Feeling Through Media: Autism and Trauma

Media such as movies, books, tv shows, comics, etc, with characters and storytelling are often safer ways for neurodivergent people to experience the world, learn. We’re given moral lessons and understanding of how different people express and cope with emotions, but the consumption is regulated and handpicked by us. Our special interests are appealed or we grow attached to a character we novelly empathize with. 

We may avoid the failures of practice by trial and error, potentially causing difficulties in advancing our social skills, but storytelling media gives us guidance we may lack from people who don’t understand us and our needs. A well rounded understanding of social skills requires practice and engagement but when many of us find it seemingly impossible to begin the journey, media helps us take the leap. A person can rarely sustain a happy and fulfilling life revolving solely upon escapism. Still, without the aid of our favourite characters and plots, many of us who are autistic and traumatized would have a far more strenuous a struggle with our place in, and our understanding of, the world.

70’s tragicomedy series M*A*S*H formulated my early understanding of right and wrong. I learnt that bad people may do good things, but these actions don’t negate their evil, and that good people may do bad things but their goodness doesn’t change the wrongness of their actions. The complicated psychology of humans was taught by fictional crises based on reality and dimensional characters. I could begin to understand my own suffering watching others cope with impossible situations. I developed critical thinking skills regarding the military, looking past the fact my father was in the army to form my own anti-war and anti-military opinions. 

As a teenager, beginning to be cognizant of the social cruelties I and others were subjected to, media was a landscape I could critique and build my own moral opinions upon. I looked back at M*A*S*H with an appreciation for where it had failed spectacularly, and where it taught lessons beyond its time about racism, homophobia, and misogyny. 

The playground of fiction is a place where people with autism and/or trauma can explore what it means to be alive without the criticizing eyes of neurotypical people looking over our shoulders. Most media we consume isn’t created by neurodivergent people but each person has a unique way of interacting with and absorbing information— I can find aspects of my experiences in most storytelling if I look for it.

What neurotypical people find strange and surreal, we find familiar. The haven of entertainment media is an important place to recognize and honour. As always we have to be aware of the seductive temptation of escapism to be sure this haven doesn’t become a cage, but the deepest truths are of connection, empathy, and learning. Temperance keeps the use of media productive rather than enabling hindrances to social development.

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