What we can learn from that cringey Girl Meets World autism clip
An old scene from the Boy Meets World spinoff is going viral on TikTok.
It seems like every few weeks or so, a clip from a once-popular TV show or movie resurfaces to the shock and secondhand embarrassment of former fans. We’ve been there before: coming to terms with the underlying toxicity that’s tainted the legacy of America’s Next Top Model and, on a much lighter note, realizing Hayden Panettiere’s uncomfortable Bring It On: All or Nothing krumping scene wasn’t worth our pre-teen praise.
This week, the retroactive spotlight is on a 2015 episode of Girl Meets World titled “Girl Meets Farkle” with a questionable storyline about autism. The Boy Meets World revival, which followed Cory and Topanga’s daughter Riley (Rowan Blanchard) and her best friend Maya (Sabrina Carpenter), premiered on the Disney Channel 14 years after its predecessor’s series finale.
The episode in question, which has recently resurfaced and gone viral on TikTok, sees the girls’ friend, Farkle, confide in the pair about being tested for “a type of autism called Asperger’s syndrome.” The two respond in shock and immediately dismiss Farkle, snappily saying, “You don’t” and, “Let’s go tell them you don’t.” Friends and family in the same room appear solemn, with another friend, Lucas, even stating, “You behave just like a perfectly normal Farkle.” By the end of the episode, test results ultimately reveal that Farkle is not autistic.
There are several problems with this scene, specifically. The writers may have been well-intentioned, but as TikTok users noted, the alarming reception of Farkle's admission only adds to the stigma attached to autism and autistic people. That stigma can not only make it difficult for some people to get diagnosed, but it can also negatively impact autistic and neurodivergent people’s mental health. “Why’d they react like he had a terminal disease” the TikToker who shared the now-viral clip wrote over the video. “Watching this episode in middle school was the sole reason i was terrified to tell my friends about my autism,” one commenter added.
To be clear, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that people are born with, according to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN); it’s not a disease to be cured or feel ashamed by. Approximately 1 in 44 children are autistic, according to the CDC, though there are autistic people (both children and adults) who have not been formally diagnosed. ASD, as the name indicates, is a spectrum; despite what Hollywood’s frequently one-note portrayals may have you believe, there’s no single, all-encompassing look of autism.
As for Girl Meets World’s use of “Asperger’s syndrome,” while that was once an official diagnosis, the term was officially eliminated from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013. Today, all diagnoses fall under the umbrella of ASD. Interestingly enough, as BuzzFeed News noted, the change was made two years before the Girl Meets World episode aired.
Hollywood is no stranger to cringe-worthy portrayals of autism, one of the most notable being 2021’s Music. Sia’s directorial debut centered around a young, non-verbal autistic woman named Music (played by Maddie Ziegler — but it faced serious backlash not only for the choice to have a neurotypical actor play the autistic character, but also for its depiction of dangerous and widely condemned restraints used on that character.
While the Girl Meets World scene circulating right now is several years old, its newfound virality is a reminder that we need to continue to raise awareness about autism and neurodivergence — and push back against stigmatizing portrayals or discussions on film and in real life.