Autism in Media: “A Test for Living”

Autism has been mentioned and shown in media for much longer than we’ve had a solid understanding of the condition.  I’ve decided to look through some of these depictions of autism in media chronologically, to see how things have changed.  I hope to find some real progress from stereotypes to solid characters, but we’ll see what happens.  If you’d like me to discuss a particular show or movie, recommend it in the comments! 

Today’s installment of Autism in Media looks at the earliest specific depiction of autism I could find: an episode of Quincy, M.E. called “A Test for Living” Airing in October 1978, it pre-dates Rain Man by a full decade.         

Content warning: some of the things said about and done to autistic children in this episode are kind of disturbing, although not really abusive.  Please remember this was 40 years ago. 

Quincy, M.E.

Quincy, M.E. was a proto-procedural TV show that featured Jack Klugman (whom I preferred in his Twilight Zone roles) as Dr. Quincy, the medical examiner for Los Angeles County.  While most of the stories were murder mysteries, some revolved around social causes.  “A Test for Living” is one such episode, inspired by Klugman’s interest in autism after he appeared on a telethon to raise money for autistic children.  He even co-authored the script, and I hope that some of the more insightful lines were due to him. 

“A Test for Living”

The episode begins with a death, naturally – young Stevie Borden, who ran away from a home for “the mentally retarded”.  Quincy finds no physical evidence of a mental handicap (I’m not sure if that’s even possible, but it gets the plot moving so let’s just go with it) and calls in Dr. Schumann, a neuropsychiatrist from the children’s hospital, for help.  After a lot of medical technobabble, Dr. Schumann points out that Stevie’s history says he could speak at age 3, but suddenly went mute at age 5, and therefore he believes the boy was autistic.  Dr. Schumann explains autism to Quincy with the following speech: 

“At least a third of all autistic children can learn.  I’m not saying they’re gonna go out and become the president of a big corporation, but they can be taught to function, to dress and feed themselves, to occupy themselves, and not be a total burden to society, their parents, or themselves.” 

Three lines later, Quincy asks why the doctors didn’t see the difference between an autistic child and a mentally handicapped one.  Dr. Schumann replies: “The doctors are the ones we’re trying to teach.” 

Quincy and Schumann visit the institution where Stevie had lived, and we’re shown a room of about 4 young boys.  One sits waving his hand in front of his face, but I didn’t notice any others that showed any particular autistic behaviors.  Schumann says there are at least 2 kids there he would test for autism – I don‘t know which other boy he might mean.  Quincy finds a puzzle under Stevie’s bed that the orderly tells him should have been locked up.  They conclude that an 8-year-old child who appears “retarded” but can put together a challenging puzzle and memorize the combinations to 2 different locks must be autistic.  It’s an overly simplified idea, but surprisingly insightful for the time. 

In the next scene, Schumann mentions how nice it is that Stevie’s parents cared enough to claim his body.  “You have no idea what the parents of an autistic child go through.  Disappointment and confusion, because of misdiagnosis.  They’re ground down, emotionally, physically, and financially.  That’s why parents allow their children to be committed.  They just run out of gas.” 

That’s some Autism Speaks-type propaganda, right there.   

Timmy Carson

Then, Schumann brings up the case of Timmy Carson, a 7-year-old autistic boy who was recommended for a special school but was rejected because he made eye contact.  “…[T]here’s chaos in the family because of Timmy.  His father says that either Timmy is committed or he’s leaving.”  Quincy finds this unconscionable, but Schumann insists “Don’t judge him too harshly.” 

Quincy meets the Carsons at their daughter, Lisa’s, 9th birthday party (I’m sure some of you can see where this is headed).  Timmy lies on the ground, peacefully waving his fingers in front of his eyes and ignoring everything else – until another child trips over him.  At that, Timmy gets up and goes on a rampage, pointedly destroying the party: he smashes the cake first, then knocks all the food off the table.  Quincy tries to restrain him, Timmy bites, and then goes on to knock over all the birthday presents.  He bites his mother as well but calms down somewhat when his father wraps him in a bear hug from behind.   

Of course, the other parents break up the party.  One mother says “We’ll stay if you keep him someplace”.  Timmy’s mom, to her credit, asks if she should “lock him in his room…or a cellar”.  In the aftermath, Timmy’s father demonizes him at great length, explaining why he has to be committed.  He ends with “I love my son, but I can’t let him go on ruining three lives without some hope.” 

Quincy finds Timmy in his bedroom, spinning an upside-down tricycle wheel and staring through the spokes.  Quincy picks up a toy truck from across the room and spins its wheels to get Timmy’s attention, but Timmy just takes the truck from him and returns it to its place.  This is the only purposeful interaction Timmy shows.  

Testing, Testing

From here we go into a physical exam.  The first image is Quincy’s assistant holding Timmy’s head with both hands while Quincy holds a tongue depressor in his mouth.  Timmy shows no reaction, but I can’t stand it.  The exam continues with the doctors grabbing Timmy or putting jelly beans directly into his mouth.  And at one point, Timmy gropes at the instrument tray like a blind child.   

Eventually, we see Quincy meet with the Program Director of the autistic school.  The Director stands by his decision that Timmy isn’t autistic because he made eye contact and “autistic children avoid eye contact”.  Quincy’s response is one of my favorite moments in this episode: 

“Why do you pigeonhole these kids like that? […] Where is it stamped in granite that they never make eye contact?”     

With a lot of finagling and pulling strings, Quincy arranges for Timmy to be re-evaluated.  But his father insists he must be committed: 

 “…[W]e don’t want any more disappointments…We want to stop that merry-go-round, get off, and simplify our lives and Lisa’s… How I’ve grown to hate that word ‘autism’!  Why can’t you be honest?  Autism is just a cosmetic word for retardation.”     

Which gets a roller coaster of a response from Quincy.  He starts with “That is not true!  And because a lot of people say it is doesn’t make it so!”  Riled up in defense of autistic kids, great stuff!  But then he continues with “Autism is a disease, we shouldn’t make it a death sentence” and “30%…can learn…to dress themselves, play the piano, lead a happy life”.   

Sheesh.   

So they agree to the re-evaluation.  Timmy walks in with his head back, staring at the ceiling, with his arms slightly in front of him and his fingers moving, again, almost as if he were blind.  The tester takes Timmy into another room with a 2-way mirror – she drags him by the arm and manhandles him into a chair.  Timmy immediately goes to the mirror and starts waving his hand before his eyes again, grinning widely.  His mother says he does that for hours at home.  I can see how a mirror would add to the visual stimming.  The tester also bribes Timmy with jelly beans, but at least she puts it in his hand like he’s human.   

Throughout the evaluation, Timmy is called “untestable” because he doesn’t interact with the tester and doesn’t perform the tests in a set amount of time.  The only time he speaks is when he’s told “Repeat after me.  Say ‘kitty’,” and he echoes, “Say ‘kitty’” along with a few other words.  (My autistic brain says she told him to repeat after her; if she didn’t want him to include “say”, she shouldn’t have said it!).  When given a puzzle, Timmy presses the pieces to his cheek, only to have the tester snatch them away from him because he isn’t doing what she wants.  He lines up blocks instead of building a pyramid or putting them back into their box.  The tester forcibly stops Timmy’s stimming several times, grabs his face, and tells him over and over to “pay attention” and “look at me”.  It’s hard for me to watch, really.   

Quincy’s Epiphany

Next, we see Quincy at a bar, drowning his sorrow over having failed to prove Timmy is autistic.  The bar owner, Danny, is sitting nearby, idly shuffling poker chips.  Quincy gets annoyed at the noise and tells him to put the chips away already, but Danny tells him “I’m not in a hurry” and “I like the way this stuff feels”.   

Obvious stimming is obvious.  But it gives Quincy a brainwave – “Maybe Timmy just likes the way they feel” and “maybe he wants to take his time”. 

So a third evaluation happens, without a stopwatch.  Timmy eventually completes the puzzle and gets into a nice flow state doing it over and over again.  Schumann calls it “typical of an autistic child.  One minute he can’t do it and the next minute he can.”  Not exactly so, but I guess it covers the uneven skills.  Timmy’s parents go in and pull him away from the puzzle in his hands to hug him. 

Stuff They Got Wrong

Where to begin?  The whole “some of them can learn enough to not be a burden” speech is painful to hear.  The way the parents’ decision to get rid of their child is defended is sickening as well.  Yes, parents of autistic kids go through a lot, but this makes it sound like the parents’ comfort is more important than the child’s care.  It’s hard to tell whose side Schumann is on.   

Visual stimming seems to be the only thing they knew about.  They don’t show any kids flapping or rocking, just waving hands in front of their eyes or staring at spinning things.  Between that and the odd groping movements Timmy makes, I get the feeling they modeled all this on one specific autistic child, rather than common behaviors.  Not wrong, but definitely limiting. 

Timmy’s meltdown at the party.  Wow.  There is so much wrong here.  A meltdown would never be pointed like that.  Yes, some of us do get violent sometimes, but it’s because we lose control.  This scene makes it look like Timmy specifically wanted to ruin his sister’s party.  In real life, Timmy would more likely have run away from the overstimulating party, or stayed on the ground and screamed.  

Everyone keeps touching this poor kid!  During the exam, Quincy and the other doctor just grab Timmy and move him around.  Other adults, including strangers, constantly ruffle his hair or pat his head.  The tester drags him around by the arm, forces him into a chair, grabs his face, tears things out of his hands, holds his hands and legs still.  It makes me want to scream!  Timmy shows no response to touch, neither stiffening nor going limp, and especially not fighting, except during his meltdown. 

During the testing, when Timmy speaks, he first shows echolalia (exact repetition of what was said to him) but then stops including “say” and just repeats the phrases as instructed.  It’s inconsistent and implies a purposeful interaction when they keep saying he isn’t testing correctly. 

Schumann’s statement that autistic children’s skills vary from moment to moment is not quite true.  I think they mean to explain our “spiky profiles”, or the fact that some autistic kids seem to suddenly grasp a task on the first try after seeing it for a while. 

Regarding Lisa

I want to mention Timmy’s sister, Lisa, because her reactions are so different from the adults in this story.  When another child asks her why Timmy is stimming, she simply says, “He likes to play his own games.”  She’s naturally upset when her party gets disrupted, but after everything dies down, Lisa says she was mad at Timmy, but she got over it.  She tells Quincy that Timmy “can be so nice…when we play hopscotch.  He smiles all the time.”  I can see how this might be the other side of the long-suffering family coin: the angelic, selfless sibling.  But I also think that children, siblings especially, find ways to connect.  Regardless of this possibly being a trope, I think it’s nice to include a character who sees Timmy as a person.     

Stuff They Got Right

I give Dr. Schumann a little credit – he knows that “autism” and “retarded” are not synonymous, and he points that out repeatedly, even saying that doctors need to be educated. The regression from speaking to being mute is also correctly used as a factor in autism diagnosis. 

Quincy’s response to the Program Director could be said to a lot of clinicians even today.  A lot of autistic people do make occasional eye contact, even if only because parents and others have been trying to make them do so their whole lives.  Hans Asperger described children who are now diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder Level 1 as having intermittent eye contact.  We avoid it, but that doesn’t mean we never do it, and eye contact can’t be the deciding factor in a diagnosis 

The bear hug restraint Timmy’s father uses looks like it provides deep pressure all around the torso, which I find very calming and helpful when I’m in a meltdown myself.  I think it would work. 

The stims shown in this episode seem correct, even if they are all the same.  I especially appreciate that they showed Timmy smiling so much while he stimmed at the mirror. 

I don’t doubt that the testing and bribing with candy are based on truth as well.  I don’t have any personal experience with ABA, but from what I’ve read, I suspect it looks a lot like that.  If I’m wrong, please tell me. 

Showing an NT person stimming – and acknowledging it – is HUGE!  I’ve had to convince NTs that they stim just like we do, and for the same reasons.  Here it gives Quincy an epiphany.  And my autistic brain rejoiced in the knowledge that one NT finally got it – we simply like the way it feels.   

Wrap Up

For 40 years ago, this story is surprisingly on point.  Nobody is treated as a savant, and those who think autistics are mentally handicapped are corrected.  It skews a little toward “poor parents” at times but also keeps the kids’ well-being in focus.  At a time when showing autism in media was nearly unheard of, the worst parts of this story are outdated ideas that have been corrected by research in the intervening years.  The depiction of autism itself is pretty accurate, even if it’s only the more severe form (remember that Asperger’s Syndrome didn’t enter the DSM until the 1990s).  I admit I’m impressed. 

Autism in Media "A Test for Living" 1978

What are your thoughts about this story?  Do any parts of this ring very true for you or bother you?  If you were around at the time, does this all sound familiar or is this more of a best-case scenario? What other depictions of autism would you like me to discuss?   

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