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Autism in the Middle

by Ethan Tussey

by Wendy Wagner (Johnson & Wales University) for In Media Res ( Nine-year-old Brick Heck on The Middle isn’t specified as being on the autism spectrum. But his traits parallel those of children with high-functioning Asperger Syndrome. He prefers reading to most social interaction, does not easily make friends, and is in a social skills group. He has a nearly photographic memory of the books (and appliance manuals) he reads. He demonstrates palilalia, a verbal tic that compels him to repeat and whisper the last word of a sentence to himself. Though Brick has some savant characteristics, it is notable how the show, based as it is on the idea that it’s ok to be average, argues against treating Brick as particularly exceptional. In fact, special treatment is deliberately portrayed as negative for Brick. His teacher drags him from the back of the room, where he can read in peace, into the front row so she can "keep an eye on" Brick. To some degree Brick’s "autistic presence," to cite Stuart Murray’s term, is used for narrative effect; it becomes a metaphor for the ways that parents and children do not understand each other. But it co-exists alongside his brother’s indolence and his sister’s enthusiasm, characteristics that are not normally deployed as metaphors of difference but do emphasize the distance between these parents and their children. Brick’s autistic characteristics are presented neither as exceptional, nor as an example of a challenge to overcome. He does not assert an autistic subjectivity in this narrative that is ultimately about the travails of middle-class parents in the middle of America. But what he does represent is far more radical in the current popular culture landscape: the idea that autism is just another kind of normal.

Autism in the Middle

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A clip from season 2, episode 1 of "The Middle" (titled "Back to School"). The clip is used by Wendy Wagner for an In Media Res week on Autism in the Media viewable here. (

from The Middle (2010)
Creator: Warner Bros. TV
Distributor: ABC
Posted by Ethan Tussey