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Representation of autism in the media

by Katherine Simon If you’ve been following the popular media climate in the past decade or so, you’re probably at least somewhat aware of the push for more and better representation of underrepresented groups. Hollywood has been shaky at best when it comes to portraying people of color and LGBT people, and although things are still far from ideal, there have been great strides made for better representing marginalized groups. However, one group that always seems to be left out of the discussion are people with disabilities, specifically people on the autism spectrum. Although arguably not as much as a hot-button issue as queer or POC representation, autistic people still suffer from a lot of similar misconceptions that could be easily remedied with better media representation and general visibility. With April being Autism Acceptance Month and me being on the spectrum myself, I thought it’d be a good idea to look at how popular media has been handling neurodiversity, both the positives and the negatives, and seeing how the industry can improve going forward.

Strides made towards positive representation

Image from USA Today
Believe it or not, there actually have been some great strides with better representing those on the autism spectrum as of late, with more and more recent portrayals having a better grasp of what the condition is and how it affects its characters. One fairly recent and commonly noted example of this is the character of Julia on Sesame Street. Though it was a show aimed at preschoolers, Sesame Street was never one to shy away from discussing heavier issues and advocating for inclusiveness, and this instance was no exception. While not as heavy of a subject as something like coping with death or divorce, it was still rare to have a show aimed at such a young demographic be so open about its character’s condition and teach their younger audience how to be more inclusive towards their neurodivergent peers. Julia is portrayed by Stacy Gordon, a puppeteer who actually has some degree of perspective on the condition, being the mother of an autistic child. The character displays many symptoms common in those on the spectrum, such as sensory sensitivity and difficulty socializing, and her introduction episode focuses on educating the audience about what autism is and how her peers attempt to make her feel included despite her differences. Despite being way outside the show’s target demographic as a 19 year old college student, it makes me incredibly happy to see an autistic character being handled with such respect. Of course this isn’t the first or only instance of autism being portrayed in children’s television, as both Arthur and Girl Meets World have had episodes focusing on characters with Asperger’s syndrome, both handled with the same amount of tact and respect as the Sesame Street episode. Honestly, I’m kind of jealous that these depictions weren’t as common in the shows I grew up with as they are nowadays, since they would’ve done a lot to reassure me that my experiences are valid and that I’m not alone.
Image from IMDb
As far as shows aimed at a more mature demographic are concerned, the Netflix original series Atypical follows a teenager named Sam and his experiences in high school as someone on the spectrum. While by no means a perfect series due to some fairly awkward writing, it has one of the most accurate portrayals of someone on the autism spectrum I’ve ever seen in a TV show to date, almost to the point of hitting too close to home for me. Even if I don’t have any experience with dating like Sam does, I do relate to a lot of aspects of his character, namely how he struggles with not quite understanding social cues and embarrassing himself as a result. I can’t even begin to tell you how many bad interactions I’ve had with people due to accidentally saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, and the series manages to capture that struggle perfectly. Although I do consider Atypical a good depiction of autism overall, sometimes it hits a little too close to home and is hard for me to watch as a result. Although I wouldn’t consider my experience with the show universal since it hit on some very specific sore spots with me, I would recommend going into this show with caution if you are on the spectrum and you’re prone to secondhand embarrassment.

What Is Hollywood Getting Wrong?

For every piece of media that has handled its autistic characters with care, there’s at least 10 others that have very little regard for actually portraying it tactfully and rely mostly on baseless assumptions and harmful stereotypes. One of the most common tropes involving autistic people is that of the “autistic savant”. For those who don’t know, savant syndrome is a rare condition where those affected are incredibly talented in one specific area despite their mental disabilities. Due to hyper-fixation on specific subjects being a common symptom of autism and about 50% of savants being on the spectrum, savant syndrome is commonly conflated with autism and a good majority of autistic characters in media are portrayed as savants.
Image from IMDb
The trope can be traced back to the 1988 film Rain Man, which was heavily inspired by real-life savant Kim Peek. Despite Peek not being autistic and instead having FG Syndrome, the character of Raymond in the film was portrayed as an autistic savant whose main talent is his photographic memory. While the film was credited with dispelling many misconceptions against autistics, it also popularized the trope of the autistic savant in pop media, which lead to it becoming one of the most derivative and overused tropes among autistic characters. If you’re even vaguely familiar with the ABC show The Good Doctor (which, let’s face it, you probably are if you’ve sat through the pre-movie ads at any AMC theater in the past year), you likely have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about. The issue with this depiction is that it’s simply an unrealistic portrayal of what autism is and sets unrealistic expectations for actual autistic people of average or below average ability. Only about 10% of the autistic population consists of savants, yet a disproportionate amount of autistic characters in media are depicted as such. This leads to many people assuming that the media portrayals are representative of what most autistic people are like. It’s somewhat similar to the stereotype of Asians being good at academics. While it’s technically not a “negative” stereotype, it’s commonly used to undermine the struggles that group faces and demean those who don’t adhere to the stereotype. As someone who is only average academically and requires accommodations for school work, I find it hard to relate to a character with neigh superhuman intelligence beyond something as superficial as sharing the same neurological condition as me, yet that’s most of the portrayals I end up seeing in pop media aside from the odd Atypical here and there. There’s also the issue of the opposite side of the spectrum (no pun intended), where some pieces of media heavily demonize and dehumanize autistic children. One recent example of this would be a British play titled All in a Row, which was the center of the #PuppetGate controversy among autistic communities on Twitter a few months back. To give a short rundown, the play is about a family sending their non-verbal autistic child, who is being portrayed by a puppet instead of an actual human actor, to an institution. Between the repulsive design of the puppet and how dehumanizing it is to have the only autistic character in the play not portrayed by an actual actor, many autistic people were reasonably upset with this creative decision, and the laughably awful PR on the showrunners’ front was not helping at all. When the play finally released, it was heavily panned by critics and autistic advocates alike for demonizing the autistic character and not offering accommodations for those with sensory issues that are commonplace in other productions. If you want a more in-depth look at how poorly handled this whole situation was, I’d recommend scrolling through the #PuppetGate tag on Twitter or reading through this review of the play. Autism is already heavily stigmatized to the point where some parents would rather let their children die from preventable diseases than risk getting autism from vaccination. In that kind of environment, portrayals like these do way more harm than good and send the message that it’s okay to treat us as subhuman based purely on baseless fear mongering.

How can we improve?

Image from Crunchyroll
Believe it or not, we actually have a pretty good template for how to write autistic characters in narrative-focused media. We just have to look towards certain non-autistic characters that people on the spectrum have latched onto. Regardless of if it were the writer’s intent or not, there are plenty of examples of characters that, while not explicitly stated to be autistic, display many characteristics commonly found in those on the spectrum and are latched onto by many as a result. Off the top of my head, two of the best examples for autistic-coded characters I can think of are Futaba Sakura from Persona 5 and Mob from Mob Psycho 100. The former’s an especially interesting case because, despite Atlus or any of the game’s creative team never officially confirming her to be on the spectrum, there’s so many aspects of her characterization. From her hyperfixation on tech stuff to her introverted personality, that there’s a high chance that she was at least somewhat intentionally written as if she were autistic, or at the very least neurodivergent in some capacity. This is especially evident in the game’s English dub, where the subtleties of Futaba’s performance give the impression that she struggles with communication in the same way that someone with autism typically does. This isn’t by coincidence either, as the character’s voice actress, Erica Lindbeck, even stated that she portrayed the character as if she were autistic (skip to 19:05 for the section on Futaba).   Needless to say, she did a great job bringing out that aspect of Futaba’s character, and if she were canonically autistic, there’d be a case for her being among one of the best portrayals in all of media. As far as Mob Psycho is concerned, the series could be interpreted as somewhat of a subversion of the “autistic savant” trope if you believe its titular protagonist to be on the spectrum. Mob’s arc about learning to control his emotions and wanting to live a normal life despite his extraordinary psychic abilities are very reminiscent of the struggles autistic people face, which lead to the series resonating with many autistic fans. Even if neither Persona 5 or Mob Psycho are explicitly autistic narratives, there’s something to take away from how these stories handle their autism coding that can be applied to more explicit narratives about autism. The most important thing someone can do when writing a character with autism is to write them as normal, everyday people. At the end of the day, we’re still humans that go through the same trials and tribulations as everyone else, just with some slight neurological differences that might make those things easier or harder for us depending on the person. Everyone on the spectrum experiences autism differently and as such, we deserve more diverse autistic characters. Give us more stories about autistic people dealing with everyday life and the struggles that go along with it. Heck, even having a major character with autism in a story where their condition isn’t the main focus would go a long way in normalizing and destigmatizing those on the spectrum. The same rules that apply for writing a good character of any other minority group apply here as well: write a good character that happens to be autistic instead of writing an autistic character for the sake of writing one. Instead of defining us by our condition, recognize that there’s no universal experience for what being autistic is like and don’t be afraid of making your character unique from other portrayals.
Sources: The Guardian, FastCompany, Wayback Machine, IGN, Autism Research Institute, Go London, Shaun May, SoundCloud,  Images: USA Today, IMDb, Crunchyroll,  Featured Image: Sam Smith