Hollywood is a game of games, it is the requirement that you pick up social cues often so nuanced that reading them becomes a challenge in and of itself. It is a chess match of figuring out what someone’s thinking long before they say it, and even longer before they act on it. It is a business full of people looking for the tiniest of reasons to judge someone, or label them a certain way. It is a game of social cat and mouse, of projecting certain social images that may or may not be true. It’s a mind-fuck of a business that many excel at, and others — well others do not.
And of these social games, or what I like to call “mind-games,” there’s a growing class of creative people that just doesn’t get them or participate in them very well: people on the autistic spectrum.
Many in the entertainment business have been either diagnosed or strongly associated with spectrum tendencies.
The trouble people on the spectrum is that they live in a “neuro-atypical” world; one where normal people interpret something one way, and someone on the spectrum may look at entirely differently.
This “neuro-atypical” world is often a double edged-sword, especially as it pertains to the creative industries, like Hollywood.
On the one hand, looking at the world in a singularly unique vision lends itself to great creative genius. It’s why apart from only the field of mathematics, the creative industry is so full of people with spectrum disorders or characteristics. When three people look at the same object, and one of those three people is on the spectrum, chances are they will take away the most fascinating and unique image — because their mind is unique. In fact, most people on the spectrum are MENSA, certified geniuses or those with extremely high IQs.
While it may seem great to have a super high IQ, that also has pitfalls, because in just about every case, the social IQ of those on the spectrum is quite low.
Living in this neuro-atypical world means these individuals grasp social cues differently as well. Spectrum individuals do not grasp body language, or spoken/written language the same way as normal people do. In fact, they tend to take things quite literally. There is no social grey area, the normal give and take in a social situation with spectrum persons is compromised. This also means that folks on the spectrum themselves can come across as very literal, or blunt; eliciting a “how could you say that?!” reaction. Social situations for those with aspergers are very black and white.
Characters with spectrum disorders have been shown to great extent in our modern media as well. The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch, focuses on the life of mathematical prodigy Alan Turing. Mr. Turing was posthumously diagnosed with Aspergers, and is considered to have been very far along that spectrum. His social interaction is clearly more inhibited than many peers with the disorder. This is made very clear in his dealings with co-workers and students alike in the film. He is seen as difficult, arrogant and above all else “wacky.”
A less severe case of the disorder is presented in the popular comedy The Big Bang Theory, which focuses on a character Sheldon Cooper as being diagnosed with Aspergers. While not the best of presentations of the disorder, they show how lacking social cues folks with spectrum disorders get themselves into fairly awkward situations — which can lend itself to comedy.
But the reality for folks with this disorder is not funny at all.
When it comes to the mind-games of Hollywood, spectrum folks are particularly at a disadvantage. Despite their intellectual gifts, and creative genius, they just do not get the social cues played with by many in the business.
These folks deal with situations like, well they said *this* — but the person may not have actually meant it. These individuals tend to fixate on things, or outcomes which they themselves do not have control over. This tendency to fixate on certain outcomes or events can lend itself to misunderstanding. “This person is clearly wacky, they just don’t get it.” No they don’t, and you cannot expect them to.
It is important to note that unlike mental illnesses such as bipolar or depression, aspergers and autistic spectrum disorders are not actual mental illnesses. It is actually a developmental delay in the brain. The only treatment for those with aspergers is therapy, dealing how to learn social cues that were stunted due to brain chemistry from birth. The earlier in life this therapy starts, the better the outcome for the diagnosed person. Contrary to unscientific media speculation, aspergers is not a violent disorder, or associated with mentally unstable behavior. In cases like the Newtown shooting, the perpetrator often had other mental illness on top of his/her spectrum disorder. In fact, the Newtown shooter was posthumously revealed to have schizophrenia.
Most people with Aspergers and spectrum disorders lead normal lives. While they occasionally encounter social difficulties and get themselves into uncomfortable situations, most people will not reveal themselves to have anything wrong with them. At most, these folks are seen as being a bit quirky, even odd. Think your average auteur director, I doubt anyone would say he’s crazy, but certainly many would call him quirky or eccentric.
As corporate as Hollywood has seemed to become, the art industries are made up from quirky, awkward people. We are the social misfits that do not play these mind-games well.
It is also especially difficult being a woman in the business with aspergers because women more often than men are accused of being emotionally compromised, or “crazy.” When social cues are missed, or stubbornness toward a goal exists, men are labeled head-strong or persistent, the “go-getters” with a unique vision. A woman exhibiting the same traits is often labeled clingy, nuts or at worst crazy/emotionally compromised. The potential for misunderstanding is far more debilitating for a woman on the spectrum than a man. Where a man is considered quirky, or eccentric, a woman is considered batty or nuts. This isn’t fair, but this is societies bias at work; and that bias exists in Hollywood too, and even more so in the tech industry where aspergers diagnosis are even more common.
I write this article in the hopes that people in the business (and elsewhere) be less judgmental. We’re all dealing with our own limitations, and points of views will undoubtedly vary. And at the end of the day, having a Sheldon Cooper on your team is a potentially very rewarding experience. The great thing about the creative industries is that we all take from our collective experience to make something great. If we limited ourselves only to the normal opinion, the neuro-typical POV, and that of those best at playing mind-games, imagine how much art would suffer from banality. Some of the best creators are quirky, weird and have a unique perspective on the world. So while they may be socially stunted in some areas, that’s a part of who they are. No one should ever have to apologize for who they are, and that is why I write this post.