Hot on the heels of Richard Powers’ offensive latest comes Dr. Brain, which from its first episode (spoiled here) positions autistics as savants so lacking in social skills and empathy that they have no interior emotional life whatsoever.
As a child, Sewon likes to take things apart to see how they work: his examination of a fire extinguisher leaves his classmates in tears while Sewon simply continues playing. Sewon, his teacher tells his mother, “has no empathy”. His cognitive scores are improving—just watch how fast he can solve a Rubik’s cube!—but his social skills are not; a doctor hands his mother a brochure about autism spectrum disorder.
Sewon witnesses his mother being killed by a car while crossing the street. Doctors remark that he “shows no signs of distress or any kind of emotion”. What’s more: “His memory is excellent but he does not display any emotional reaction to those memories.”
(I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention here that while my own memories in fact have no emotional component to them, I do in fact actually have an interior emotional life. I’ve also never solved a Rubik’s cube.)
Sewon grows up to become a neuroscientist studying the potential to sync brainwaves between two subjects using quantum entanglement. His colleagues refer to him as “not human”.
His own son has no friends; Sewon wants to get tid of the family cat because it breaks things but his wife chides him because the cat is their son’s only friend. She wants to put their son into a program she found to help him with “empathy, communication, and social skills”—he’s autistic, too, apparently—because all she wants “is for my little boy to be a little more ordinary”.
Experimenting on himself, Sewon discovers that while he can’t hold onto whatever memories he’s getting from his (cadaver) subjects, he does hold onto their capacity for emotions—becoming, in his wife’s wishes for her son, “a little more ordinary”.
It’s not lost on me that there’s some technological overlap here between Bewilderment and Dr. Brain: Robin and Sewon each become “a little more ordinary” through the recorded or transferred brain states of deceased people. The neurotypical dead, apparently, have more capacity for empathy than do the autistic living.
More recent research into the autistic’s alleged empathy problem has focused on the idea of a double empathy problem: autistics and allistics, this theory proposes, have trouble understanding and relating to each other. It’s not some sort of purely autistic deficit.
I’m not so sure, however, that it can be seen as a double empathy problem when one side considers the autistic other to be less than human, and less capable of empathy and emotion even than the normative dead.
It was suggested to me elsewhere that Sewon actually has antisocial personality disorder. The plain text of the show itself (at least its first episode) only ever cites autism spectrum disorder. Indeed, review after review after review after review use phrases such as “a neuroscientist with autism”, “a young kid on the autism spectrum”, “a neuroscientist with autism”, and “on the autism spectrum like his father”—so I’ll leave it to you to ponder whether the show indeed is grossly misrepresenting autistic people.
One reviewer even went so far as to disclaim they are “not here to review cultural approaches to autism”, which only serves to underscore the problem. If you’re not here for critiquing media misrepresentation of disabled or disadvantaged populations, then maybe get out of the criticism game. Eliding it as “cultural approaches” beyond your purview isn’t it.
If a streamer were to drop a show in which the main character’s family was Jewish, and his coworkers considered him “not human”, and he was depicted as having utterly no empathy and capable only of whatever emotion he could steal from the dead, somehow I doubt critics could get away with skipping past it as just “cultural approaches” to Jewishness.