Optimism and Autism
There is a lesson to be learned from the changing tone of media in recent years, and I believe it applies to autism. The most successful books and movies are more pessimistic than their older counterparts. Even if superficial, setting and tone have gradually darkened throughout the 21st century, with some variation. I’ve wondered why for quite some time. I understand my personal preferences, but why do so many people who struggle to find happiness seek morally complex narratives instead of overwhelmingly positive ones done well, like the Christopher Reeves era superman movies.
It is in this question of moral complexity that I believe the answer lies. In times of economic recession, more hopeful and superhero-esque stories become popular. This cycle has seen the rise of the glorious Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in spite of the 2008 recession the trend of darker stories continues. Even in the morally clean world of marvel the films are darker and edgier than their originals. I believe that the reason I prefer darker stories applies to many people: they want the fiction they consume to seem less absurd. Even when watching a film about laser-katana-wielding space communists fighting against the robot armies of capitalism, the piece of disbelief I cannot successfully suspend is how optimistic characters are in the face of impossible odds. In the real world, good people do bad things and bad people have their justifications. We are exhausted by the constant questions of morality and relativism in the modern world, but without them we see a story that doesn’t seem real. This is continued in the existence of credible threat-without credible threat to the characters, storytelling may be funny but it fails to get emotional investment out of its audience. People want more morally complex or dark stories because we no longer worry when a protagonist is at risk-unless the story is a piece of fiction like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. In these darker series, any character can die at any time, so our investment is more powerful. We hope characters survive because we DON’T know that they’ll make it through to the end.
Upbeat stories are meant to impart their hope unto us, but I rarely feel uplifted when a character fated to win by the god named Plot does exactly that. I want stories where a character faces impossible odds and reacts as I would-with fear, uncertainty, and maybe even anger at their situation. I want to sympathize with characters because they don’t know that they should believe in themselves, but they struggle to believe and triumph in spite of the odds stacked against them. After all, the evil empire doesn’t fall because the hero is morally superior-the evil empire falls because the protagonist (not always a hero) burned it to the ground with a can of gas, a piece of flint, and their irrepressible urge to light things on fire.
I know I’m not the only person who feels this way, although I have no doubt that I take fiction more seriously than most people. I struggle to believe that the world is a good place where the moral arc of humanity moves ever forward. What I do believe, however, is that through great personal effort and a little bit of luck, an individual can make a positive change in the world. If I didn’t believe this, I don’t know how I could find the will to move forward on my path. However, there was a time where I didn’t believe this and I wasn’t sure if my path was an appropriate one. It was through this struggle to believe-just like the characters in the darker fiction of the modern age-that I was able to find true purpose.
Now we get to the autism piece. For those of you who don’t know, my name is Joel Carver. I’m a recent graduate from the College of William and Mary, and I’m autistic. I have only lived one life, but I know that autistic people everywhere struggle to believe that things can be better. The idea that people are good is directly in conflict with our personal experiences and the experiences of those autistic people with whom we communicate. We want to believe that in the world there is a place for us. That, however, isn’t quite what I have experienced. The world does not make room for people on its own, and outside of our allies autistic people don’t have much support. Not yet. But there is a universal truth that it took me twenty years to find: within every person, and much more so in every autistic person, there is the will to find somewhere they belong even if they have to carve it out with their own bare hands. One day I hope that there are spaces for Autistic people to be themselves and a world order that supports all types of brain function. Today, I hope that each Autistic person is able to embrace the will within them which has changed my world and find happiness in their own lives.
I wish to impart hope into any Autistic people reading this article, and to those who help them through direct care, finances, or any other method of support. There is hope for you and for all of us. Keep fighting.