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“Girl Meets World” and the somewhat changing attitude toward Autism

I don’t always watch the Disney Channel, but when I do, I watch “Dog With A Blog.” Don’t judge me.

The other day, I noticed that Disney was airing an episode of another show, “Girl Meets World,” and that it would focus on autism. “Girl Meets World” is a sequel to a television show from my youth called “Boy Meets World.” In “Girl,” the “Boy” has grown up and is the father of the girl. It’s actually a pretty funny and entertaining show, with some of the same inside jokes for parents that they had in “Boy” making it into the dialogue spoken by the parents in “Girl.”

Of course, like many television shows for people of all ages, there are “very special” shows which address some societal issue. “Girl” has had episodes dealing with bullying, marriage, divorce, etc. The main characters are Riley (the “Girl” in the title), Maya, Lucas, and Farkle, all middle school students dealing with all the things that come with being teenagers. Riley and Maya are best friends and the main characters for plot development, and Lucas and Farkle are supporting characters who sometimes have plots of their own.

In an episode titled “Girl Meets I Am Farkle,” the main characters receive the results of their “aptitude tests” and are comically told about the possible jobs they could have. Riley, for example, should be a “bunny farmer,” while Maya should be an “armpit sniffer.” Farkle, on the other hand, is told that his aptitude test score is off the charts, and that another test is needed in order to validate the score and see if a different kind of school (“The Einstein Academy”) could be a better place for him to learn. He rejects that possibility if it means leaving his friends behind.

A few moments before in that same scene, Farkle has a meltdown over not knowing completely all of the events in a particular year in history. He claims that, once he knows that, he will know everything and be named along with other geniuses. That part of the scene was interesting because his friends and classmates all announce that Farkle “is about to blow” and stand back to watch him have a meltdown of sorts over not knowing something.

Now, I don’t know about you, but aptitude tests for me (like the SAT) were not really “aptitude” tests, per se. They were tests to see if I could regurgitate a ton of information in a short amount of time, and if I had a good command of the English language when writing an essay about something. I don’t know if an aptitude test can identify a learning disability, or a developmental one. But I guess that the “advanced testing” given to Farkle is meant to be a proper assessment as to whether he is autistic or not.

A couple of scenes later, after Farkle is celebrated for being a genius, his friends and family gather around to talk about his possible diagnosis of autism. Specifically, he mentions to his friends that he could have Asperger’s, a high-functioning form of autism where the person’s intelligence is superb and they exhibit some autistic traits. Here’s a video of an autistic man talking about his traits:

You’ll notice that I’m avoiding the term “Asperger’s Syndrome.” I’m doing that for a reason, which I’ll explain later.

When Farkle’s friends hear that he might be autistic, his friends all get upset and say that it’s not possible for him to be autistic. The kids react by getting upset. The adults, on the other hand, make a point of saying that it won’t change anything. As the kids retreat to Riley’s room to look up Asperger’s online, they look through the list of traits to try and convince Farkle that he’s not autistic, even as he pleads with them to accept him.

On the other hand, the parents talk positively about the possible diagnosis. They are told by Riley’s parents that they’re going to be okay, and that nothing will change. “No matter what they tell you, he’s Farkle, and we love him,” the parents are told.

In the next scene, Smackle, a student at the Einstein Academy, shows up at the kid’s hangout place to talk to Farkle about his tour of the academy. Smackle is apparently Farkle’s foil in his plans to conquer the world. (He doesn’t really carry out those plans. He just mentions them a lot as part of his superior intelligence and quirky behavior.) Now that Farkle has been certified as a genius, Smackle is more accepting of him. Throughout the scenes with Smackle, a running joke is that she doesn’t display her emotions very well and has a hard time with physical contact, like hugging. Now that Farkle is a genius, Smackle tries to woo him into going to get ice cream together, and she does so very awkwardly.

This scene is interesting because one of the concerns that Farkle has about the autistic traits read to him off the internet by his friends was the inability to fully comprehend other people’s emotions, especially love. In order to help him with this, Riley and Maya encourage Farkle to go on this mini date with Smackle. As Farkle and Smackle are talking outside, Smackle continues the awkward flirting while Farkle tells her that he is scared over a possible autism diagnosis. Smackle replies that she is not scared. “Thank you for liking me for whatever I am,” Farkle says as he holds her hand.

In the next scene, Farkle has a chat with the guidance counselor who initially disclosed the results of the aptitude test. After that, he goes back to his class and stands in front as he explains what autism is. It’s a developmental disorder that occurs on a spectrum, he explained. Then he reveals to the class that he doesn’t have Asperger’s. “But they also don’t know what to make of me, and I like that,” he adds. His friends and the teacher (Riley’s father and the “Boy” from “Boy Meets World”) react with smiles. No celebration. No cheers. They just smile and look at him approvingly. Smackle, however, is shown to have a frown on her face. (She had come over to the middle school from the Einstein Academy to observe Farkle in “mediocre world.”)

Riley’s father then explains to the children that the only label they should wear is their name. “There’s another spectrum: How you live your life. What you do with whatever you’re given.” Farkle then thanks his friends for treating him well, and for studying autism with him. Smackle adds that Farkle is better off at the middle school because his friendships and his experiences there teach lessons that cannot be learned anywhere else. She then leaves with sadness in her face.

The penultimate scene shows the girls (Riley, Maya and Smackle) talking about Smackle’s autism. Smackle had been diagnosed at 5 years old, and how she felt comfortable with Farkle when she thought he had Asperger’s. Now that he has been diagnosed with something other than Asperger’s, Smackle feels that they are incompatible. Farkle appears and tells Smackle, whose first name is Isadora, that he understands her, and that he wants to be there for her. She taught him something by being kind to him as he was on the cusp of being thrown into a different world. Farkle then asks if he can hug her, to which she reluctantly agrees while telling him that she both doesn’t like it and doesn’t want him to stop hugging her.

The final scene is all the kids at their hangout spot talking about Smackle leaving the Einstein Academy and going over to the middle school with them. Smackle tells them that she is bad at making friends, to which Maya replies that it’s okay because the rest of the group are good at being friends. They take her into the group with one final question from Riley: “Who here is normal?” To which none of the kids raise their hands. She then asks, “Who here wants to be?” To which Smackle raises her hand, looks around, then lowers it as she smiles. “Good,” Riley says.

A few thoughts.

The reason I don’t call Asperger’s Syndrome by that name anymore is because “syndrome” denotes some sort of illness or bad thing that needs to be treated or cured. As I’ve come to understand over the last few years, autism is not something that needs to be seen as an illness or a curse. It certainly cannot be cured, and the “causes” of autism are just as varied and complex as the causes for people’s heights and level of interest in the shape of clouds. Also, “Asperger’s” as a diagnosis has been removed from the latest DSM edition and replaced with just plain Autism, acknowledging that it occurs on a spectrum, and that maybe that spectrum spans all of us.

We’re all quirky. We all have our likes and dislikes about how we take the world in. Me? I can’t be in a room full of people talking because my brain does this weird thing where it latches on to conversations happening all around me and tries to make sense of them all, giving me a headache. I also have trouble with faces. There have been many times now where I mistake one person for another in social situations. I need to see faces in context, or else I completely get them confused. Or the sound of cotton rubbing up against itself — along with the texture of cotton — drives me insane, making me almost want to gag.

I bet you have some quirks too that, if taken by themselves, could be a “symptom” of autism.

From this episode, I liked that the parents seemed completely calm about the possibility of their child being autistic. They mentioned that it could be tricky to handle, but that they would do it. And they had the parents of Riley, a neurotypical child, there to support them. This is the kind of acceptance of autism and any other kind of developmental delay or any kind of disability that children and adults need. Unfortunately, there is plenty of negative awareness about autism, something that was shown at the beginning of the episode. The kids were all concerned and in denial over Farkle possibly being autistic. Later, armed with knowledge and understanding, they were accepting of him and, later, accepting of Smackle. Nothing really changed about the kids. They were still loving friends and supportive of each other.

Sadly, the world is not a television show where things get fixed at the end of 30 minutes or an hour. There are far too many children out there with some sort of developmental delay and/or learning disability whose parents are lost in a sea of misinformation, probably even leading them to be unaccepting of their children. All you have to do is hear about the horrible murders of autistic children by their own parents to see what misinformation about autism can do to a family. And then there are the social pressures that these children and adults face in a world that is not at all accommodating to them in any way.

We laugh at quirky people and think that it’s okay without knowing if their feelings are hurt or if our ridicule will drive them toward something bad. We feel sorry for parents of autistic children and even say things like “I’m sorry to hear that” when we find out that their child may be autistic. And we say things like “I’m afraid” or “it worries me” when considering the possibility of having an autistic child (or a child with any other kind of deviation from the norm). These perceptions need to change so that we all can be better off.

Could the show have done better? Of course it could. They could have gone into some sort of explanation that most diagnoses of autism occur in younger children. (Smackle does say that she was diagnosed at age 5.) And that the wider availability of diagnostic services has led to the increase in autism prevalence more than any other thing. Personally, because it’s September, I would have thrown in a scene of a flu vaccine clinic… But that’s just me. In the end, this show is only one 30-minute slice of life that not everyone will get to see. However, it is my sincere hope that those who see it see Farkle and Smackle as just two children with all of the issues and all of the charm that their friends have. Just two individuals in a group who represent their side of the spectrum of neurodiversity.


Television has taught me a lot. (“Zenith Television” via Senor Velasco on Flickr, CC by NC-ND 2.0)

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

5 replies

  1. For years I was told my son was not autistic. But things have changed, and now he has a diagnosis.

    Interesting thing is that one reason they removed Asperger was a person would not qualify for that diagnosis even if they marked all the right boxes for it, except the one of speech delay. Even though my son is very Asperger like, he could not speak at age three. So no Asperger for him!

    It is very interesting watching the changes over the past twenty five years. From the different diagnoses among his preschool classmates (dyspraxia, childhood aphasia, hyperlexia, etc), to changes in attitudes — and some have been positive.


    1. I didn’t start speaking until I was 3, where I began speaking in full sentences. Haven’t slowed down since.
      Of course, that was caused by a medical misadventure, it seems that doctor vaccinated me with a phonograph needle. 😉
      Doctor and mom noticed early on that I had dyslexia and mom drilled me mercilessly to the point where I only display symptoms of dyslexia when I’m extremely fatigued.
      I’ve scored high on IQ tests, get along well with people and make friends extremely easily.

      If you look at all of the “check boxes”, you’ll find that we all can have more than one checked, even if we are neurotypical.

      One thing that annoys me is when a physician diagnoses a child, leaving the parents a symptom for a diagnosis. That happened with my son in law, who was late walking and had coordination issues, leading to a delay in language as well.
      Annoying because it seems to have been inherited by their first child. Dad isn’t interested in pursuing further diagnostics, preferring training to compensate to having a cause of the difficulty in coordination. Their family, so it’s not my decision to make.

      Oh, nails on a chalkboard doesn’t bother me, rubbing cotton sheets or nylon windbreaker type cloth sets my teeth on edge.


      1. I got lots of those stories. Didn’t help. He needed ten years of speech therapy, some of it intensive. His speech is still affected and sometimes he is hard to understand.

        (Oh, the one about Einstein not speaking until age five, ten, twenty, whatever is a myth. There is a family story that he was told he could play with his new baby sister, to which he replied: “How? There are no wheels.” He was only a little over two years old than his sister, that is the kind of sentence my son could not make until he was at least six years old. So be forewarned to never bring up Einstein to a parent whose child is getting speech/language therapy, we really hate that myth.)


  2. Nice write-up, Ren! It’s good to see popular kids’ shows addressing issues that really are important to kids (and adults). It’s especially great to see them backing those issues with positive messages of acceptance and understanding. And, because it’s still fresh in my mind, it reminds me of Felicia Day’s new book, which I think should be read by, well, everyone. (I wrote up a review here.) It, too, talks about embracing your own quirks and accepting others’ quirks, too. We all have them, and they’re what make us, well, us.


  3. Oh my goodness! I have to see faces in context too. Living in a small town gives me anxiety because I’ve run into people that I know from one thing but because we’re not there, I literally don’t recognize them or I think they’re someone else. This happened just the other day. I thought I knew who I was talking to and realized after I mis-stated something (that would have made sense to the person I *thought* I was talking to). I played it off as “Man I sure am I tired and what day of the week is it?” but things like that aren’t uncommon for me (and I’m not on any spectrum – sometimes I wonder if this is because I moved so frequently as a kid that my brain just decided “Screw it.”)


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