Asperger’s Disorder and Glee

The on-line world is a-buzz with the recent addition to the Glee cast: Sugar Matta – a high schooler “self-diagosed” with Asperger’s Disorder.  It seems that many Asperger’s and Autism advocates are taking offense to the way Glee is portraying the disorder (see Marfan Mom’s post and Full Soul Ahead’s complaints).  There are others who believe Sugar’s character is funny and should be taken in a humorous way (see Glee’s own community forum).

My thoughts? I think mental health problems, issues, and disorders can be presented in a light-hearted manner.  They can even be talked about in humorous ways.  In fact, I think humor is a great way to get important information across, normalize different conditions, and just make things plain fun.  The sticking point is that the information MUST be accurate and sensitive to the individuals affected.  My concern with Glee and Sugar Matta is that the portrayal of Asperger’s is poorly informed, potentially insensitive, and wrong.

So what is Asperger’s anyway?

Asperger’s is a disorder that people are born with, meaning you can’t “catch it” or develop it as an adult.  Some people talk about Asperger’s as being on the “Autism Spectrum” meaning that it has quite a few similarities to Autism.

Here are some traits typically seen in people who are diagnosed with Asperger’s.  By the way, self-diagnosis doesn’t really count.  Mental health professionals (like psychologists or psychiatrists) are typically the ones who make these types of diagnoses:

Difficulty interpreting non-verbal cues/behaviors in others (facial expressions, body language). For example, not understanding that when someone is backing away that means they are likely finished talking with you.

Trouble making friends with peers.

Lack of interest in making friends or sharing experiences with others. 

Trouble with the give and take necessary for a successful relationship.  For example, difficulty taking turns, sharing, or seeing another person’s point of view.

Repetitive patterns of behavior or activities.  For example, playing with the same toy train in the same way for many hours over many days.

Expressing overly focused interest in things that are unusual.  For example, a 10 year old boy spending lots of time (to the exclusion of other things) listening to and learning about the Spice Girls.

Adherence to routines or rules that might not make sense to others.  

Repetitive movements.  For example, arm flapping.

Intense interest in parts of objects (rather than the whole object).  For example, the screws on a skate board.

I hope the folks over at Glee take the time to listen to the public’s concerns and make Sugar’s character more reflective of what Asperger’s is really about.  They’ve done a great job helping normalize Down’s Syndrome with Becky’s character.  Let’s see if they’re up to the challenge with Sugar, too.


6 thoughts on “Asperger’s Disorder and Glee

  1. Tamara G. Suttle, M.Ed., LPC says:

    Stephanie – thanks so much for addressing this. I am a mental health professional and a huge Glee fan. However, it has been disappointing to see this particular character portrayed as having Asperger’s and then be so off base. I’m happy to retweet your post and hope the show is listening!

    • drstephaniesmith says:

      So glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for the RT! Let’s hope the folks over at Glee take notice and either scrap the character all together, or make some serious changes in the way she is portrayed. Thanks again for your comment!

  2. Meg says:

    In general, Glee are not good with stereotypes. The Irish exchange student, for one thing, was cringey. The only thing I’d say about Sugar Matta is that she does call herself ‘self-diagnosed’ with I interpret as meaning she’s just delusional and obnoxious, and using ‘Asperger’s’ as an excuse for being that way. She’s a spoiled brat for all intents and purposes. I don’t think the audience are meant to think she actually has Asperger’s at all.

    Though, as in the case of the Irish character (or the stereotypically overbearing Asian parents etc), it’s not in the best of taste either way.

    • drstephaniesmith says:

      Thanks for your comments. I think you’re right – Glee’s writers do rely on a lot of stereotypes. I wonder if most TV shows, books, and movies do the same thing? It’s certainly easier to rely on old prejudices and stereotypes than come up with unique personalities and storylines. That’s not to say they can’t be harmful though. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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