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Firefly’s River Tam is an example of Autism

Thursday 3 April 2008, by Webmaster

Taking a moment for National Autism Awareness Day

In case you didn’t know, today is National Autism Awareness Day. Of course, if you’re one of the parents of the 1-in-150 children born today that suffer with autistic spectrum disorder, every day is autism awareness day. I initially thought I’d commemorate the day by writing a gallery of Great Depictions of Autism in Movies and TV — but when I started to look, I didn’t find all that many. There are a few terrific documentaries out there, like Autism Every Day (which I saw at Sundance a few years back, and wrecked me) and HBO’s Autism: The Musical, but I couldn’t find enough to fill out a decent list.

The acknowledged cinematic standard-bearer is Rain Man — a fine movie, to be sure, and Dustin Hoffman’s performance was deft and heartfelt. But he was playing an autistic-savant, a very rare autism subset which doesn’t reflect the condition as it resides in most households.

Oddly enough, I found one of the most mature, knowing, tender portrayals of a child with autism in the last place I’d have thought to look. Maybe because I’d been looking at it all along.

In doing my "research" for our awesome new PopWatch feature Firefly Fridays (I know, tough job I’ve got, watching a show that I already love again and again), I noticed something that I hadn’t before. Despite the sci-fi frooferoo, Summer Glau’s River Tam (pictured, right, with Sean Maher as her brother, Simon) is, for all intents and purposes, autistic. She wavers between lucidity and mania, she "stims" with her hands, she repeats phrases over and over (known as echolalia); the only thing predictable about her is that she’s unpredictable. But she can also be sweet, and playful, and a joy to be around.

Which, now that I think about it, is exactly how I’d describe my five-year-old daughter. Of course, my kid isn’t a government-created killing machine and there’s no "easy" remedy for what ails her, no one to blame. But Joss Whedon’s show doesn’t skirt River’s illness, doesn’t soft-pedal it, and doesn’t ever make it look easy to live with.

So, for the rest of today — heck, give it the whole month, since April is Autism Awareness Month — if you see a parent struggling with a child who seems a little too energetic, a little too loud, a little too much... think a moment before wondering why said parent can’t get a handle on their kid. Do it for River.