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Autism and Eureka (or Why Allison Blake is a Great Big Jerk) - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Autism and Eureka (or Why Allison Blake is a Great Big Jerk) [Nov. 9th, 2010|12:15 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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So Eureka appears to be on hiatus until after Christmas, giving me plenty of time to fuss, fume, and explain why its treatment of its major autistic character, Kevin Blake, makes me want to punch things.

In the Pilot, we meet Kevin, and he's just a kid. His mom, who runs Global Dynamics, explains to the new sheriff, Jack Carter, that Kevin is brilliant but severely autistic, that he rarely interacts with anyone. He interacts with Jack, however, and helps to Save The Day, and the young actor who plays Kevin does a pretty fair job of holding both his body and his chalk like some autistic kids we've known. There's a little bit of the Magical Autism Powers problem, but on the whole Kevin gets to be a contributing member of the team. While his mom is a little overprotective, the other people say, hey, we have a problem, it's in Kevin's field of expertise, well done Kevin, good show. Like, y'know. He's a person or something. Go figure. So when timprov and I first watched this, we had great hopes that Kevin would continue to be a character who was treated like a person--a person with autism. A person who didn't want to do social chitchat with the other characters, a person who sometimes had very specific sensory issues that provoked severe reactions. Still: a person. Good good.

Things go downhill from there, with Magical Autism Powers coming more to the fore and treating Kevin like a person being less of a thing--alternating in, of course, with the regular television problem: if an adult character has a child who does not receive top billing, that child only exists when it's convenient to the plot. Being a single parent with an autistic kid never, ever means that you have to go home suddenly for his sake or that childcare is an issue or that there are any issues at school or...anything even remotely inconvenient. He requires no attention in public places unless he is about to do something plotworthy. He is no longer Kevin, person, potential team member. He is now Magical Autism Powers Source.

Then it got worse.

At the beginning of season 4, several of the adult characters traveled back in time, then forward to a slightly different timeline. In this timeline, there are slight changes to the administrative structure, one character is married who was single before, and various other things.

And Kevin is not autistic.

Not only that, he never was one. [/ob. Gilbert and Sullivan reference] It's not a Eureka moment, where he is stated to have been cured of his autism by an experiment that happened in timeline2 but not in timeline1--because they are really, really not thinking this through, because one of the major things that would change in a shifted timeline is that people would have done somewhat different experiments. Because the experiments are the lifeblood of these people. But anyway: if they had gone with "Kevin Blake was born autistic, but he was cured last year," there would be chewier problems than they would really want to wrestle with, about the nature of curing someone's natural default brain wiring, when a child can give meaningful consent to that and when their parent can ethically consent to it for them, that sort of thing that would be interesting conversation to have.

But no. No, there is no making Kevin neurotypical, because in this timeline he has always been neurotypical. His type of autism in timeline1 was extremely severe, rarely talking to others, etc. This is not the type of high-functioning kid many of us have in our lives. He's not someone who had to have small details of social rules explained to him, he's someone who could barely carry on any social conversation or want to. Fairly far out the spectrum. And then in timeline2 he is a highly sociable neurotypical teenager.

And here is where I get really screamy: Allison's only problem is that she doesn't have experience parenting a highly sociable NT teenager--and even there, she doesn't trip over habits like laying out clothes for him or doing other stuff that a NT teenager would do for himself and a kid who was way out the autism spectrum might well not do. She does not, for example, have a habit of going into his room all the time that she has to overcome. But most importantly to me, she doesn't have a problem with the fact that this is not her kid, it's another kid who looks like him. This is, in effect, not Kevin. It's Kevin2.

Because here's the thing: when you give somebody a completely different brain from birth, what do you get? You get a completely different person. His memories of which things are painful and which things are soothing? Different. His memories of when he talked and when he remained silent, when he tried to seek comfort and what he sought for that comfort, what was interesting and what was boring as all get-out? Different, different, different. Making him, from the outset, a different person.

A different person, and Allison has not, apparently, thought twice about the original person, or missed him.

And so far Kevin2 doesn't seem to have noticed that he and his mother do not seem to share memories, like, at all. Remember the time we...no, we didn't do that because I was in another timeline taking another you to therapy. How about that one Christmas--no, the lights were really painful for you, we had a completely different kind of Christmas that year--what are you talking about, Mom, I love flashing lights, the more the better. What do autistic people like? What do neurotypical people like? You can't predict it just from knowing that one fact about them. Kevin and Kevin2 likely have a great many things in common, but they also likely have a great many things not in common. Kevin2, for example, might have contracted a nasty ear infection from wanting to play more closely with one particular kid at day care and ended up with vestibular damage like mine, or hearing damage--whereas Kevin might have avoided it because he was less interested in that kid than in a particularly intriguing set of puzzles. Or with Kevin's decreased speech, he might get the same ear infection and communicate less about it and wind up with more damage from the same problem. The world is full of small variables like that, all of them unpredictable. And by the time you go from birth to age 15 or so, they add up to completely different people.

But in Eureka, Allison Blake's only reaction is, "Yay! I have a kid who looks like my real kid but isn't 'broken'!"

Go to hell, Allison Blake. I hate you. You should at least be conflicted. You should at least have noticed the difference. You should miss your real kid. I know--no, that's the wrong verb. In fact, I don't know. I don't know how hard it is to parent a severely autistic kid. I haven't been there; I don't know. But I do know that no matter how their brains are wired, your family is your family, and you do not trade kids in for easier, more charming, more "normal" models. Sometimes you try to help them get healthier, and sometimes there are very complicated discussions to be had about what is helpful and what healthier means. But wholesale trading in is not the same thing. I was prepared for it to take a few episodes to sink in, but we're several several episodes in, with several opportunities, and I have more or less given up. So now I'm cheering against Allison Blake. What a jerk.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: ex_truepenn
2010-11-09 06:30 pm (UTC)
I have never watched Eureka (in fact, I'd never heard of it before), but this is an awesome post.
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[User Picture]From: ashnistrike
2010-11-09 06:32 pm (UTC)
Ew. This is me not regretting having given up on the show at the beginning of Season 2.
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2010-11-09 06:32 pm (UTC)
I've been slowly catching up on Netflix streaming. This isn't new--it started in the S2 dream-sharing episode, where Allison shared Kevin's dream, and he was a totally normal kid in his head who could talk to her and everything! She even said something like "He was normal! It was so great!"

This is also the episode where Jo dreamed that Nathan and Fargo were fighting over helpless little her, and Fargo won. Also not a single person in the entire town had a flying dream or a Nobel-banquet dream or anything but horrible embarrassing dreams.

And I went, "Oh, show. Goodbye." It's a shame; I really liked Henry, and wanted to see how he was going to deal with having mindwiped Jack. But he's not worth putting up with the rest of it.
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[User Picture]From: swords_and_pens
2010-11-09 06:42 pm (UTC)
1. Great post. Thank you.

2. I've never watched Eureka, and now never will.

3. Yes, it would not be her son! Any person with a child or friend or relative on the spectrum would know this. I hate it when people treat autism like cancer or some other condition that a magic bullet could make "All Better" and make everyone instantly happy. No, it doesn't work that way with ASD.

4. I'm incredibly pissed off, but won't take it out here on your blog.

5. Again, thanks.
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[User Picture]From: cathshaffer
2010-11-09 06:56 pm (UTC)
Interesting. I haven't watched the program, but I agree that the mother should be dealing with feelings of loss. We grieve even as our children go through the normal stages of development, because we have lost the "baby" or the "toddler" that they used to be.

I am not sure I agree that Kevin2 is a completely different person than Kevin. Although autism can be an important part of a person's outward identity, I do believe there is an inner identity that is the same. Loss of shared experiences and memories? Yeah, that's a big deal. As a comparison, you can imagine the changes someone might experience after traumatic brain injury. Their friends and family will be affected by the change in personality and function level, but should they grieve because their loved one is actually dead? I don't think so.

I would also expect to see the mother needing to work on bonding and building a relationship with Kevin2, since she doesn't really know this new version of her son. They don't share the same memories, she now doesn't know all of his likes and dislikes, etc. It does sound like they've not done justice to the relationship.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-11-09 07:58 pm (UTC)
I think part of the thing about a traumatic brain injury, though, is that you still have shared memories of you and Granny X or you and Uncle Y. Even if Granny X can't access those shared memories because of the injury, you know they happened, and they may have affected the parts of her brain she can access.

But in this scenario, those shared memories don't exist. At all. They can't have shaped any part of Kevin2's brain, because they didn't happen to Kevin2.

And yes, if Allison is stuck in timeline2, she needs to work on building a relationship with Kevin2. But early in the season, that was by no means certain--except that she wanted it to be certain. When other characters were talking about getting home to their original timeline, she had exactly zero interest in returning to the kid with whom she had an actual relationship.
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2010-11-10 09:11 am (UTC)
I don't watch the show - in its universe, what happens to Timeline 1 while characters are in Timeline 2? Did it never exist or was there a switch of characters or what? Because another facet of your last sentence there could be, "zero interest in returning to the kid who needs her." If he still exists.

Perhaps this is another TV problem, though a less frequent one: parents have no trouble bonding to a different version of their kid unless that's the main focus of the plot. (Books usually deal with this in some way or another; there's always a way to make sure parents don't notice the switch, or else people are desperately trying to act like their alter ego so no one will notice the change.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-11-10 01:03 pm (UTC)
They are not clear on what happens to timeline1. In my head, what happens to her kid is that the town pulls together and takes care of him the way it apparently does in all the long hours when she's running around going, "Doo de doo, do I have a kid? Am I a single parent? Tee hee, I forgot!" But yes, hypothetically she has left him and her toddler in timeline1 without any parent, or else she has switched places with a woman who has raised a neurotypical kid for 15 years and is now having to parent a severely autistic 15-year-old from scratch. Good show, Allison.

I think books tend to be focused on the kids, is the thing. And even then, in pameladean's Secret Country books people notice there's something wrong, and I think the kids should be heartily grateful that their parents aren't dealing with their fantastical alter egos, because they would know.
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2010-11-10 01:30 pm (UTC)
Most of the examples I thought of were focused on the kids too, but I did come up with a few cases of adult substitution. For instance in Seanan McGuire's latest, someone's got a doppelganger - and either people ecognize the difference or else there's a good reason why they don't.

Way back when in the TV series Soap, if I recall correctly, no one noticed when Burt was replaced by an alien. But then, they weren't exactly going for realism, and they made a big joke of people not noticing - it wasn't just taken for granted.

Just thought of a better example: in all the old fairy tales, when someone's child is replaced by a changeling, the parents always notice. (Even when the substitute appears to be an identical baby and not just a turnip or something.) There is the book Goddess by Mistake in which the heroine blithely swaps worlds and doesn't seem to worry about whether any of her family and friends back home will care. But for one thing, I understand she does go back in the second book, which I haven't read because for another thing, I wouldn't exactly call that a great example of world- or character-building.
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[User Picture]From: barondave
2010-11-09 07:22 pm (UTC)
Hmm... while all your points are valid in Real Life (tm), this is a work of fiction, and a not particularly good one. It's never been a fave, and has cruised along at the B level. I watch it partially because it's science fiction and partially because the characters are comfortable after all this time and partially because new episodes tend to come on when other shows are in reruns. Eureka has better techobabble than some, but not much real science fiction. It's sort of Green Acres (one sane character amid the kooks) with skiffy but without the surrealism.

I haven't really liked Season 4, largely because they are trying to get around the plot twists and not succeeding. The Allison/Kevin interactions seem as false as the dialog between Henry and his wife or Sheriff Carter and his multifarious girlfriends. The Gaius Baltar character never worked. Still like Max Headroom, though.

How they handled Kevin/Kevin2 is a minus, but not a big one for me. Lost in the downfall of everyone else.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-11-09 08:02 pm (UTC)
I thought I had already requested that people not use "it's only SF" or "it's only fiction" as an excuse for anything done badly when they're discussing it in my lj, as I don't find it very convincing. I'll reiterate that request for those who have forgotten.
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[User Picture]From: barondave
2010-11-09 08:43 pm (UTC)
Sorry, must have missed that request. I'll try to remember, though it's counterintuitive. I still think the Kevin subplot is not the main one that isn't handled well.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-11-09 09:23 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry it's counterintuitive to you not to denigrate my profession, but you'll have to cope.
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[User Picture]From: apis_mellifera
2010-11-09 07:25 pm (UTC)
Well, I guess I won't be watching any more Eureka.
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[User Picture]From: meallanmouse
2010-11-09 07:47 pm (UTC)
Season 4 of Eureka has been problematic for me on every relationship level between those who are out of time and how they handle the rest of the population of the town. So. Much. Skeevy. So very much. /sigh
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[User Picture]From: julii_wolfe
2010-11-09 08:26 pm (UTC)
Thank you for articulating this. This part of the show has been bothering me for a while. Everything having to do with Allison as a mother on the show just doesn't work. For the entirety of season 3 it felt like Kevin had disappeared, and as soon as Kevin2 shows up, her baby Jenna disappears.

The show does a terrible job with the entire "Allison Blake's family" story arc, and undermines anything like-able about the character.

Allison sucks as a parent and the Eureka writers suck in their ideas and presentation of both scientific experiments and alternate time lines.

*grumbles*
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[User Picture]From: ashnistrike
2010-11-09 11:12 pm (UTC)
I didn't want to pile on the commenter, but thank you for your response above. Worldbuilding, to me, is a moral issue. People learn how to interact with the world from their art. The bad worldbuilding in this show is going to have consequences for how real people with autism are treated.

(I'm not arguing for censorship, which I also think is a moral issue. I'm arguing that good storytelling matters.)
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2010-11-10 09:15 am (UTC)
Your second and third sentences there look to me like Very Important Things with much wider implications - so much so that I think I'm going to write them down and thing about them some more.

It's one reason it's problematic when entire classes of people are largely omitted from fiction - menopausal women falling in love, say, or people of color who are scarred by growing up in a world where they have to worry about being stopped for Driving While Brown, or or or or.
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[User Picture]From: ashnistrike
2010-11-10 04:47 pm (UTC)
Exactly. I not only write fiction, I study how and what people learn from it, and "it's just a story" is nonsensical unless you're trying to explain to a kid why they can't fly like Superman.

One recent finding is that people who read mostly fiction get better social skills than people who read mostly non-fiction. It's how we exercise our empathy muscles.

(On a lighter--if irrelevant--note, the corner of my eye keeps telling me that people are being arrested for Driving Dan Brown. Apparently, aiding and abetting bad worldbuilding is also a moral issue.)
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[User Picture]From: dlandon
2010-11-10 12:41 am (UTC)

I was particularly upset in Season 3

When Kevin disappeared *completely* I mean, his Mom is pregnant with a new baby sister, his Step-Dad died, and the kid just vanished! Nothing about trying to introduce him to the new baby, or how he's handling it, or even, you know, a mention of the kid's reaction to finding out he was going to be a big brother. None of the normal interaction of a parent and sibling, let alone a parent with an autistic sibling.

And this after the whole "he can connect to the artifact because of the special wiring in his brain" season.

So when I heard about the skip in timelines this season I was particularly worried. And it sounds - from your post - that they've screwed it up as badly as I'd feared :(

- D
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-11-10 02:20 am (UTC)

Re: I was particularly upset in Season 3

We had a running joke that Allison could only have one kid at a time. Apparently now it's Kevin2, because Jenna has hardly appeared in S4. A little bit, but hardly. Sigh.
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[User Picture]From: redbird
2010-11-10 12:48 am (UTC)
Disclaimer: I haven't actually watched Eureka, so this is based on what I've read here (from Mris and in the comments).

It seems to me that even if Allison Blake was one of the parents (who do exist) who talk about autism having "taken away" their children, and wanting their "real" child back, she would be very aware of the difference. Glad of it, perhaps; possibly feeling some level of guilt; but aware of it.
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[User Picture]From: mamapduck
2010-11-10 01:19 am (UTC)
About the only part of that that didn't bug me was the Magical Autism Powers. In Eureka, as the son of Eureka-smart people, Kevin's genius makes sense, autistic or not. All the rest I'm right there with you. When she got all happy about how wonderful this Kevin was I sort of felt like yes, there were parts she should enjoy but that there should be conflict or guilt over it.

I still love Eureaka and will still watch it but this is a gaping hole in what is otherwise a pretty well done series. They need someone with hands on experience (maybe the sibling of a profoundly autistic kid) on the staff.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-11-10 02:18 am (UTC)
I also liked that non-autistic Kevin was still smart, so it wasn't just "he's autistic and THEREFORE smart."
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[User Picture]From: finnyb
2010-11-10 01:56 am (UTC)
I liked Allison. Until the stuff that you talk about in this post happened. Thank you for writing, much more coherently, what has been in my head the whole time.
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From: wl91
2017-01-16 11:14 pm (UTC)
I know this post is years old but I've just started watching Eureka (only in S2) but I'm so annoyed by the way that the show is handling Kevin's storyline that I googled my frustration and this showed up.

I haven't even gotten to the storyline that you're talking about but I'm really not surprised. It seems that the writers have absolutely no clue about autistic children and their families.

Allison Blake is a character that I'm supposed to like and root for but it's getting harder and harder.

A few times now, in season 2, Allison refers to her son as "not normal", not because he has a weird connection to the artifact but because of his autism. Every time she says "I wish he was normal", I want to reach into the screen and slap her. Autistic kids are normal. There is nothing abnormal about them. Having a character in a show refer to an autistic child as not normal is NOT okay. Yes, it may be fiction but fiction has a huge influence in the world. This gives people the idea that being autistic is wrong and it's a problem that needs to be "fixed."

She's also just a plain, ol' terrible mother, autistic or no. She keeps letting Stark do these experiments on her child because of his connection to the artifact. Shouldn't your first priority be his safety and his sanity? The last guy with a connection to the artifact went a bit crazy and killed himself. Or at least that was the implication. Stop leaving your child alone with a man who has an unhealthy obsession with the artifact and your son. A man who is NOT your son's father. A man you divorced because he cared more about his work than you or your son. Or did we all conveniently forget that?

At this point, I will continue watching the show but only because I'm still amused by it. It's terrible science and completely inaccurate but I'm enjoying (most of) the characters way too much to stop right now.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2017-01-17 12:42 am (UTC)
Rock on, oh thoroughly correct person.

And in the season 2 plotline, they don't have any kind of discussion about what Kevin wants, whether compulsions and genuine wants are the same thing, how Kevin communicates, etc. They're just like, oh, Stark wants to put him in with an alien artifact? Keen, that guy's a prince.

NO NO NO NO NO.

At least the show continues to have the excellent Joe Morton in it throughout, but. But. Argh.
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From: wl91
2017-01-17 02:24 am (UTC)
Joe Morton's Henry is probably the best thing about the show.

I actually just watched the conclusion to Kevin's s2 storyline and there was a little redemption for the characters in it but not enough to my satisfaction.

Henry: Oh we've found a way to cure your son and, if we don't do it now, he'll die.
Allison: Sure, sure. But will he go back to the way he was before? You know, all icky and abnormal?
Me: Uh yeah, but he'll be alive. Get your priorities in order, woman!

Edited at 2017-01-17 02:24 am (UTC)
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