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Op-Ed

Autistic Trekdom

In the latest Star Trek movie, Gene Roddenberry’s message of diversity takes on new relevance as more people are diagnosed with Autism.

Photograph by Joel Aron

Walking out of the cinema Saturday evening, I turned to my friend J.—a self-professed “Trek fan”—and asked for a quick primer on the relationship between Vulcans and Romulans.

“They are cousins,” he said. “Or, they’re related. Somehow. Like, they are the same race but they evolved on different planets? Or maybe they evolved on the same planet, and then the Romulans moved? Anyway, the Romulans are really emotional, and the Vulcans are not. Or maybe the Vulcans are emotional too, but they restrain their emotions with logic. It’s something like that. I don’t really know.”

“I thought you said you were a Trek fan,” I said.

“I am,” he replied. “But I’m not a Trekkie.”

“What’s the difference between a Trek fan and a Trekkie?”

“If I were a Trekkie, I would be five minutes into an hour-long dissertation on Vulcan versus Romulan physiology,” he explained. “That’s the difference.”

The taxonomical ranks of the Star Trek audience have at least one more genus: those who, like me, have always been drawn to the concept, but were never thrilled with the execution.

I love the idea of Star Trek, a cohesive, half-century-long science-fiction universe that has been explored in every conceivable medium and augmented by millions of fans. Indeed, I was so drawn to the premise that, every summer from 1987 to 1994, I would psyche myself up for the upcoming season of The Next Generation. But the show consistently failed to hook me, and my interest would inevitably wane after an episode or two.

And while I liked the movies, my enthusiasm failed to translate to the small screen or the written word. Never saw an episode of Deep Space Nine or Voyager, never read a novel with a Klingon on the cover or a USENET posting of Tribble fanfic.

So it’s somewhat surprising that I thoroughly enjoyed the new movie. Or, it would be, if every other person in America didn’t have a similar reaction, regardless of past Trek-devotion. “Super fun” is the admittedly dumb phrase that I can’t help invoking when describing the film to friends. “Just the perfect summer film.”

 

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Part of the appeal of the reboot is its straightforwardness. Director J.J. Abrams has made a full-on popcorn movie, conspicuously lacking in the philosophical quagmires, logorrheic crew members, and interminable conception metaphors that made the two-hour Star Trek: The Motion Picture seem like a five-year mission. (And I say this as someone who actually enjoyed the first film—albeit someone who also made the mistake of tricking his wife into watching the movie, and had the write-access on his Netflix queue revoked as a result.) The Onion turns this observation on its head in their hilarious video, “Trekkies Bash New Star Trek Film as ‘Fun, Watchable’”: “Yes, it was exciting,” laments a woman clad in Klingon finery, “but where was the heavy-handed message about tolerance?”

In some respects, Star Trek’s “heavy-handed message about tolerance” is as dated as a beehive on a yeoman. A decade after the launch of the International Space Station, Americans and Russians serving as crewmates is par for the course. Where the on-screen interracial kiss shared by William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols sparked controversy in 1968, Uhura’s make-out sessions in the current film don’t even raise an arched and upswept eyebrow. And lazy science-fiction authors can no longer use “black American president” as shorthand for “the distant future.”

Yet for all that, the message is still there—even if it goes unspoken. And, in some way, it may have more resonance than ever. As I watched this film last Saturday, and Mr. Spock walked onto the bridge with his stiff demeanor and his formal language, my initial reaction was: “Oh man, that guy is so Asperger’s.”

 

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Autistic Spectrum Disorder is like the arrow in the FedEx logo: Once you know about it, you see it everywhere. In the three years since my 18-month-old son was diagnosed with ASD, my wife and I have scoured our family tree for other signs and seemingly found them carved into every branch: the grandfather who was preoccupied with his mainframe computer, the nephew who was medicated for ADHD, and the, well, me, who has never felt comfortable in a crowd of more than one and whose attention span occasionally strains the lower limit of measurable time.

The “S” in ASD denotes the wide range of possible symptoms and severity, from classic “Kanner” autism up to the “Pervasive Developmental Disorder” catchall. As Asperger syndrome falls on the higher-functioning end of the spectrum, armchair physicians find it especially easy to spot its symptoms in others or themselves: difficulties in social interaction; physical clumsiness; restricted, stereotyped behavior and interests. Sound like someone you know? Or are? Shortly after Wired published its Autism-Spectrum Quotient Test, the blogosphere was abruptly filled with newly self-diagnosed Aspies.

Spock is perfectly comfortable with who he is—not a bad message to send to kids whose neurological state is classified as a “disorder.” Even the pros are finding more and more ASD. Where only one in 2,000 was diagnosed with autism in the 1970s, prevalence rates are now one in 200. Or one in 150. Or one in 120, depending on whom you ask. Some say these figures are proof we are in the midst of an autism epidemic, that a greater percentage of the populace now manifests the disorder than ever before in history. Others wonder if the autism epidemic is a myth, wholly or mostly attributable to new definitions and refined diagnostic techniques.

What is beyond disputable is that, for whatever reason, more people are diagnosed with the disorder, and they are becoming more visible. Children who may have been hidden away or written off a generation ago may now find themselves “mainstreamed”—that is, attending regular schools in the company of their peers. Where I had to sire an autistic child to become acquainted with one, the class of 2030 will likely know several from the earliest age, as cousins, neighbors, schoolmates, and friends.

 

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A paradigm shift of this magnitude always benefits from a few good role models, and Roddenberry, as always, provides. And while I don’t for a moment imagine Gene (or for that matter J.J.) envisioned Spock as a liaison between the world of ASD and neurotypicals, the analogy holds moderately well.

That Spock is different from the rest of the crew is, of course, central to his character; that his difference is largely mental is also part of the cachet. He is a man of two worlds, and cherishes the dual nature of his heritage. Unlike Data (the android in Star Trek: The Next Generation who was forever pining to “be more human”), Spock is perfectly comfortable with who he is—not a bad message to send to kids whose neurological state is classified as a “disorder.” Moreover, the rest of the Enterprise recognizes that Spock’s unconventional way of thinking provides invaluable insight on the challenges they face, that he is able to view and analyze the world in a manner they are unable to replicate.

Likewise, Spock is continually underestimated and mischaracterized based on his behavior. Bones (my favorite character in the Star Trek roster but, alas, the bad guy in this extended metaphor) often rails against Spock’s apparent impassivity, dismissing him as an “unfeeling automaton.” So too have those with ASD been habitually misunderstood, their reluctance to socialize mistaken for aloofness, their difficulty making eye contact interpreted as signs of deviousness. Emotions run deep in half-Vulcans and persons with autism alike, even if they are not always apparent to the untrained eye.

And then there’s Spock’s devotion to science, technology, and the comfort of logic. I don’t want to dwell on this point, but let’s just say there is a large congruence between the subset of people who would stumble across an “Autism-Spectrum Quotient Test” while reading Wired magazine online, and those who would subsequently classify themselves on the spectrum. You may admire Kirk for his rugged individualism, but Spock’s the one you want fixing your laptop.

To draw any more parallels would be to invite controversy—and perhaps equating those with ASD with fictitious aliens is not the best of PR campaigns.

All I can say is that, as the father of an autistic son and a lifelong member of the Trek-curious club, the new film filled me with hope. Watching Kirk and Spock—two men with vastly different worldviews—form a friendship based on mutual trust and admiration, I found myself thinking, “That’s the future I want my child to grow up in, one in which he will be judged not by the conventionality of his cognitive process, but by the content of his character.” In spreading its message of diversity, Star Trek once again identifies the final frontier, and plots a course straight through it.