Category Archives: Media

Game of Thrones

The prominence (and end) of the top 15 female and male characters in Game of Thrones over 8 seasons

Game of Thrones is an extremely succesfull series that has been the subject of several detailed studies of its content and portrayals. I am usually interested in the depiction of autistic and disabled characters, but Game of Thrones offers a great opportunity to compare my own techniques and visualizations with those created by others.

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Creating Autism – Conclusions

Creating Autism – a four-part posting
1 History – 2 Geography – 3 Perspective – 4 Conclusions

Autism: Nature, Perception, Word

Autism is a collection of natural phenomena, a syndrome of traits and behaviours that arise from neurological variations in early development. A combination of sufficiently clear autistic signs, in a particular set of combination, will be perceived by a trained observer as ‘autism’ and then assigned a particular diagnostic label for future intervention.

Autism is a set of perceptions and portrayals of autism, as specific characters in fiction, as stereotypes of what autistic people are like, and as psychiatric and educational expectations of how this diagnosis is managed.

Autism is a word, a symbolic shorthand used to simplify communication about a complex world of perceptions and phenomena into clear and concise language. ‘Autism’ is a special educational need and a residential care plan.

Autism exists simultaneously in multiple, overlapping plains – natural phenomena, perceptions, and words – that serve to both highlight and to obscure the people who inhabit the label. Being autistic means having some elements of the diagnostic criteria that make up autism, but in a unique and individual combination. Being labelled ‘autistic’ is a key to intervention and understanding, but the label also obscures the human complexity of the person who has been labelled. No two autistic people are alike.

Autism has changed dramatically since it was first used in its modern sense, and the label continues to evolve with scientific enquiry and professional experience. As a result, when two different people say ‘autism’ they are probably saying two different things. The autism of 2019 is not the same set of phenomena or perceptions as the autism of 1952. The autism portrayed by the character Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman) in ‘Rain Man’ in 1988 is not the same as the autism portrayed by Billy Cranston (RJ Cyler) in ‘Power Rangers’ in 2017.

Autism, being bound to perceptions, portrayals, individuals and events, means different things in different places. The presence of genetic research, community support, special educational resources, personal tragedy or charismatic autistic speakers all colour the reporting and representation of autism at specific times and in specific places. Self-image and self-worth are also coloured by public representations of others who share the same label. The attitudes toward people labelled with autism are shaped by public representation.

Choosing how to talk about autistic people – and the words are most definitely a choice – has a profound impact on how interventions for autism operate and how autistic are perceived and integrated within society.

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Creating Autism – Perspective

Creating Autism – a four-part posting
1 History – 2 Geography – 3 Perspective – 4 Conclusions

Language is a complex network of interconnected words, like grooves guiding sentences. Deeply-etched language grooves are easy to say or write, reinforcing common perceptions and misconceptions.

Labels help to identify common themes, interests and categories of people, guiding us to appropriate responses and to like-minded communities. But we should always see the person before the label.

Different word choices can centre or remove the person in a narrative – ‘autism’ is a noun and a subject in its own right, whereas ‘autistic’ is an adjective demanding a noun – a child, son, partner or other human subject.

A word diagram contrasting how Irish newspapers write about ‘autism’ (and possibly, but often not, person-first use), with how they write about ‘autistic’ subjects (and almost always identity-first language). It is easy to omit and forget the person when writing about ‘autism’.

Language is full of familiar patterns that are much easier to write or to say because they are widely used, often without much conscious thought about exact word choice. Familiar patterns of word use shape how we feel about a word – we talk about suffering from autism, or autism in a classroom. It is easy to forget to include the human subject in a conversation about autism traits, autism parenting or autism interventions.

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Creating Autism – Geography

Creating Autism – a four-part posting
1 History – 2 Geography – 3 Perspective – 4 Conclusions

Descriptions of autism vary between places, both globally around the world, between different languages and even between the provinces of Ireland.

An emotional tone is set by the words used, which is as real as the events reported – in comparison to Leinster, there is more anticipation and trust in Connacht; more joy and surprise in Munster; and more fear and sadness in Ulster.

Individual identity and self-worth are affected by the words and emotions other people use to respond to both the individual and to the group – autistic people – that an individual is labelled with.

A word map of the most frequent words in 3,500 news items about autism in Irish newspapers over the past fifteen years. Each word is sized according to frequency (big text for words used most) and placed in the province it is most associated with. What impact does it have to grow up in Munster, full of activism and community spirit? Or in Connacht, where autism is linked with gene therapy, research for future treatment and remote professors?
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Creating Autism – History

Creating Autism – a four-part posting
1 History – 2 Geography – 3 Perspective – 4 Conclusions

My exhibition “Creating Autism” is in St Peter’s Cork for most of February 2019, with a programme of associated events and talks. Please try to see the work as a whole in the gallery, and if you aren’t autistic, try to go with someone who is!

My preview video, text brochure and other materials will give you an idea of what to expect.

The exhibition puts forward the view that “autism” is a real, biological and neurological entity, but also an entire set of parallel meanings embedded in language and experience. These alternative “autisms” overlap, portray autistic people in different ways in different times, places and contexts, and are frequently quite incompatible with one another. We have the opportunity to seize the metaphor and create the autism we want – a consensus that will suit us individually to different degrees.

Some of the images use sampled video to create composite still images that explore my sensory experience of living in a city and sharing an environment that is often intense and alien, designed for a majority who either love sensory stimulation, or are simply not distracted and made anxious by sensory overload.

This story will be in four parts: this History, Geography, Perspective and some Conclusions.

One of the defining versions of “autism” is medical or psychiatric criteria for the diagnosis of autism. These have changed dramatically over the past seventy years. The title image is a plywood sheet with the words “creating autism” overlaid with printed text in layers. These are strips torn from pages of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders containing the diagnostic criteria and descriptions of autism. The final layer of text in the collage is taken from autobiographies written by autistic people. (I am not a complete philistine, so these are colour photocopies and no books suffered in the making of this collage).

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Exhibition on “The Portrayal of Autism”

Autism by Irish province
A map of the most frequent words in news articles mentioning autism, by Irish province – different place, different autism?

In a few months (the whole of February 2019) I will be exhibiting data visualization, digital images and photographs related to the portrayal of autism in St Peter’s Gallery on North Main Street in Cork. The exhibition will be accompanied by presentations and a panel discussion open to the public. These include:

“Working with autistic people to make art”, “Special needs education and the formation of personal identity”, “An Autism-Friendly space initiative”, and “How disability and difference find spatial signatures”
and
A panel discussion featuring all speakers, open to questions

Much of the content is based on ideas and images that I have previously posted here, so you will have a good idea of what to expect if you look through my blog history. Continue reading Exhibition on “The Portrayal of Autism”

Studying narrative in film and novels through data visualization

I love statistics and numerical analysis, a love that many people do not share — statistics is one of quickest ways to halt a dinner conversation. Statistics is a style of argument that is neither right nor wrong, as useful as any other logical process and has a beauty in summarising or visualizing the subjects under examination in ways that allow two or more things to be compared.

In the case of film, it can be hard to communicate the incredible experience of sitting for an hour or two, absorbed in action, dramatic tension and emotion. Critics reviews and plot summaries (like those on IMDb) are one method of side-by-side comparison, or even more briefly in the star-ratings (e.g. 8.5 out of 10 for “Psycho”). This post describes some numerical and sampling techniques that I use to create single-image summaries of films and books. These images make stunning wall posters and I have had a few printed as big as 30″ by 20″ to display.

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Asperger syndrome film discussion group

AutismFeature Films
Feature films with a leading autistic character

In each of the last two years I have been involved in a film discussion group run by and for people with an Asperger syndrome or autism spectrum diagnosis. The group has fluctuated in membership between four and twelve people, with a core of continuous members. We have watched predominantly feature films and documentaries in which at least one principal character is explicitly identified as ’autistic’ within the film, in publicity material or according to audiences. Our group has displayed a phenomenal knowledge of cinema, television and relevant links to other art forms such as fiction, graphic novels and computer games with the same characters. The film discussion group has been a positive experience with a good reception.

The enthusiasm of the group and the incredible depth and breadth of knowledge about cinema and media shows a huge wealth of systematic learning while viewing, perhaps at a level that family and others are not aware. Reading ’comics’, playing console games and watching ’kid’s TV’ can have undiscovered depths of meaning for people who have limited opportunities to discuss their particular interests.

I hope this blog post might encourage you to start discussion groups of film, fiction or whatever areas interest you, and I would be pleased offer advice or attend further sessions. I would be especially interested in any public screenings of autism-themed films — the Cork Film Festival screening of “Life, Animated” (http://corkfilmfest.org/events/life-animated/) and panel discussion (which I was thrilled to be part of) was packed, and all the feedback that reached me was incredibly positive.

Some initial resources that might help are a Guardian article on “How to start a film club” (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/sep/12/how-to-start-a-film-club) and a BBC Radio 4 feature on “Running a bookclub” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/book-club/running-a-club/). You can find a starter list of autism-themed films (http://gallery.stuartneilson.com/index.php?album=Autism-films/Autism-feature-films) and fictional books (http://gallery.stuartneilson.com/index.php?album=ASD-fiction) on my website.

(Thanks especially to those who provided the resources, planning skills and personal support to get our group running, regularly, on time and in a comfortable space).

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How newspapers write about autism

The word ‘autism’ in context in newspaper articles

I have written before about the major topics that appear in newspaper articles that are “about autism”*, with their bias towards articles that mention boys, children, mothering and negative words. Autism is more often written about as a disorder, of a child, in the context of a parent (usually the mother) and as a sufferer, victim or burden. In this post I am looking at how newspapers write about autism itself, the choice of wording and phrasing that surround the words ‘autism’, ‘autistic’ or ‘Asperger’. Trying to visualise the use of words, in large volumes of text, is a very exciting topic and the results here are well worth studying in detail.

My own position on the use of words is to try to accurately reflect the terms that people choose themselves, or in the sources that I am referencing. The images here are convincing evidence that some word choices have a significant effect on positive reporting. In particular, the (identity-first language) adjective ‘autistic’ favours thoughts about personhood and the (person-first language) noun ‘autism’ is associated with negative, dehumanised phrasing. This is consistent with the findings of the survey “Which terms should be used to describe autism? Perspectives from the UK autism community”.

There are some technical notes at the end for anyone interested in the computer methods used to produce the images.

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