The Spectrum of Cognition in The Walking Dead

Curator's Note

Zombies lurk in our media culture as our deficient alter egos. Mindless, shambling, and lacking any true volition, they stand in for ourselves as exploited workers and passive consumers. Like its comic book source and zombie films generally, AMC’s top-rated cable series The Walking Dead casts survivors of the zombie apocalypse as the heroes – sentient beings who seem to appreciate life and human companionship all the more for the danger and death that constantly surround them. The series uses its post-apocalyptic setting to encourage reflection on our own culture, and a recent episode entitled “The Grove” (originally aired on March 16, 2014) does so in particularly grim manner.

The episode focuses on Lizzie, a young girl who, while not diagnosed on screen, clearly exhibits behaviors consistent with a child on the autistic spectrum, as this video clip makes clear to any familiar with an ASD child. Tellingly, most online commenters seem content to simply label her as “crazy,” but her particular cognitive differences from those around her remain far too complex for so dismissive an appraisal.

Ironically, the primary manifestation of her disability is her inability to recognize zombies as something other than people, albeit people who are “changed” or different. Her fellow survivors and surrogate parent-figures first recognize Lizzie’s difference when they discover that she has been feeding zombies, and especially when she attempts to befriend and play with a zombified young girl (who is summarily killed by Carol, her substitute mother). In the extreme narrative of the show, Lizzie soon kills her sister and contemplates killing an infant in an attempt to prove that the dead are actually human. “Don’t worry; she’ll come back,” explains Lizzie. “You’ll finally get it.”

While one could find beauty in her alternate, humanizing perspective, her difference instead poses a threat to her fellow survivors, who decide to kill her. Ultimately, her capacity to see humanity in others marks her as abnormal, and even inhuman.

Just as zombies disturb us primarily because of their cognitive difference from us, The Walking Dead’s Lizzie reveals our culture’s fear of those on the other end of the cognitive spectrum, and just how narrow may be our cultural definition of neurological normalcy. Far from mindless, Lizzie (like the autistic child) embodies an alternative perspective on the world, constituting a figure potentially too challenging or too difficult for the structures and norms of our society to accommodate.


Lizzie's perceptions effectively remind us that all of these Zombies were human, while the repetitious killing throughout the show desensitizes us to that fact. A similar blindness to the plight of others occurs in reality as well. Children with Autism may feel things more deeply and express greater empathy while neurotypicals have learned to ignore a bad situation, especially if someone else is already helping. (For example, a child with autism may be unable to ignore another child crying within earshot on the playground.) This kind of behavior, while wonderfully altruistic, often may be seen as inappropriate or something to be fixed.

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