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The Neurodiversity of a Wildcat

By Melissa Lushington, "Don't Cut Corners...Unless It's Cake" - Blog Series Vol. 4, Slice #1

Promotional Photo for "High School Musical Turns 10!" D23.com


Back in 2007 before the premiere of High School Musical 2, there was a Disney Channel Original Movie that I watched in the same year called High School Musical. High School Musical is a Disney Channel Movie that premiered on January 20, 2006. It tells the story of two high schoolers named Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez who unintentionally audition for the spring musical and receive callback auditions for the leading roles. Despite everyone’s disapproval and discouragement, Troy and Gabriella were still able to make it to their callback audition in time and were successful in landing the leading roles in the spring musical. When I first saw this movie at eleven years old, I fell in love with it immediately. It was an instant special interest of mine, in which I collected books, DVDs, pens, watches, notepads, Chapstick, and almost anything else I could get my hands on. Now that I’m twenty-six years old, High School Musical has a much different effect on me than it did when I was eleven because now, I’ve learned a thing or two about autism and have also discovered myself to be autistic as well, I no longer look at this film with the neurotypical eyes I thought I had. My approach to High School Musical comes from the lens of neurodiversity, in which High School Musical represents the autism-related issue of identity. The reason why is that the movie is about proving that you’re more than just a label, and in this case, it’s about proving that you’re more than just an autistic label.


At the beginning of the movie, Troy and Gabriella are introduced as being the athlete and the mathlete of the story. This symbolizes an autistic person having a special interest, which is one of the many common traits relating to autism. After Troy and Gabriella sing together for the first time, they instantly knew that it was something new that they enjoyed doing outside of their comfort zone. This symbolizes how some autistic people would feel after trying something new for the first time that they really enjoyed, especially if they decide on making something more than just a one-time thing. Unfortunately, some autistic people face the harsh reality of being discouraged from pursuing their new interests because of the label they have of being autistic and being constricted to their own comfort zone. This is symbolized well in High School Musical with Troy, Gabriella, their friends, and the sudden new interest in singing. For example, when Troy and Gabriella see one another for the first time at East High School and talk in the hallway, Troy tells Gabriella that his friends didn’t know about him singing with Gabriella when he states, “…Well my friends know about the snowboarding. Um, I haven’t quite told them about the singing thing.” When Gabriella asked Troy if singing would be somethings that’s too much to handle for his friends, Troy gives his reply when he states, “No, it was cool. But you know my friends, it’s uh… It’s not what I do. That was like, a different person.” These two lines symbolize how an autistic person can be seen by others as autistic with limited capabilities, but to themselves, they see that they can possibly do many other things outside their limits but are too afraid to tell anyone about it due to fear of discouragement and harsh judgement. Then Gabriella tells Troy that if he were to ever sign up for the show that she would love to see him in it, and Troy replies when he states, “Yeah, yeah. That’s completely impossible.” This is an important statement that Troy makes because it symbolizes how autistic people can easily doubt themselves and what they’re truly capable of doing if they are told enough that they are not capable of doing anything outside of their comfort zone. In this case, Troy doubts himself in doing anything relating to singing or musical theater due to him doubting himself in doing anything outside his comfort zone of basketball because people like his dad and his friends don’t see him as anything outside the label of being the basketball guy. In the next scene that takes place in the gym, Troy talks to his best friend Chad about auditioning for the spring musical for extra credit and Chad gives a negative response when he states, “You ever think LeBron James or Shaquille O'Neal auditioned for their school musical?” This is immediately followed by more negative feedback when he states, “Look, the music in those shows isn't hip-hop, okay, or rock, or anything essential to the culture. It's like, show music. It's all costumes and makeup. Oh, dude, it’s frightening.” These two lines symbolize how a person can discourage an autistic person from trying something different because of the way they naturally are as a person, and how it limits them from going outside their comfort zone, especially if other autistic people had never tried it before themselves. Then in the next scene after Troy and Gabriella sing their private duet performance of What I’ve Been Looking for Reprise and get an unexpected callback from Ms. Darbus, everyone is shocked to hear the news, and it doesn’t take long for everyone to express their disapproval of the situation. This disapproval is heavily shown in the musical number Stick to the Status Quo, that’s basically a song about how everybody needs to know their place in the social world, stay in their lane, and never go outside the limit of their comfort zone because of the label that’s naturally placed on them. This symbolizes more that autistic people are discouraged and underestimated by their peers about pursuing their dreams because they can often sometimes be seen as nothing else but a label of being autistic and therefore have no business stepping out of their comfort zone because they don’t believe they will be successful at it. Scenes later, there is a moment on the garden rooftop between Troy and Gabriella where they talk about the natural labels they have, and how good it would feel to be seen as just a regular person. During their conversation, Gabriella made a statement about Troy being the basketball guy, and Troy made an important reply when he states, “Sometimes I don't wanna be the basketball guy. I wanna be a guy. You know?” Being able to relate to this, Gabriella makes a comment about her past reputation in previous schools when she states, “At my other schools I was the freaky math girl. It's cool coming here and being anyone I wanna be. When I was singing with you, I just felt like a girl.” Afterward, Troy makes a comment saying that Gabriella even looks like a girl too. It’s crazy how I looked at this scene once at eleven years old and thought this was just a typical scene in a high school movie. Looking back at it now at twenty-six years old, I see this scene as something so much more. This scene symbolizes not only how autistic people are seen by others, but also symbolizes how autistic people feel about it as well. Autistic people want to be seen as just ordinary people, but we unfortunately still live in a world where people can’t see past the label. So, this scene may look like it’s just an ordinary scene about high school life, but underneath the surface, it symbolizes two autistic people who want to be seen as more than just autistic people but are too afraid to let anyone know due to fear of their reactions as well as fear of failing too. From an autistic person’s perspective, you could also look at this as a way of masking because just like how Troy and Gabriella have to downplay, their singing, some autistic people have to downplay their special interests as well in order to be more socially accepted by others. Then there’s the scene that takes place after Gabriella sees a video of Troy telling his teammates that he doesn’t want to do the callbacks, and after Gabriella sings her solo number of When There was Me and You. This scene takes place at Gabriella’s locker when Troy goes up to her to talk about the callbacks. Having done most of the talking, Gabriella lets Troy know that she’s not interested in doing callbacks anymore either when she states, “I don't wanna do the callbacks either. Who are we trying to kid? You've got your team and I've got mine. I'll do the scholastic decathlon and you'll win the championships. It's where we belong.” This is another scene that hits me differently at twenty-six years old than it did the first time at eleven years old because of the symbolic representation behind it. The reason why is that it symbolizes once again how autistic people must sometimes mask by downplaying their interests in order to fit in socially with others, and in this case, this scene symbolizes how autistic people sometimes must mask in order to conform to the social norms of where neurodivergent people belong versus where neurotypical people belong. Gabriella told Troy that they shouldn’t do the callbacks because that’s not where they belong due to Troy being an athlete and Gabriella being a mathlete. How many people do you know that have turned down a wonderful opportunity to follow their special interest, because they felt like they didn’t belong due to being autistic? Are you one of those people? Towards the end of the movie, Troy and Gabriella decide that they’re going to do the callbacks after all, and this time their friends are going to help them make it possible as well. When Troy and Gabriella make it to callbacks, they both sing the duet song Breaking Free, and their friends and family were there to finally see that they really are more than just basketball stars and math genii. Looking back at this now, this is an epic symbolic moment that symbolizes how an autistic person can break free from societal norms and accomplish anything their heart desires. This also symbolizes a moment of unmasking, in which an autistic person is finally able to pursue their special interest openly, and the best part is when people can see that there’s so much more to you than an autistic label. Finally, at the end of the movie, we have the finale song We’re All in this Together. This song symbolizes unity, in which everyone can work together to achieve any goal they set their mind to. In this case, this song symbolizes that neurotypical and neurodivergent people can work together and achieve any dream they wish to follow because everyone especially autistic people are more than just a label.

In conclusion, High School Musical holds a special place in my heart, but now it’s for a bigger reason than it did before. My original reason was because of the songs, choreography, and the moral lesson of staying true to yourself while also embracing the new person you’re about to become. Now, it’s for all those reasons as well as the added reason of how it represents the autism community in terms of defining who you are and proving that you’re more than just a label. This movie represents how there’s so much more to an autistic person than just being autistic, just like how Troy and Gabriella proved that there’s so much more to them than just being the athlete and mathlete. I hope that after you read this, you’ll see that there’s so much more to you than what you are and that anything is possible when you step outside your comfort zone, try something new, and follow your dreams.


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