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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Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture