The power of pop culture (redux)

A lot is being said about the pilot episode of ABC’s new legal drama Eli Stone, in which the title character successfully sues a vaccine manufacturer on behalf of a family who believes their son’s autism was caused by the vaccine (or, more accurately, an extra substance in the vaccine). Instead of discussing this show in particular, I decided to re-post this from last February. (The bold passages toward the end of the post were added for this re-post.)
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I will be the first to admit that I am a huge consumer of pop culture. I like to watch good TV (no, it’s not an oxymoron) and film, I keep up with the latest in music (yes, some of it is awful), love video games, and read the occasional novel (though most of my reading these days is non-fiction). It comes through every now and then, like in my October post “Every soul is perfect” – Is there autism in heaven? (Redux), a reflection on how autism was treated on the CBS show Ghost Whisperer.

In response to that post, Ian Parker submitted the following:

Um, regarding heaven and ‘perfect souls’, I would hope that people do not determine their religious beliefs based on the pseudo-religious-philosophical musings of the writers of Ghost Whisperer. At least take the time to consider what Homer has to say before coming to any final decision on such weighty matters.

I share Ian’s hope that people are smarter than that, and am doing my part by helping my sons understand what they consume in a smart way, I am a bit of a pessimist when it comes to actually thinking this is the case (a rare instance of a glass-half-empty feeling on my part).

For good or ill, pop-culture is a driving force in many (most?) people’s perception of the world and their actions in the world. Because of that one episode of Ghost Whisperer, I would venture a guess that many people’s perceptions of autism now include one of “imperfection” here on Earth, the image of a “lost soul” trapped inside an uncooperative body.

Why am I re-hashing this, you may ask. These thoughts came to mind as I came toward the end of Roy Grinker’s new book, Unstrange Minds. In it, Grinker relates the story of how a popular film in Korea has helped reshape Korean attitudes about autism in a positive way. From the book (page 256-257, sorry for the long excerpt):

That month a low-budget Korean film entitled Malaton (spelled the way the main character pronounces the English work “marathon”) was released. The film was based loosely on the real-life story of a young runner name Bae Hyong-Jin. Bae worked part-time on an assembly line in a tool factory when, at the age of seventeen, he ran a marathon in Chuncheon, Korea, in 2 hours 57 minutes. While not anywhere near elite runner times, which are under 2 hours 8 minutes, Bae’s time was enough to earn him national recognition. Why? Because Bae Hyong-Jin has autism.

But the film is not about running. It’s about the complexity of autism as a disorder and the problems people with autism confront in their family and social lives. it is one of the most realistic and compelling cinematic representations of autism that I’ve ever seen. The film was made after the Korean media began to publish stories about people with autism. The media had begun to publish the stories because parents, informed by the Internet and the international media, started to talk about autism in public.

Within one month after its release, more that 10 percent of the Korean population had seen the movie, and it was the second-largest moneymaker in the Korean film industry in 2005. Largely as a consequence of the film, millions of Koreans have a least a basic understanding of autism. On web site chat boards, disability rights advocates, parents, and educators in Korea are claiming that more diagnoses are being made, that people are more willing to bring their children with autism out in public, and that educators are more willing to accommodate children with autism in their classrooms. No one knows whether these changes will last, but optimism is sweeping the country. Parents of children with developmental problems think that their children may have brighter future than they previously imagined.

While autism is much more public in the US than it is in Korea, there is still a lot of ignorance of what exactly autism is, what it means, how it should be handled, etc. Any news story, TV show, or film that deals with the topic is absorbed by a curious public. And, in the absence of any other information (that doesn’t require actually going out and finding it), what people see from these sources is what they will believe, what they will think is the truth.

What if the film the Koreans had seen were Autism Every Day? Their pre-existing stereotypes would have been confirmed. Here in the US, what if Autism Speaks had had the budget to put up a couple of spots during the Super Bowl, with the largest single TV audience in history? What if NBC had broadcast the Super Bowl?

As much as we may wish it were not so, we can’t ignore the power of pop-culture and the influence it has had, and will continue to have, on the public perception of autism.
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