HomeautismThe Ghost Whisperer Tackles Autism

I’ve always been drawn to the spooky, paranormal side of life, and I’m always on the lookout for media portraying ghosts as more of a normal part of life, and less of the undead terror from the movies.

One of the common sets from the Ghost Whisperer.
By Jcx at en.wikipedia [Public domain],
from Wikimedia Commons

I’ve found a bit of that in the show The Ghost Whisperer. I’ve just gotten to season two on Netflix, and it’s an okay show. Recently, I discovered an episode featuring an autistic ghost, Dennis, and his girlfriend, Christine. It’s titled “The Ghost Within”.

There are some things I liked about how the writers handled autism, and others I didn’t.

On the plus side, they did their homework into stimming, the shameful history of how the medical profession handled autism and the effects of SPD. They also played beautifully on how partially nonverbal autistic folks often communicate through echoing and scripting.

Dennis first made himself known through a sort of spectral meltdown. When he grew frustrated because the protagonist couldn’t understand him, he’d throw things around and bang wooden ornaments on tables. He seemed unable to perceive Melinda’s (the protagonist) presence at first.

Eventually, she learned of his autism, and he was able to communicate with her through a type of visual clairvoyance. When she touched the wooden ornaments, she’d pick up visual images of what had happened to him and his girlfriend when he was still alive.

The images were extremely bright, and the visual effects department incorporated a disorienting flashing effect into them. It was a surprisingly effective way of demonstrating a type of visual sensory perception problem. It reminded me a lot of how my brain reacts to too much stimulation, especially during certain types of migraines.

That said, I’m very glad they didn’t abuse that effect in the same way action movies overuse strobe lights. (Pitch Black, I’m talking to YOU.) I don’t think I would have made it through the episode if they did.

Anyway, I was also extremely happy to see autistic adults in a show, rather than only children. Furthermore, they weren’t on the high functioning end, and they weren’t used as comedic elements, like Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory. They were given enough autonomy to have adult relationships, live somewhat independently and were not treated as if they were to be pitied or admired simply because they were autistic.

I also liked how they demonstrated the discomfort the neurotypical protagonist had at first, and how she went the extra mile to understand how their minds worked. Her research helped her learn how to communicate both with the ghost and his living girlfriend well enough to help the spirit move on.

They also did a wonderful job of showing the various forms of ignorance surrounding the neurology, like the mom who wouldn’t believe her daughter could feel love to the protagonist’s husband who made it clear he believed people with autism were inherently imperfect with the line, “But aren’t spirits perfect? Aren’t their disabilities cured when they die?”

That last point does tie into the basic idea the writers seemed to hold about autism.

Melinda answered the question with something along the lines of, “Well, sometimes ghosts are still too attached to the living world and will hold on to some of their disabilities.” As soon as I heard that, I had the feeling Dennis would be ‘cured’ by the end of the episode.

Sure enough, when Liz was finally reunited with her mom, and just before he moved on, Dennis looked Melinda square in the eyes and smiled, just like a “normal” person.

I was also uncomfortable when Dennis asked Melinda to explain to him what love was. That might have something to do with the storytelling aspect of the episode, though. I have a hard time believing he wouldn’t have had that conversation earlier on in his life, but I guess it could be possible? I can’t really put my finger on why that question bothered me so much.

Overall, this was one of the better portrayals of autistic characters I’ve seen to date. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was far better than a lot of what’s out there.

If you enjoy the paranormal, a moderately corny story line, and some decent autism representation, this episode of Ghost Whisperer is worth checking out. I believe it’s episode 4 of season 2.

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