Star Trek and Autism: Representation on the Spectrum

Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Star Trek: Discovery

Guest post by Robert Vaux

(Twitter: @rvaux16)

SPOILER ALERT: This article reveals details about the Season 3 finale of Star Trek: Discovery.

“They told me because of my special needs I couldn’t have a roommate…”

Sylvia Tilly endeared herself to the ND community quite literally the moment she opened her mouth. Returning to her quarters to find a stranger (Michael) in her bed, she launches into the kind of stream-of-consciousness info dump that everyone on the spectrum is intimately familiar with. Super excited, but maybe about to throw up. Revealing too much and not sure if she’s explained enough. Trying madly to read the cues of someone who, frankly, has much larger issues on her mind. 

Every ND who watched it silently whispered “she’s me.” 

Tilly was far from the first ND stand-in to appear on Star Trek. She wasn’t even the only one on Discovery (Doug Jones’ Saru comes immediately to mind). But she came unadorned by embellishment or metaphor. She wasn’t an alien like Spock, or an android like Data, or a cyborg like Seven, or an augment like Dr. Bashir. She wasn’t even a guest star like Reg Barclay who only showed up in a handful of episodes. There was no need to embellish who she was with pointy ears or green skin.

She was just Tilly. The kid in the back who couldn’t get her hair to behave. 

And that first scene with Michael leaned straight into it.

Her awkward excitement is par for the course for NDs, as is the inevitable moment where she suspects she’s done something terribly wrong by “talking too much”. But the scene speaks to the Autistic experience for more specific reasons as well. Tilly is masking: her nerves come less from making a new friend than in the anxiety spike that comes with having to ask for something. Michael is lying on her bed, which has special sheets and hypo allergens designed to let Tilly sleep. It shouldn’t be a big deal; she knows this. But it is, and she fears that if she doesn’t contain it, this intriguing new friend is going to push her to the curb. 

Michael doesn’t care, of course – beds are switched and all is well – but the moment speaks to a lifetime of similar torments for Tilly. She’s been conditioned not to ask for what she needs because the social cost is too great: she’ll be shunned or branded as “difficult”, and the prospect of Michael doing the same thing is almost more than she can bear. So she masks. She talks excessively. She waits desperately for some sign that Michael might be open to such a request so she can quiet the little voice screaming inside her brain. She’s asking Michael for permission to be herself.

And she needs to, because as benevolent as Starfleet is, it’s still an institution with norms that Tilly doesn’t fit. She’s struggling to compensate – something else the ND community understands all too well – but the deck has been stacked against her. She has been forbidden a roommate, despite the fact that she dearly wants one and that organizations such as Starfleet don’t normally coddle rank cadets with private quarters. She’s been denied something accepted as de rigueur by everyone else, and further isolated as a result. But beyond that, she’s essentiallybeen told to “correct” her social behavior: namely, talking when she gets nervous. “My instructors advised me to work on that,” she stammers to Michael, as a way of apologizing for what she perceives as a disastrous first impression. She’s entered into a system that she loves more than anything, and that system is telling her she can’t get anywhere unless she fundamentally changes who she is.

It’s quiet as a mouse and yet it cuts like a knife. And there’s no sci-fi varnish to it. The show doesn’t have to add some exotic explanation for why she struggles; it just have to show her fighting her way through it. To top it all off, she’s trying to read Michael’s Vulcan passivity (and general melancholy) for any sign that she’s making progress. Imagine a world of such ciphers, and it conveys the kind of passive agony that NDs grapple with daily. 

And yet, this is Star Trek which means she can and will become her best self. As it turns out, Michael is no stranger to masking, nor of being a square peg shoved into a round hole. The pair become fast friends, and over the course of Disco’s first three seasons, work their way up to becoming captain and first officer. Their paths are different, but the notion of acceptance and understanding in Gene Roddenberry’s bright future takes them to the same place. Beyond the crucible of social necessity, she’s exactly the kind of person Starfleet wants. The universe will gobble up the charming social butterfly next to her just as readily as her; it doesn’t care who’s more fun at parties. And when given the chance to focus her talents in the directions she so badly wants to go, she can make the universe cry “uncle” every time.

Because Tilly will tell you all about her favorite Law of Thermodynamics if you let her… and physics fixations pay big dividends when consoles start blowing up.

Discovery was the first new Star Trek show since Enterpriseended its run in 2005. The intervening decade brought a sea change in perceptions of Autism and neurodiversity, which essentially let the producers end the symbolism and cut to that chase. Wiseman has stated that she doesn’t play Tilly as Autistic, but neither did Brent Spiner or Leonard Nimoy or any of the ND representatives from previous Star Trek shows. They– and she – just stayed true to the character. And that’s kind of the point. For the first time, NDs saw a fully human character reflecting their own experience… using her singular nature to solve problems every week just by being herself. No pointy ears, circuits or forehead ridges required

Guest blogs represent the views of the guest blogger.

You can find Robert Vaux on Twitter @rvaux16.

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