How the “Wednesday Club” Helped Normalize Autism

Geek & Sundry has a new show called the “Wednesday
Club
” where Amy Dallen, Taliesin Jaffe, and Matt Key discuss comics to make them
accessible. Wednesday at noon PST on Twitch and Alpha (taking questions
from Twitch chat). It’s a fabulous show. They do a good job of talking about broad
topics without getting too into the nitty gritty of a particular story. They’re
really good about checking themselves when they do get detailed and explaining
the specific character, comic, or plot better. It’s easy to follow even if
you’re not already familiar with the comics they’re discussing.

This week’s episode was talking about “Legion (TV show)
and portrayals of mental health in comics.” I was really psyched for it. As
in–this is not hyperbole–I woke up in the same horrible pain my disability’s
inflicted for the last few weeks, dragged myself out of bed, forced myself to
eat a peanut butter sandwich with an unhealthy amount of ibuprofen, and staggered
into my chair to watch this episode. Use that to gage my expectations for how
good I was expecting it be. It was mind-blowingly better.

This is just one example of what made this episode
incredible: A viewer, who identified themselves as autistic, asked about comic
book recommendations for people with autism. Everything about how they took the
question, how they answered it, was so spectacular. I was too engrossed and
shocked to really process what I’d just seen the first time. Partly because it
was so bloody normalized. I went back a few hours later, rewatched this part,
and started crying. Half from joy that this happened, and half from sadness
that this isn’t just normal. They took the time to answer a question to the
best of their abilities that almost any other show would pass up as unimportant
or inconvenient, especially if it challenged them.

That whole nine and a half minutes was a textbook example of
how autistic people constantly ask to be treated, and almost never are. They
gave him agency and authority over his life, and respected his perspective as
valuable and interesting. They just generally acted like he was any other human
being, and greeted him with warmth and enthusiasm. It should be obvious that that’s how you treat anyone.
I should not be talking about like I just stubbed my toe on the Maltese Falcon
half-buried in a sandy beach. But I am because it’s that rare in real life. I’ve
never remotely seen it in front of a live camera. I’m writing this,
transcribing this, and sharing this because good examples of how to be a decent
person are how we educate ourselves out of ignorant bigotry and stigma.

I’m not autistic, but I am neurodivergent in a way that’s
given me a lot of similar experiences to my friends who are. One of those close
friends, who I met through D&D, is a teacher and autism rights activist. I’ve
run most of these thoughts by her to check myself through her perspective. I
don’t want to speak for her, but I do want to help amplify her voice.

Her research has put her into contact with good examples of
the everyday abuses perpetrated against autistic people by mainstream medical
professionals, ignorant people, and other bigoted people in power. They show
how autistic identity is erased and despised, their personhood stripped. Not in
a way that helps any autistic person manage better in the world, but in a way
that seeks to hurt them. She frequently shares some of these examples and
deconstructs why they’re awful. If you’re not autistic, it’s important to
understand the context of what autistic people frequently face because it will
help you understand how truly spectacular this response was.

Neurodiversity

I have personally found the framework of the neurodiversity
paradigm
to be useful, if squishy. The bounds of ‘neurotypical’ to
‘neurodivergent’ are their own debated spectrum. Sadly, simplicity is useful,
but untrue; whereas complexity is true, but useless. There’s not a lot of
debate that autism is neurodivergent. This episode is labeled as discussing
“portrayals of mental health in comics.” But it is perhaps more
accurate to say that it discussed neurodivergence in comics. Autism is not a
mental illness, it’s a consequence of how a person is neurologically wired from
birth. But there’s a reason we tend to talk about managing it and experiencing
it similarly to a mental illness, and neurodivergence is that reason. To
varying degrees, neurodivergent people mentally function differently than
people their society deems ‘normal’ (neurotypical). I’m not wired like my
autistic friends, but because all of us never did and never could pass for
normal because of our wiring, we have a set of shared experiences. We understand
elements of each other’s personalities where our brain wiring creates the same
pattern, which may not exist at all in neurotypical people. Same reason I can
commiserate with another mentally ill friend about where we overlap, but we have
to explain the rest.

How autistic people are frequently & abusively described

(Collecting these made me want to throw up and cry in
disgust.)

How autistic people describe themselves

  • “autism is just the way our brains are wired. we still
    have unique personalities.”
    http://autpunk.tumblr.com/post/157740045930/oops-i-think-im-autistic
  • “We are not made wrong, or wired wrong, or something to
    be fixed, or worse—eradicated. … We are different. Innately born to see the
    world through an alternate lens. … We understand the torment of living in a
    world, where you not only feel like you don’t belong, but are told from the
    authorities that be (parents included) that your condition, your being, your
    very existence has ‘affected’ everyone around you.”
    https://everydayaspie.wordpress.com/2016/08/09/affected-by-autism/
  •  
  • Everything the “Wednesday Club” got right in their response
  • Saying that it’s great that an
    autistic person is being open about it. That it’s not something to hide.
    (Autistic people as so often punished for that. Even autistic rights activists that
    identify themselves as autistic can lose standing with professionals who claim
    to want to help autistic people.)
  • Showing that a question from an
    autistic person is worth answering. (This rarely happens.) It’s worth answering
    thoughtfully, seriously, and honestly, equal to any other question. (This
    practically never happens.)
  • Casually saying that autistic people
    and non-autistic people are friends and understand each other. I cannot
    overstate how normalizing that one sentence was. (Not can be, not should me,
    not technically capable of being, but are.
    Far from can’t, or doing the autistic person a favor.)
  • Differing to autistic people as
    the authority on their experiences, on who they are. Not pretending you know
    better because you’re not autistic. Saying that autistic people are different
    from each other and don’t necessarily have the same experiences. (This barely
    even happens at autism conferences after autistic people have fought tooth and
    nail to be heard there for years. A lot of medical professionals claim they
    know the experience of autism better than the person experiencing it. That the
    autistic person should have no agency in helping them manage their lives. The
    worst abuses are derived from that line of thinking.)
  • Acknowledging that autistic people
    are a marginalized group who are looking for their own strengths, and need and
    want their own community of similar people.
  • Says that getting depictions of
    autism wrong is harmful. “Because in getting it wrong, you can perpetuate
    a stereotype into a wrong direction, or you can normalize something that
    shouldn’t be.” Saying that depictions of autism, even tacit ones, can be
    problematic. (Legitimately the first time I’ve seen “problematic”
    used anywhere near a discussion of autism as if they were any other
    marginalized group facing discrimination.)
  • Saying that there aren’t a lot of
    direct depictions of autism in comics, but there are not‑labeled‑as‑autistic characters
    who have facets of their personality that autistic people can identify with,
    and those are still useful. (Autistic people are often maligned by bigots as
    incapable of understanding other people.)
  • Saying that not being normal is
    interesting, that sometimes crazy can be a super power. (For any neurodivergent
    or mentally ill person that’s up there with “bullet proof black man”
    as an empowering statement of power of character to a marginalized group.)
  • Saying that the opinions of
    autistic people are valuable and interesting. Saying that an autistic person’s
    draw to special interests, “wonderful hobbies,” is fascinating. Saying,
    repeatedly, that autism can make someone valuable in ways no one else can be. (Autistic
    people are often ignored and erased. Their hobbies are often treated as boringly
    narrow, and derided as a waste of time. The contributions of any neurodivergent
    person are often treated as inferior to neurotypical people. Or exploited while
    denying the person respect or accommodations that would help them thrive.)
  • Acknowledging the feeling many
    autistic people have of “not being human.” Acknowledging that many
    autistic people feel like they’re mimicking and scripting social interactions
    with neurotypical people. (Because neurotypical society refuses to acknowledge
    or accommodate how autistic people experience the world.)
  • Acknowledging, like it’s obvious,
    that autistic people can and do fall in love. That they can and do enjoy
    conceptually challenging art. (Autistic people are described by bigots as
    incapable of feeling emotions and lacking ‘theory of mind,’ the ability to
    understand that other people have different thoughts. Imagine being told that
    to your face by people who claim they know you better than you ever could and
    are thus there to help you. Imagine being told that as a child. Do the math on
    the psychological abuse.)
  • Showing an actual desire to give a
    better, more through answer. Acknowledging that they don’t know as much as they
    could, and should seek more knowledge. That this question is worth researching.
    Taliesin followed up on Twitter saying, “we’re gonna revisit it at some
    point, once we’ve dug a bit deeper.” (Autistic people are routinely
    dismissed as unimportant, and inconvenient, their identities erased. A non‑autistic
    person’s life being ‘affected’ by an autistic person is almost always used with
    negative connotation. But the Wednesday Club tacitly said, “Thank you
    affecting us,” and that is basically what moved me so strongly.)
    https://twitter.com/executivegoth/status/837213450778468352

To Amy Dallen, Taliesin Jaffe, and Matt Key, thank you.
THANK YOU. You helped normalize autism. You helped keep someone’s identity from
getting erased. Your actions told someone they matter who, I suspect, has
repeatedly been told and shown that they don’t. You have garnered a tremendous
amount of respect from me.

I have only one request for Geek & Sundry: make
this episode available on YouTube. Help me share the best of what your network
stands for with others. If you want people to tune in for this show, let them see this episode.

Transcript

Times from: https://www.twitch.tv/videos/125658409

01:10:23 Taliesin:
“Somebody, actually, I want to say AutisticCosplay, which is a great
handle, was asking, ‘I’m not a Marvel or DC person, but people have told me I
should look in the X-Men because I have autism.’ And I don’t know if– You
should read the X-Men because they’re fun. But what would be a good comic
book– I’m trying to think of a good comic for someone– I’m trying to think of
my own friends who are on the spectrum and what they read.”

1:10:46 Amy:
“We’d love recommendations from anyone in the audience who is in this
category.”

1:10:49 Taliesin:
“I’m really digging Shade the Changing Girl in that direction, actually.
You read the first issue… So, this is a reboot of a new… It’s a little
psychedelic, if you’re down. It’s not a classic superhero, it’s kind of
a–”

[Amy puts out the comic.]

1:11:02 Taliesin:
“This is the original.”

1:11:03 Amy: “Got
the classic here.”

1:11:04 Taliesin:
“Shade the Changing Man.”

1:11:05 Amy:
“Well, the semi-classic. Once again, like Doom Patrol, this was an older,
’60s, character who got revamped under this wonderful Vertigo wave of DC
reinvention.”

1:11:14 Taliesin:
“And crazy is his power.”

1:11:16 Amy:
“He wears something literally called a ‘madness vest.’”

1:11:19 Taliesin: “And
he’s maybe from another dimension, but he makes people crazy– So, again,
problematic. But the new version is a popular girl, she’s kind of a bitchy
popular girl at a high school somewhere in the Midwest, who…”

1:11:36 Amy:
“Previous to the events of the book, has fallen into a medical coma.”

1:11:40 Taliesin:
“Yeah, she was, not to give too much away, but she went skinny dipping
with her kind of friends, with the kids who hung out with her because they
needed to hang out with a popular person. And she hit her head, and they all
just disliked her so much that they took a while dealing with it. So they’re
all [feeling] guilty. And then she woke up weird. And that’s because there’s a
thing living inside of her that is shade.”

1:12:04 Amy:
“There is an alien creature using the power of the madness vest.”

1:12:07 Taliesin:
“So, it’s not really even human anymore. So, it’s this very off-kilter,
not normal… thing. And they just think it’s trauma, but maybe it’s not, and I’m
really liking it.”

1:12:19 Amy:
“I want more good recommendations. So, I’m wondering–”

1:12:22 Matt:
“I don’t know anything about what you– I feel like an idiot.”

1:12:24 Amy:
“It’s a really good, a really fun book.”

1:12:26 Matt:
“Whose is that!? I want to borrow that comic!”

1:12:28 Taliesin:
“It’s mine.”

1:12:29 Matt:
“Can I borrow…?”

1:12:29 Taliesin:
“Of course you’re going to borrow it.”

1:12:30 Amy:
“But the new one, Shade Changing Girl, which we might have a
picture…”

1:12:32 Taliesin:
“I have a copy here somewhere. Oh! Did I put a picture of Shade the
Changing Girl in the…? I may have brought a digital copy of it, ’cause I don’t
own a physical copy of it. There should be a Shade in there.”

[Comic is brought up on the screen.]

1:12:40 Amy: “The
X-Men in general are turned to by people in all sorts of marginalized groups
because they’re almost always telling stories about people who don’t fit in or
don’t feel normal, and the way that those people can find their own strengths,
and find community, and come together. Which means they speak to tons of people
in different groups. I’m curious about, specifically, heroes or things for
people on the spectrum, and I’m not sure off the top of my head.”

1:13:07 Taliesin:
“I know; I’m feeling like a mild failure here.”

1:13:10 Amy:
“It’s interesting, because one of those examples I eluded to in the intro
was– it’s the dangers of applying labels to comic book characters. And there’s
a chance that I’m remembering this wrong, but I think it was James Tynion, who
has been writing Cassandra Cain, who was talking about the fact that in some
versions, Cassandra Cain, who, as a character became Batgirl, and was nonverbal
for many years,”

1:13:38 Taliesin:
“Completely.”

1:13:38 Amy:
“that she has been– in some cases, people identify with her who are on
the spectrum or who are borderline non-verbal. But there are other– I think–
And please– I’m worried to even say this because I need to fact check it, but
I think it was James Tynion who was saying he was reluctant to but that label
on it because the Cassandra Cain character has a history of specific traumatic
abuse, that he wasn’t sure– that’s not exactly fair to say– that doesn’t
resemble the typical, if there is such a thing, experiences of a person who is
on the spectrum. So, he’d rather treat her without that label then get it
wrong. Or imply it where it doesn’t belong.”

1:12:16 Matt:
“Yeah. Because in getting it wrong, you can perpetuate a stereotype into a
wrong direction, or you can normalize something that shouldn’t be.”

1:14:25: Amy:
“I should have checked on this before I said it. This is a memory of,
probably, a Twitter conversation that I saw months ago. I should really nail
down.”

1:14:34 Taliesin:
“I will saw, one of the great things– I’ve been having this quote saved
for the correct moment. ‘One of the great things about comic books,’ and this
is paraphrasing Grant Morrison, who said, ‘Sometimes superheroes exist to
settle complex moral arguments by beating each other into the ground. Don’t
laugh, that’s the way we deal with things in the real world, too.’ But the nice
thing about super heroes, though, is that they do break down these complex
stories into more symbolic and metaphorical struggles. Which is why, sometimes
even when they get it wrong, it’s still useful. I had a weird thought for our
AutisticCosplay friend, The Vision. The Vision book. It’s very…”

1:15:10 Matt:
“In fact, the Tom King… Oh! The reason why– Oh my god, that’s a good
call.”

1:15:14 Taliesin:
“So, you all know The Vision from The Avengers. Now, it’s kind of dark,
and if you know The Vision from the Marvel movies, he’s an android.”

1:15:26 Amy:
“A synthesoid.”

1:15:27 Taliesin:
“Synthesoid. And the book, he has built himself a wife and two
children.”

1:15:34 Matt:
“And a dog.”

[They discuss when in the story the dog was built.]

1:15:56 Taliesin:
“And I would be curious– Actually this is not a recommendation. AutisticCosplay,
I actually would love for you to pick up a couple issues of this and tell us
what you think. ‘Cause I would be genuinely fascinated by your opinion of it,
of how you feel. It’s not a representation of autism, necessarily, but it’s
such a spectacularly interesting point of view, and it creates one of my new
favorite characters. The Vision’s daughter is now a character.”

1:16:21 Matt:
“Viv.”

1:16:22 Taliesin:
“Viv, in the Champions. And I cannot wait for the cosplay of this
character. She’s so cool! And so, I would be really curious to see what you
think.”

1:16:32 Matt:
“I’m going to…”

1:16:34 Amy:
“They’re struggling with emotional issues and relating to people.”

1:16:37 Taliesin:
“Yeah, ’cause they’re whole thing is they want to try and pretend to be–
they’re like, we’re going to try and be human, and we’re going to be a human
family, but they’re not.”

1:16:48 Matt:
“Yeah. I want to tread carefully in saying this, because I myself am not
autistic.”

1:16:52 Taliesin:
“We are in tread carefully territory.”

1:16:53 Matt:
“No, I know. But I also want to make sure that I’m respecting those of you
who do deal with this. But it does feel like, even though they never label Viv,
or Vision, or anyone in the family as having autism, or being on the spectrum
in any way, their behavior, and their interaction with the world, does seem to
100% mimic…”

1:17:14 Taliesin:
“Fall into that direction.”

1:17:15 Matt:
“or fall into that category in a way,”

1:17:18 Taliesin:
“It’s very analytical.”

1:17:18 Matt:
“that someone with autism might be able to actually really identify with
that character, but still see the strengths of being who that person is.”

1:17:26 Taliesin:
“And then watching these analytical characters fall in love, and experience
theater. One of the characters falls in love with Shakespeare and starts really
identifying really heavily with Shakespeare. And there’s this intense romantic
relationship that one of the characters… It’s fascinating.”

1:17:44 Amy:
“There is also– You get really heartwarming stories like one that went
around after Guardians of the Galaxy hit theaters,”

1:17:49 Taliesin:
“Draxx.”

1:17:50 Amy:
“Where someone said, ‘My brother,’ I think it was they were talking about
their brother, they watched the movie and their brother was just incredibly
struck by watching Draxx.”

1:18:00 Taliesin:
“In the movie!”

1:18:00 Amy:
“Literally for comedic effect, in the movie, their brother said, ‘That’s
how I see the world!’ And so, that’s one of those, without intending to
necessarily create a representation in an old hero, they did something that
reached that viewer in a really special way.”

1:18:18 Taliesin:
“Please don’t read Draxx in the comics, by the way. Nah.”

1:18:20 Amy:
“Quite different!”

1:18:20 Taliesin:
“Not yet, not yet!”

1:18:21 Matt:
“Very different. But I think there’s something to be said for seeing– I
feel like so many times– And I know this from my dealing with depression, you
can feel– I’m saying, me dealing with my depression and extrapolating that to
someone who’s dealing with autism, and that’s the best that I can do. But it’s
good to see people who I know are depressed, who also kind of are able to
manage it and see their own value, and continue to push through into the world
and do their own thing. And I would imagine that someone with autism, on the
spectrum in any capacity, would also enjoy that. And see that Draxx actually
has an immense amount of value, and is invaluable to the team.”

1:19:09 Amy:
“Not related to his ability to pick up social cues.”

1:19:09 Matt:
“And despite his shortcomings or whatever else, despite all of that…”

1:19:12 Taliesin:
“Which actually just makes him adored, and fabulous, and fun, and great.
Without that he’d be less of a character.”

1:19:18 Matt:
“So, there’s something to be said for, yes, this is something that you
have to manage, and maybe something that you have to deal with, and maybe even
something that you get made fun of, but that’s also a wonderful part of who you
are.”

1:19:30 Taliesin:
“And we have this– Thanks to these cameras we have this wonderful
community of people who can litmus test some stuff for us and tell us what they
think.”

1:19:38 Amy:
“Are you checking us? Because that’s important.”

1:19:40 Taliesin:
“Please! I’m so excited. I’m so
excited to have people read some of these books, and I want to hear what you
have to say.”

1:19:47

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