HomeDoctor WhoNeurodiversity in Doctor Who

While I’m not as much of a Whovian as a lot of people, I still enjoy Doctor Who. Since season 8 was finally put on NetFlix, I’ve been watching it when I get the chance.

By Steve Collis from Melbourne,
Australia (Doctor Who Experience
Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0],
via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, I’m nearing the end of the season, but I was surprised to see some more neurodiverse representation in the third to last episode, “In the Forest of the Night”.

This episode featured a dense forest appearing over the entirety of the Earth overnight. The Doctor touched down in the middle of London, but since he was surrounded by dense foliage he didn’t believe it. A little girl knocking on his door asking for help, convinced him otherwise.

Meanwhile, Clara, his current companion and a school teacher, was at the local museum during an overnight sleepover with her class and another teacher, Mr. Pink, another recurring character.

This particular class was called “special and gifted” in front of the students as a way to make them “feel better”. That’s because they all had some sort of invisible challenge. In reality, they’d be considered a remedial class.

Maebh, the girl who knocked on the TARDIS door, had been diagnosed with a mental illness following the disappearance of her older sister. Another boy had some sort of reading based LD, while another student had anger control issues and one of the girls had a math based LD.

Through the episode, a couple of students were given slightly larger roles. The girl with the math based LD had a fascination with natural science, and discovered some clues of what was going on, for instance.

Although it wasn’t named, I have the feeling Maebh may have been representative of some form of schizophrenia, because she heard voices and saw things no one else could. The Doctor recognized her symptoms, like how she’d flail her hands above her head to swat at the lights she could see, as a reaction to an actual entity instead of a sign of mental illness.

With his help, she was able to give voice to the entities who were trying to communicate through her. From there, he helped her and her classmates save the world, which I thought was rather neat.

I’m not entirely sure if Maebh was cured by the end of the episode, since she was still able to bring her sister back, but the implication was there. That implication does feed into the whole “people with disability/illness must always be cured” trope, but it’s open ended enough that it may not apply there.

As far as I know, the rest of the kids weren’t “cured”.

I was also reminded of autism when I watched Maebh trying to clear the air of the lights she saw with her hands. That action was strongly reminiscent of stimming, which is done to provide the right sort of sensory input to calm an overburdened nervous system.

In many ways, her reaction to the lights is a lot like the reaction someone with SPD has to sensory overload.

The other kids and adults just saw it as an annoying nervous tick that went away when she was medicated. Her medication only silenced her without doing anything to really treat the problem.

It highlighted the motivational issues around medication use. Is the medication being used to actually help the person taking it, or is it being used to put others at ease?

I rather enjoyed the actual episode. It was a lot of fun, and it’s always enjoyable seeing the Doctor interact with kids. Sure, he can be a jerk at first, but once he sees value in a person, it doesn’t matter who they are.

More importantly, the writers did a good job of highlighting both the strengths and the weaknesses that come with kids who learn differently. How great would it be if more shows followed that example?

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