The resurfaced scene from a 2015 episode of the Disney Channel show, which has received over 1.7 million views on TikTok, deals with a boy telling his friends that he is being tested for autism, and they respond poorly. The scene has sparked concern from TikTok users over the messaging about disability and autism in the clip.
“The fact that this scene from 2015 seems ‘outdated’ to many viewers today is a positive thing,” Zoe Gross, director of operations at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, told HuffPost via email. “It shows that more people are educated about autism, and respond from a place of knowledge instead of fear.”
Anne Borden, co-founder of Autistics for Autistics, agreed.
“The response was great to see! It shows our progress,” she told HuffPost via email. “It’s great to see people having a laugh and getting why it’s cringe.”
On Monday, a TikTok user posted an old clip from the revival of the beloved 1990s sitcom “Boy Meets World.” In the scene from an episode called “Girl Meets Farkle,” a character named Farkle (Corey Fogelmanis) confides in his young friends that he is being tested for autism. The way the boy’s friends respond to the announcement could best be described by the TikTok user who shared the resurfaced clip — “Why’d they react like he had a terminal disease?”
In the scene, as soon as Farkle tells two of his young friends that he’s being tested, they respond with harsh and alarmist reactions.
“You don’t!” one of his friends says sternly, prompting the other friend to echo, “Let’s go tell them you don’t!”
Although Farkle’s friends respond with denial, by the end of the very brief scene, they ultimately show their friend that they love him regardless of his diagnosis — albeit in a pretty stigmatizing way. Farkle’s parents, who are also in the scene, tell his friends that he wanted to tell them right away that he was being tested and wanted them to be part of this process. One of his friends affectionately responds by saying, “Because he’s Farkle.”
“That’s who you are,” his other friend says. “No matter what anybody says.”
Thousands of comments flooded the clip when it was posted on TikTok.
Some responses poked fun at the sincerity and dramatic nature of the clip. Borden, who is autistic, said that the scene “misses the mark by a lot” but also admitted that she “can see [the script] made an effort.”
“The writers were probably trying to do the right thing by showing that people can go through all the steps to accept an autism diagnosis in someone they love,” she told HuffPost. “Not very plausible this will happen within a two-minute interaction ... but that’s life inside the world of an earnest American sitcom!”
But for some TikTok users in the autistic community who were fans of the show when it aired, the resurfaced clip affected them differently.
“Watching this episode in middle school was the sole reason i was terrified to tell my friends about my autism,” a commenter wrote.
“I loved this show and i’m so glad i wasn’t diagnosed yet with autism when i watched this bc it would’ve destroyed me,” another commenter said.
Jordyn Zimmerman, board chair of CommunicationFIRST, who identifies as a nonspeaking autistic, called the clip “outrageous” in an email to HuffPost.
“People have every right to be angry about this clip,” she said.
“I don’t understand the purpose, other than to degrade. The script makes it seem like autism is an illness that is potentially life-threatening and really shameful,” she added. “No one can deny someone else’s existence and way of being. This certainly doesn’t help autistics and it doesn’t help nondisabled people appreciate our vast experiences and humanity, either.”
All three autism advocates that HuffPost spoke to agreed that the clip felt antiquated and unhelpful. Gross made the point to HuffPost that the fear of autism depicted in the scene “is realistic, since autism is stigmatized in our society.”
“It’s not necessarily wrong to depict characters having fearful responses to the idea of autism,” she said. But she noted that giving characters the opportunity “to learn and overcome their fear” would be a better route.
“For example, if another character spoke up to say that autism is nothing to be scared of, and there are many positive aspects to getting a diagnosis, such as being able to receive support and accommodations,” she added. “[That] would be ideal in my opinion.”
Borden said that although some may find the scene offensive, she feels “it would be a bad call to try to cancel Disney” over the dated clip. She suggested that if the Disney Channel decides to reair this episode, the company should make a small tweak.
“My first choice would be for Disney to get the actor [who played Farkle] today to record a quick afterword,” Borden said. “Describing how our understanding of autism has changed since this episode came out, thanks in part to the neurodiversity movement.”
Borden concluded that the outrage over the scene was ultimately a good thing.
“We’re moving from autistic characters as objects, towards being subjects and nuanced characters,” she said, pointing out the character Cheese (Lane Factor) in FX’s “Reservation Dogs.”
“I don’t know if Cheese is supposed to be coded autistic; it kind of doesn’t matter,” Borden told HuffPost. “The point is he’s relatable, with or without a label. And that’s getting more common and it’s really nice.”