, but this year some documentaries and one-off TV specials have caught my eye – all British (they seem to do this kind of thing best). It started with Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, and more recently there’s been the Seven Dwarves series, about a group of young dwarves living together while they’re acting in a Snow White Christmas pantomime. I also recently watched some of a doco on a young girl with progeria, the genetic condition that causes premature ageing.
What struck me about all of these, was the very ‘ordinariness’ of the people involved. Even if you don’t agree with all you see of them (the rigid sex-roles among gypsies and travellers, for example), they still come across both as individuals with their own unique personalities, and as ‘just regular people’. The gypsies and travellers want to settle down, form stable communities, preserve their traditions, and aim for better things for their kids. The girl with progeria wants hair she can flick in the wind. She dreams of living to be eighteen with the aid of a new drug, and old enough to drive a car – she’d love a Mini. The dwarves are just like any group of young people living together – they go out drinking and dancing, play practical jokes on each other, dream of marriage and kids, don’t do the housework – there’s even a gay dwarf. All the doco subjects have families and/or other people who love them, and who they love.
Yes, they experience prejudice or misunderstandings or patronisation. “They don’t like us cos we’re gypsies”, says one young boy. And you get the feeling he’s right. “Well, they’re not from round here, are they,” one of the locals wanting their eviction says, with a tight non-smile of (obvious even to me) contempt and loathing. The actress playing Snow White gushes about one of the dwarves “Oh, he’s so cute!” The dwarf in question is actually a miniature alpha male, if he was six feet tall, she wouldn’t be calling him ‘cute’ – or at least, not that kind of ‘cute’. And then there’s the “oh, look, aren’t they funny!” stares and laughter they get when out dancing or shopping. And so it goes on.
So you see the real difficulties they face. And yet, as I’ve said, the thing that comes through is their ‘ordinariness’, their humanness, how their needs and wants don’t really differ that much from the ‘normal’ people.
We need a TV special. We need a doco that shows us in all our eccentric glory, shows us living our lives, doing ‘normal’ things such as raising our kids, working at various jobs, putting the rubbish out, catching the bus, and so on. We need a TV special that shows the difficulties we face, but also the special things about being autistic, the good parts. We need a TV special that presents us in a non-patronising light, as individuals and as ‘just regular people’, albeit a little different. We need a TV special that shows us as human – not ‘tragedies’, not ‘monsters’, not ‘stolen children’, not freaks or violent or criminals or whatever stereotype people have in their heads. We need a TV special that allows us to be seen as human beings, with feelings and needs and dreams, with the capacity to love, to empathise, to reach out to others, in our own ways. We need a TV special that shows the full range of possibilities of being autistic, from the Nobel Prize-winners, through to those of us who will need full-time caring all our adult lives, and at least some of the many variations in-between. We need especially to have older autistics, who have managed to live some kind of independent life, seen and heard.
We don’t get that. Oh sure, there are occasional pieces on autism, on one current affairs show or another, but almost always they’re talking to the parents of autistic kids. The parents get interviewed. The parents get to tell about their lives. Occasionally, an adolescent or an older child is asked a sentence or two, or shown doing their favourite ‘obsessive activity’ (aka special interest), eg singing Disney songs or twirling pieces of rope. Adults (with a few notable exceptions, such as the Arie Smith-Voorkamp case) might as well not exist. Adults over the age of about thirty especially are invisible. Certainly there is no indication that we might be quietly living our lives, right under the noses of, and in amongst, the ‘normal’ people, doing ‘normal’ things, albeit in our own rather different ways.
We need a TV special. It’s long overdue in fact. You’ll forgive me however, if I’m just a tad cynical about it happening any time soon.
Merry festive season everyone. Hope it’s a good one. See you in the New Year.