“Autism is worse than cancer in many ways, because the person with autism has a normal lifespan.”
—Parent of a high-functioning autistic man, testifying in the Auton case in Canada, 2003. The autistic man had already graduated from high school with a University scholarship[i]
There is an infamous speech given by then-President Ronald Reagan in 1985 (at the Fallston High School in Maryland) in which, referring to a meeting with Gorbachev, Reagan speculates wistfully about “a threat to this world from some other species from another planet outside in the universe.” The wonder of such an event, he goes on to say, is that “We’d forget all the little local differences that we have between our countries . . .” Reagan was criticized for drifting into la-la land, but in a way he was right on the money. By expressing the need for an “other” for all humanity to focus its attention on, he was calling to the heavens for a cosmic scapegoat to save the human tribe from the curse of mimetic violence.
For obvious reasons, the strange has always been associated with the supernatural, and more recently, the extraterrestrial. Strange and supernatural parallels with autism can be traced through history, most eerily in the faery lore of changelings. And the use of an alien invasion as a metaphor for otherness has been around for almost as long as Hollywood (which was Reagan’s first home). In the 1950s, the fear of a Communist takeover was rife, and the worst part was that it wasn’t possible to tell who was a Communist and who wasn’t. “They’re everywhere!” Kevin McCarthy rants at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1957 classic film in which human beings are replaced by perfect replicas from outer space. The movie has been remade a total of four times since then, not including all the homages, spin-offs, and variations on a theme,[ii] so clearly the lurking paranoia — the dread of difference — which the films play upon hasn’t diminished since then. Social commentators suggested at the time that the alien invasion of the film was a metaphor for the Communist threat, or alternatively, for the McCarthy “witch hunts.” But the truth is that the paranoia must always precede its supposed object. An anxiety deep within the American psyche was seeking — has always been always seeking — a tangible object to project itself onto. As with all such projection mechanisms, however, the result is to obscure the actual nature of the “threat.”
As long as we’re exploring the ways in which an irrational fear of autism was surfacing in popular fiction… While nearing the end of this piece, I was researching the infamous Auton case, in which several parents of autistics (including the Autons, hence the weirdly apt name of the case) brought action against the British Columbian government for not funding ABA “intervention.” If they had won the case, it would have made it mandatory for all autistic children to receive ABA therapy, which is why Michelle Dawson (herself autistic) fought so hard to prevent it (she succeeded). When I went to Wikipedia, the first link I found was for something entirely different, characters from a TV show I grew up on!
“The Autons are an artificial life form from the British science fiction television series Doctor Who, and adversaries of the Doctor. First appearing in Jon Pertwee’s first serial as the Doctor, Spearhead from Space in 1970, they were the first monsters on the show to be presented in color. Autons are essentially life-sized plastic dummies, automatons animated by the Nestene Consciousness, an extraterrestrial, disembodied gestalt intelligence which first arrived on Earth in hollow plastic meteorites. . . . The typical Auton does not look particularly realistic, resembling a mannequin, being robotic in its movements and mute. However, more sophisticated Autons can be created, which look and act human except for a slight plastic sheen to the skin and a flat sounding voice. In Series 5 of the new Doctor Who series, they are shown as being able to create fully lifelike human replicas, able to fool other humans.” [Emphasis mine]
I remember the Autons vividly from my childhood: we called them “shop window dummies.”