By Mike McMahan, LPC
Rocket Raccoon: His people are completely literal. Metaphors go over his head.
Drax the Destroyer: Nothing goes over my head...! My reflexes are too fast, I would catch it.
So, yes, this is a conversation between a talking raccoon and a hulking space being. But could it also be a window into the way a person with autism thinks? According to a recent article from ABC News, the answer is yes.
Many millions of us saw the first Guardians Of The Galaxy a few years ago, and millions more have seen the sequel, which opened last weekend (disclosure: I haven’t seen it yet). What millions of us may not have known is that Drax The Destroyer’s character, who takes everything literally, had become a hero to the autism community.
Not having seen the new film, I can’t comment on how Drax acts; but from reviews, I think it’s safe to assume that he’s no better at metaphors now. This is even more likely given that he had some of the best lines in the first film.
But what is it that resonates with the autism community? Well, quite literally, this literal understanding of figures of speech represents a thinking style that is common with people who are diagnosed with a spectrum disorder.
This way of taking things literally, as well as trouble comprehending facial expressions and emotions, is one of the key challenges for people with this increasingly commonly diagnosed disorder.
Why should anyone care about how Drax thinks or acts beyond the comedic value?
The answer is that this can be a huge tool in educating the world. One of the hardest things for me to explain, as a mental health practitioner, is the nature of autism. This is partly due to the wide variety of behaviors associated with the diagnosis. When something is hard to definitively pin down, it is difficult to explain. But it is also hard because the disorder itself is difficult to enunciate. So, having Drax The Destroyer as an example is a good leaping off point, even though his literal understanding of things in no way encompasses the entire disorder. But, it’s important to note that this is something people are noticing in the character; at no point in the film is autism actually discussed.
Drax also provides a hero for kids on the spectrum to look at and identify with, something else highlighted in the ABC article. As our society becomes more multi-cultural and more aware that there are multiple points of view on every situation, there is a recognition that some groups have not been represented or are under-represented. For people on the autism spectrum, representation has been periodic at best. Rain Man comes to mind, as does Mercury Rising. Maybe The Cube. But what else? It’s difficult to think of other Hollywood productions. And there is nothing like seeing someone on the big screen who reminds you of yourself to let you think “I belong, I’m here, too.”
So, if you’re a parent and your child asks you about autism, this may be a jumping off point. It’s not the whole picture, but it’s at least a small part. A door in.
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist in San Antonio, Tx.
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By Mike McMahan, LPC
“What do fiction writers get wrong about therapy?” I was asked recently by my friend, blogger, novelist and musician Sanford Allen. Turns out, the answer to his question is “quite a lot.”
“We all know the cliché. You go into a therapist’s office, they have you look at some weird inkblots and nod and mutter when you respond to “tell me what you see.” You then free associate about your mother and whatever prompts the therapist gives you. He rubs his beard and then gives you probing insight into your psyche and whatever underlying, twisted, psychosexual traumas are driving your current challenges.
Except it’s nothing like that. Generally speaking, therapists these days are behaviorists, though there are many specific schools of thought. A therapist will generally draw from one philosophy, which is said to be their theoretical orientation. Most clinicians these days will help you consider behaviors in your life, and ask you to think about how feelings about events impact your reaction to those events.”
You can check out my full response on Sanford’s website.
Mike McMahan, LPC is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
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By Mike McMahan, LPC
We all play roles in our life, and this is something that a therapist can explore with clients. How do our behavior and feelings change when we are in parenting mode versus work mode? It’s also something that can be explored (in a subtle fashion) with children. But if you can explore playing roles, can it be done via role-playing games?
I must confess, this article from Kotaku, which discusses the possibility of playing Dungeons & Dragons as a way for therapists to engage clients, is pretty much my favorite thing in some time. If you view your life as a story, what better way to shape and explore than through a world of fantasy in which all interactions and situations are controllable within the therapy room? There are a lot of possibilities with thus, both literally and metaphorically. On the literal front, it is a way to explore social interactions and “what would you do in this scenario” for any number of social situations. For clients who need help with day-to-day social interactions, their character can go to a shop and practice buying swords and magic items. As the article points out, this benefit may be magnified for clients with autism who struggle with social skills. For clients who need help with decision making, the therapist can help their “character” (wink wink) learn to weigh the pros and cons of making a certain decision and later explore what the benefits and consequences of that decision were.
Another possible benefit not explored in the above article is character creation itself. This can be a way for kids to reflect on their strengths and how to apply them. “Are you better at being strong or being smart? What makes you say that?” Kids respond well to this sort of concrete thinking.
So, if you aren’t a D&D player yourself (or, if you’re like me, you were a player as a kid and only remember endless arguing), what can you do with this to help you parent? Rory’s Story Cubes can accomplish many of the same things with less effort on parent’s part. And it is also applicable to younger children. I have used this type of thing a number of times with clients and it has never failed to produce results; this applies to younger kids and those who are intellectually and developmentally disabled.
So get out your swords, your gold pieces and your Monster Manuals and Fiend Folios. Let’s go on a quest…
Mike McMahan, LPC, is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
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Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture