Superman: diagnosing aliens
Superman’s struggles parallel autistic experiences
Martin and I were having a chat on Facebook and I’d mentioned something that’d been on my mind for a long time.
A little backstory
Man of Steel (the latest reboot in the Superman filmography) shows the story of a young, sensitive, and socially alienated boy with sensory processing issues and other difficulties. (I only know a few autistics who’ve struggled with their laser vision).
Kal-El (Superman’s birth name) was born on planet Krypton but sent to Earth by his biological father. His father put an infant Kal-El into an escape pod routed for Earth to save him from a planet ravaged by civil war and ecological destruction.
Baby Superman’s pod landed on Earth on the property of a couple in rural Kansas. These warmhearted humans found Kal-El in the alien craft and decided to raise the orphan as their own.
They decided to name the little Kryptonian baby Clark. And so, from that day onward, this strange, alien baby would be known as Clark Kent, the adopted son of Martha and Jonathan Kent.
Autistic people often experience social exclusion because we tend to misread social cues and interact in atypical ways. For this reason, many autistics have written about how they felt as though they came from another planet. This sense of being an alien among humans resonates so much with the autistic community that in 2004, Dan Grover and Alex Plank created Wrong Planet, one of the first online discussion platforms for autistic people.
Superpowers and kryptonite
At Embrace ASD we believe it’s crucial to depict autism as accurately as possible. This means covering autistic superpowers and kryptonite. Oftentimes, the lines between the two are demarcated by one’s environment. How could this discussion be any more fitting than in a post about Superman?
In Man of Steel, nine-year-old Clark becomes overwhelmed by his senses while in class. All at once, his senses inundate him with a flurry of information. The clock’s ticking pounds like drumbeats; the teacher’s voice is grating to his ears, and his vision grows so acute as to see-through bodies. Even his teacher’s heartbeats are painfully audible to this scared, confused little boy.Man of Steel (2013) | IMDB
What’s worse is that his teacher, by asking Clark if he was okay, brings all of his classmates’ attention to him during his meltdown. I’ve certainly experienced this sort of embarrassment from well-meaning albeit misguided teachers. I imagine I’m far from alone in experiencing the unique strain of shame that comes from having your meltdown made the focal point in a room full of people.
Clark can’t stand the cacophony any longer and runs out of the classroom with his hands over his ears, and into the nearest closet where he locks himself in. Then, the teacher follows him with the entire class in tow and knocks loudly on the door, demanding that Clark come out at once and shouting at him about her having called his mother.
As many of us already know from harsh experience, someone yelling at you during a meltdown is a recipe for disaster. The already overwhelming stimuli only grow more intense with each shouted word. Still, it’s important to note that the teacher was trying her best in a situation she’s likely never encountered before—especially not a situation involving an alien.
Martha rushes to the locked closet door and consoles Clark. The dialogue in this scene resonated strongly with me and my struggles with overwhelm.
The world’s too big, mom (Clark)
Then make it small (Martha)
Martha instructs her son to focus only on the sound of her voice.
Hyperfocus is something many autistics do. It’s a necessary tool when one needs to filter out a distracting or overwhelming environment to achieve a certain end (however, it’s at the expense of noticing features in the environment, emotions, etc.); in Clark’s case, to soothe him.
Puberty is especially tough on superpowered aliens
Clark grows up isolated from other children. His family is concerned that the world isn’t ready to learn about his abilities. So, Jonathan Kent instructs his son to hide his powers, to wear a mask.
Masking is a common tactic autistics use to avoid social rejection. We often try to act neurotypical (wearing the mask) to the best of our abilities to avoid rejection, or, in the worst cases, becoming the object of misattributed malintent. This experience is painful for Clark as it is for autistic people. Clark wants nothing more than to pass as human, to be seen, heard, and enjoyed the way others seem to be. But no matter how hard he tries, he knows deep down that he’s different. Have a look at the article below to read more about the harm that masking can cause.
In one scene, Clark is sitting by his dad and having a serious talk. Some short while before this conversation, Clark had saved his classmates from drowning after their school bus drove off of a bridge and into a river by pushing the submerged vehicle onto land. This incident scared the parents of a child who witnessed Clark moving the bus. They saw him as a monster rather than a hero.
Jonathan is careful to let Clark know that what makes him different is his greatest asset. Clark has trouble understanding this lesson because people seem to fear him, and he doesn’t understand why. The world’s ignorance is to blame, Jonathan assures him.
Being a hero doesn’t mean knowing when to put on the cape;
it means knowing when to take off the mask
Clark grows up, thankfully, with two loving and understanding parents. Although I believe his father’s advice may have alienated him more than was necessary, it’s understandable given how people often react violently to that which they don’t understand. And, in his final moments, Jonathan sacrificed himself so that Clark wouldn’t expose his powers to the world.
Jonathan believed so deeply in his son’s potential that he was willing to bet his life on it. As the film and countless comics show us, this bet was very well placed.
Clark Kent’s experience as an outsider in the only world he’s known is consistent with the experience of many autistic people. And, like for many of us, whether his abilities were superpowers or weaknesses were highly dependent on his environment on how others treated him.
While we aren’t super-powered aliens, we often do have gifts that others overlook. Additionally, I imagine many of us even hide these gifts for fear of rejection. In this way, Superman’s struggles mirror that of autistic people.