It's the start of "Autism Awareness Month," which, for those of us with Autism, tends to be "the month to run and hide and wish I didn't like blue, because we get inundated with neurotypical people who think they know our experience better than we do." I don't often write about the effect of Autism on my life (either my son's or my own's), because to be honest, 99% of the time, it's boring and uneventful.
In a bit of serendipity, I recently watched the Power Rangers movie that came out a year or so ago. As a 90s kid, I grew up with the original series, so my husband and I were bored and decided to watch it. It had its corny moments (and the premise as a whole is a bit campy, as it's always been), but overall it's quite good.
What stuck out to me, though, was Billy, the Blue Ranger. As an original series fan, Billy was always my favorite. I identified with the nerdy, bespectacled Blue Ranger. So, when the "new" movie Billy was first introduced, I was a bit taken aback. However, he quickly grew on me, and by the end of the movie, my appreciation for the character had been renewed and even strengthened.
The original Power Rangers was actually rather revolutionary in its diverse cast. In hindsight, the color assignments were rather stereotypical, but it was 1993. I'm willing to let bygones be bygones and appreciate the attempt, especially since the new movie seems to have learned from its past, while keeping with its habit of pushing boundaries. Pink is still the cheerleader type girl, but the Asian character is no longer Yellow Ranger (and Yellow is the first LGBTQ superhero) and the African American is no longer Black Ranger, though in an ironic twist, they made the Autistic character the Blue Ranger.
Yep, Billy's Autistic. And not in the kinda-sorta-not-really way that The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon or Criminal Minds' Dr. Reid, where the writers hint at it, but then pull back at the last possible moment of actually making them Autistic. Nope, Power Rangers brings it up pretty early, when Billy tells Jason straight-up "I'm on the Spectrum."
A little bit of banter ensues, where Jason jokingly feigns ignorance of what "the Spectrum" means, giving an opportunity to provide a little bit of information about what being Autistic means for him, including not getting Jason's joke, and even explains that his brain's wired differently (to which Jason responds that that's not a bad thing).
One of the things that I appreciated about the movie was that although the movie was upfront about it, it didn't focus as heavily on it as some shows and movies have. His Autism is part of his character, but the story isn't about his Autism, and he isn't just a bunch of stereotypes. The astute viewer will see the subtle (and not so subtle) things that indicate his neurodivergence, such as the lining up of the colored pencils in detention, or the stimming during one of the morph scenes, but will also notice that he makes eye contact with his friends (whom he values deeply, which is arguably why he can make eye contact with them).
He's also the first to morph. This is huge within the movie's arc, because the team's entire ability to morph depends on them working as one, relating to one another, and caring about one another. To have Billy be the first one to morph shows the level of care and loyalty that he has toward his friends and illustrates that not only can Autistics love and care for people, but that we can do so deeply and profoundly.
Additionally, Jason, in particular treats him as an equal, while still helping him when needed, such as encouraging Billy when he's stressed, helping stop a bully, or being non-chalant about the news that Billy's on the Spectrum. Outside of the movie, Billy's actor, RJ Cyler, sat down and just listened to Autistic people. He did his homework.
I actually sat down and shut my mouth and actually just listened and you know, accepted every bit of information with no judgement… I knew that it was my job to show, you know, that people that are on the spectrum are just regular people, literally, just how we talk, how me and Becky [Becky G, Yellow Ranger] talk, they feel the same way, they have the same emotions, they wanna be loved, that want people to love, they want relationships they want, you know, connections, and it’s just like I was really excited to be able to play that ’cause I know it means so much to so many people, ’cause all of us are affected by it… and it’s something I feel like we needed to have in this movie to be honest.
It's this kind of awareness and acceptance of Autism and this kind of portrayal (where it's there, but not the primary focus of the story) that we need. Billy certainly isn't the representative of Autism -- no single person is or can be -- but he's a valuable character to have to be able to illustrate part of the range of neurodiversity and the positives it contains.