What media coverage of disability can learn from ‘Girls With Autism’

ITVs documentary Girls With Autism (shown last night, available on catchup) is a lesson to the media in covering disability. Filmed at Limpsfield Grange, the UK’s only state-run boarding school for girls with autism and related conditions, it was a lovely, exemplary piece of TV. Here’s why:

  • It avoided “Inspiration Porn”. It didn’t call the girls “inspiring”, or “brave” or “heroic”. The premise was not that neurotypicals had so much to “learn” from autistic people. (There is lots that we can. If we all stopped saying “I’ll pop round sometime” or “Let’s do this again soon” when we didn’t mean it, we’d have less anxious lives, but that’s by the by). The focus was on the girls themselves, their families and their lives, not how they might enrich the lives of people watching.
  • It showed the different types of behaviour that can be classed as autistic, and it showed the girls’ different, and vibrant, personalities.
  • It showed good days and bad days – neither shying away from difficult subjects such as self-harm, or being implausibly upbeat. It wasn’t an assumption about the quality of the girls’ entire lives based on a single meeting.
  • It was about girls, and it showed girls wanting friendships and relationships. The girls are autistic but they also do and want things every other teenager does and wants.
  • It featured autistic boys from a neighbouring specialist school mixing with the girls at an end-of-term disco. Not doing Maths, or playing chess, or monologuing about science fiction or dinosaurs. There’s nothing wrong with those activities but they are cliches seen as synonymous with autism (and sexual inexperience) so it was nice to watch something different.
  • It showed how caring and thoughtful the staff were and the attention given to individual girls’ needs.
  • It didn’t present the school as a “cure” for autism and made quite clear a cure doesn’t exist.

Yes, it featured girls at one end of the autistic spectrum – it would have been a lot more challenging to make a film with people who don’t communicate in any way an average viewer can recognise. And of course, pupils at the school benefit from specialist support, which is reflected in how they manage their autism. But it was a lovely representation of the girls, which avoided generalisations, cliches, too much sunshine or too much negativity.

Disclaimer: I’m not on the spectrum and I don’t know how people with lived experience felt about the programme, but I am neurodiverse by a wider definition which includes dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD. If were advising the media on covering disability I’d definitely refer to it.

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