Episode 5 of “Uniquely Me” aired tonight on MediaCorp’s Channel 8.
I have to say this episode was the most unsettling to watch – almost sliding down the slippery slope of the tragedy-cum-heroic narrative, this episode featured two ‘strong’ women speaking about their lives with their autistic children, who are now young adults.
I felt very sad for the young man, Zhen Yu. Far be it for me to doubt his mother’s love for him, her dedication towards the young man pervaded the space, but there were many moments in her interaction with the young man that made me cringe and even bristle. I felt his distress, there were moments where I knew he was attempting to communicate, but the mother completely missed the gestures and sounds he made, and she chided him, as if he was a naughty toddler making a nuisance of himself, preventing her from ‘adulting’ in front of the camera. There was a split second where she even grimaced and rolled her eyes. There was a sense of embarrassment, she looked exasperated and annoyed, when interacting with him. The mother spoke mostly about her hopelessness and despair, not his.
The other autistic young person, Edura, appeared to be happier – there was a lot of physical affection going on and some smiles and laughs. Edura’s mother runs workshops or ‘sharing’ sessions for other mothers with autistic children, on physical touch and muscle relaxation. I did cringe at the word “heal” – just like “cure” and “recover” all speak of ableist concepts of autism as a scourge / disease – but I’ve come to expect it of the neuronormative way of thinking.
I don’t know what to make of this episode. Stylistically, I can see a commonality across the other episodes in the crisp and gentle but detached reporting style and lack of an excessively emotional musical soundtrack, but this one came across as the oddball, the sore thumb. I am left with a metallic taste at the back of my mouth, my tongue is dry and my senses somewhat stretched thin. I have more questions than I have observations, or perhaps my observations lie in the questions that oozed out from cracks and fissures?
Why does nobody seem to pick up on the distress of the young man, Zhen Yu? The camera – the ‘eye’ of the viewer – wanders in and out of such stark moments of grief and frustration, I am flabbergasted at the cluelessness of everyone around.
Edura comes across as very much well connected with those around her, yet the people bemoan the sad fact that she is unable to speak. To me, just watching her body language, she is conveying a lot. Yet, I feel she was not duly recognised for her efforts. Why do neurotypicals place so much importance on speaking? And if words were so important, then why has nobody tried Augmented Assistive Communication (AAC), Sign Language or other alternative ways of making worded communications?
To be honest, there are no easy answers. The struggles and challenges are real. The road is long and fraught. Yes, yes, and yes. But what is frustrating about this episode is that everyone is busy addressing the camera, all speaking with such confident incomprehension their manifold non-autistic interpretations and opinions, their non-autistic feelings and dealings, non-autistic lion-hearted mettle, non-autistic despair and despondency. The protagonists here are the mothers, not the autistic persons at all – and there is even a doting aunty in the mix too. Tears, fears, snappiness, vulnerability, dreams dashed, ‘inspiration’ and obfuscation, rushing around putting all the externals in place, so preoccupied with whatever their ‘mission’ may be that there was, for me, no significant poignant moment of simple tenderness or gentle stark confrontation – quite unlike in Episode 3. The title of this episode shouldn’t be “Uniquely Me” it should be “Momma Interprets Me”. Sigh…
It was, frankly, an exhausting watch. I know the director tried to keep it unembellished, but the strong overpowering personalities of the women – and their neurotypical views of autism and emotionality – took over the entire domain in a rather trenchant way. I am overwhelmed by the sheer force of the non-autistic personalities in this episode – engulfed and tired. Perhaps this, too, is the ‘telling it like it is’ – after all, the reality is that autistic persons are inundated and suppressed, oppressed and repressed by the non-autistic narrative of autism.
Now, I am wondering how the last episode, in which I am featured, will unfold. This is making me a tad nervous. And it has brought home yet another glaring fact: no matter how well-meaning a production may be, no matter how steadfast the intentions, when there is no in-depth and thorough consultation with actual autistic persons in the creative process of such a work as this featuring autistic persons and their lives, the unpacking remains through the lens of normativity.
Still, for what its worth, this series has succeeded in a way to throw a spotlight on Autism in Singapore in a humane way, albeit rather ragged and fragmented, without the lavish, lush helpings of smothering inspirational-porn. I didn’t notice any excruciatingly melancholic violin music, anyway. A relief, to say the least.
Perhaps next time, Actual Autistic film makers will emerge to tell our story from our own perspective, and perhaps our community will some day find a voice of our own?