Why TV Needs More People “On the Spectrum”

saga noren, the bridge

“The Bridge” asks us empathize with its lead character, and we do. In a world where more and more of us discover that we – or our loved ones – can be located somewhere “on the spectrum,” what a gift and a comfort this small television program provides.

LONDON – An old friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen in years recently visited us in London. We talked about the usual stuff: His job. His wife’s job. His home town (where we used to live). When I asked after his ten-year-old daughter, he responded: ” She’s quite spectrum-y, so we’ve gotten her into horseback riding. It really helps.”

Spectrum-y. I smiled. While I knew that he was referring to being “on the spectrum,” I’d not yet encountered the adjectival form of this condition. I also smiled because as an American living in London for the past nine years, I welcomed the unabashed, un-self-conscious way he dropped this fact into the conversation, rather than the hush-hush, highly coded way these sorts of issues still get talked about over here in Britain.

Autism Spectrum Disorder” – for those of you not in the know – refers to “any of a group of developmental disorders (as autism and Asperger’s syndrome) marked by impairments in the ability to communicate and interact socially and by the presence of repetitive behaviors or restricted interests.” That’s the formal definition. More colloquially the term “on the spectrum” tends to refer to people with social tics or awkwardness.

We all know people like this. We work with them.  We go to school with them.  They are our friends and our siblings and our children.

According to the Autism Society, more than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder. The percent of children in the U.S. classified as “on the spectrum” rose by 119.4 percent from 2000 to 2010, from 1 in 150 kids to 1 in 68. Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability.

That’s an awful lot of “spectrum-y” people floating around out there. Which is why it’s really important that the entertainment industry – and television in particular – begins to acknowledge this form of identity and captures it in its characters.

I had reason to think about this recently because I’ve become obsessed with the Danish/Swedish crime drama The Bridge. Coming in a long line of superb Nordic crime dramas like The Killing and Borgen, The Bridge is even grislier and more unsettling. (I’m told that there’s an American version set on the Texas/Mexico border, but I’ve not yet seen it.)

But the real appeal of The Bridge is the lead character – a lady detective called Saga Noren played by the brilliant Sofia Helin who is – yup, you guessed it – “spectrum-y.” Saga blurts out inappropriate questions to her colleagues, sees nothing wrong with changing her shirt in front of 20 people at work, mismanages emotionally delicate conversations with victims of crimes and has real trouble being close to anyone emotionally – even the people she works with fighting crime 24/7.

At first it’s tempting to laugh at Saga’s eccentricities. She’s so…odd. But as we grow to know and love her we start to forgive her limitations and appreciate her strengths: she’s wicked smart and eerily perceptive about criminal behaviour. We even come to appreciate her unvarnished directness. (When she wants to have sex, she goes to a single’s club and, well, asks a complete stranger for sex…No small talk. No flirtation. Hey, why beat around the bush?)

Over time, we find ourselves wanting others like her new boss in Season Three to stop bullying her and instead and try to get the best out of her many talents rather than stigmatising and punishing her for her social awkwardness. (To my mind, the only flaw in the portrait of Saga is that it suggests that her personality disorder stems from emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of her parents during her childhood, rather than the fact that she was simply born that way.)

I remember when Jack Nicholson won an Oscar for his performance in As Good As It Gets, in which he portrayed a grown man with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder who engages in ritualistic behaviours and has trouble maintaining close relationships. It wasn’t a great film but it was rightly celebrated for addressing mental illness straight on in  a Hollywood film with a big ticket movie star.

In a similar vein, The Bridge asks us empathise with its lead character, and we do. In a world where more and more of us discover that we – or our loved ones – can be located somewhere “on the spectrum,” what a gift and a comfort this small television program provides.

Delia Lloyd is an American writer based in London. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Guardian. She blogs about adulthood at realdelia.com.

Image: Saga Noren by Hans Drieman via Flickr

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