Autism in the Middle
by Wendy Wagner — Johnson & Wales University
April 08, 2011 – 00:00
To compile a list of television characters on the autism spectrum is to identify many of the most unusual and exceptional figures on television: the brainy awkwardness of Temperance "Bones" Brennan and Sheldon Cooper; the behavioral oddities of Jerry Espenson; the encyclopedic pop culture knowledge of Abed Nadir. Even the realistically portrayed 9-year-old Max Braverman serves as a catalyst for the adult characters to question their parenting ability.
Nine-year-old Brick Heck on The Middle isn’t specified as being on the autism spectrum. But his traits parallel those of children with high-functioning Asperger Syndrome. He prefers reading to most social interaction, does not easily make friends, and is in a social skills group. He has a nearly photographic memory of the books (and appliance manuals) he reads. He demonstrates palilalia, a verbal tic that compels him to repeat and whisper the last word of a sentence to himself.
Though Brick has some savant characteristics, it is notable how the show, based as it is on the idea that it’s ok to be average, argues against treating Brick as particularly exceptional. In fact, special treatment is deliberately portrayed as negative for Brick. His teacher drags him from the back of the room, where he can read in peace, into the front row so she can "keep an eye on" Brick.
To some degree Brick’s "autistic presence," to cite Stuart Murray’s term, is used for narrative effect; it becomes a metaphor for the ways that parents and children do not understand each other. But it co-exists alongside his brother’s indolence and his sister’s enthusiasm, characteristics that are not normally deployed as metaphors of difference but do emphasize the distance between these parents and their children.
Brick’s autistic characteristics are presented neither as exceptional, nor as an example of a challenge to overcome. He does not assert an autistic subjectivity in this narrative that is ultimately about the travails of middle-class parents in the middle of America. But what he does represent is far more radical in the current popular culture landscape: the idea that autism is just another kind of normal.