The first season of “Star Trek: Discovery” is complete, and it’s time to reflect on one of the most important developments that came from the new show:
The Star Trek Universe has its first main character who is autistic, Cadet Sylvia Tilly.
Unfortunately, Cadet Tilly is not officially autistic.
The actress who plays Tilly, Mary Wiseman, confirmed via Twitter that the character was “never specifically described as on the spectrum and it wasn’t my intention to play her on the autism spectrum.” She also noted this past month that “This was not something that we discussed in the room.” We’re assuming she meant the producers, writers and directors never discussed portraying Tilly on the Autism Spectrum.
Why not make Tilly autistic?
Every iteration of Star Trek through the years has put forth the notion that while humanity has solved many of its lingering issues including racism, world hunger, the insatiable need for material possessions, bigotry and hatred, Gene Roddenberry and other ST producers have been quick to acknowledge that humanity hasn’t figured everything out yet.
We’re still uncomfortable with interpersonal relationships. We will still wage war against our enemies including other humans. We’re explorers of the universe, but we’re also exploring our own lives and the “human condition.”
In addition, the Star Trek Universe has conquered many serious medical conditions (presumably since they are never mentioned) including the common cold, comas (no more drilling into heads to relieve the pressure), cancer and AIDS.
Sadly, Starfleet science has yet to defeat every medical affliction. Consider characters who still have receding hairlines (or outright baldness, right Captain Picard?), blindness (thanks, Geordi) or allergies (Hello, Tilly).
Developmental, physical and mental disabilities have never been addressed in any iteration of Star Trek, and it’s about time that they did.
Because, as much as I would love to think that technological advancements and interaction with aliens would allow humanity to develop treatments or therapies to eliminate all special needs and disabilities, it is logical that it would take centuries to complete such a task.
We should assume that even in the time of Archer, Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, Lorca and Tilly, there will be men and women who are autistic.
But wait, is Tilly really autistic?
As Wiseman said, Tilly was never intended to be on the Spectrum, but let’s take a moment to acknowledge a few key things that we learned about Tilly that suggest she IS, in fact, autistic:
- Tilly has diagnosed “special needs” – In her first appearance on screen, Cadet Tilly meets her new roommate and mentions that she could never have a roommate before due to her “special needs.” Now, those needs are never identified, although she does mention allergies to polyester and viscoelastic polyurethane foam. Even still, the term “special needs” would have had the history of its use to describe people on the Autism Spectrum from the 21st Century. It’s not hard to believe that in a time where autism still exists, the term “special needs” would continue to be used to describe people with autism.
- She talks to people directly, often without a filter – Watch that video clip again. Doesn’t that remind you of some of the special needs folks in your life? Unfiltered emotion, directness with hints of awkwardness and uncertainty. “You took my bed.” Love it. If nothing else, let’s never forget that Tilly was also the first Star Trek character to ever say “shit,” “I’m very high,” and that the ST universe is “fucking cool.”
- She’s wicked smart – Sure that’s not exclusive to our special needs friends, but if we look at Tilly as a high-functioning autistic woman, then her ability to keep up with the innovative and complicated science and engineering of the spore drive is not shocking. Don’t forget, Tilly is only a Cadet and she’s already smarter than most of the other officers on-board Discovery.
- Tilly has nervous mannerisms that make it difficult for her to make friends – In the clip above, Tilly is direct and notes “I talk when I’m nervous.” She also points out how a roommate is like an “automatic, built-in friend” which implies she’s had difficulty making or keeping friends in the past. Wiseman says that Tilly has “a lot of vocal energy” that comes out when she’s nervous. Unfortunately we see this trait less and less as the show went on. Had the writers/producers deliberately developed Tilly on the Spectrum, they would have likely kept her mannerisms from Episodes 3-4 and augmented them into some fun situations. Sadly, by Episode 7, she’s the life of the party, matchmaker and beer pong champion. By Episode 10, she was “Captain Killy” in the Mirror Universe who was anything but nervous.
So if Tilly is autistic, what should the show runners do about it?
I’m glad you asked. As a lifelong Star Trek fan, you can rest assured that these suggestions come from the heart and a true desire for the show to continue to succeed while also shining a bright light on how awesome it would be to have an autistic character on the show:
- Confirm her diagnosis – In all things science fiction, nothing is considered “canon” until it is said out loud or seen on screen. So, said it loud, say it proud. Tilly has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Tilly was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Whatever you like, but talk to the experts first so you know what you’re getting into. Help advocates define where she is on the Spectrum so we can write future blog posts that better emphasize and empathize with her personal journey.
- Dig into her past – Before Tilly was an autistic adult, she was an autistic child. What challenges did she face growing up? Did she have any friends? How did her ASD impact her family and love life? What was it like to be autistic at Starfleet Academy? Did the other cadets treat a high-functioning autistic person the same as an android or a Vulcan with their superior intellectual capabilities? Perhaps her autism was one of the reasons she was sent to the Discovery before graduating? Bring on her back story!
- Have her autism save the day – When Tilly was impersonating the Mirror Universe version of herself, she went way out of her comfort zone to become the horrible person she needed to portray. At the same time she took advantage of her nervous mannerisms to properly address other Terrans and pull off the ruse. (“I’d cut out your tongue and use it to lick my boots.” Love it.) So take her spot on the Spectrum and use it to solve the problem of the week. Perhaps some social situation that only an autistic person could evaluate and address. Perhaps some intellectual challenge that those silly, emotional scientists can’t master, but Tilly’s innocent and direct approach solves quickly and easily.
- Have her autism cause a problem – ASD is not rainbows and puzzle pieces. It’s meltdowns, hitting and stimming. It’s innocent mistakes in judgment. It’s brutal honesty without filters. Have Tilly say or do something that gets the ship in trouble. Cause a rift in her friendship with Burnham that takes multiple episodes to resolve and requires a deeper exploration into Tilly’s disorder to understand. Educate the audience how it can be challenging to have a friend on the Spectrum, but also how those challenges can be overcome.
- Let us watch Tilly succeed without commentary – As cool as it would be to use Tilly’s autism to solve a problem, watching Tilly save the day using her natural personality and skills is the best example of how an autistic adult can succeed. Tilly’s brilliance will come out by overcoming any limitations she has and helping the crew win the day. As Burnham told Tilly, “You have the strength of an entire crew that believes in you. Fortify yourself with our faith in you.” I can’t think of a better statement to tell every special needs child and adult we meet. Just knowing you have a community around you that supports you will help lead to success.
Kudos to CBS, Wiseman and the Crew of Discovery
Star Trek: Discovery opened doors to incredible storytelling through its interesting characters. But more importantly, Star Trek: Discovery has created a new role model for kids.
While kids like me grew up wanting to be Kirk or Picard, autistic kids can now look to Tilly as a role model of who they want to grow up to be:
- An accomplished scientist who solves the BIG problems
- A trusting, loyal and caring friend
- A dedicated contributing member of a community that likes and respects her
- A good person even in the darkest of times (or universes)
If anyone associated with the show reads this or other blogs, we at the ASD Clubhouse thank you for stretching the boundaries of the Star Trek Universe to include room for our special needs brothers and sisters. We hope you will work hard to forge Tilly into an autistic character we can be proud to highlight and talk about in the years to come.
Godspeed, Ensign Tilly.