Until fairly recently, there has been relatively little content on autism in the broadcast media; but WOW, 2017/2018 has seen that change massively. (There’s a great article on pbs.org that you may like to read, about autism on the screen in previous years.)
Rainman (Let’s get this out of the way first)
In recent memory of course, the most obvious media representation of autism is probably the film Rainman, a movie best described as ‘of its time’, depicting the journey of an autistic savant played by neuro-typical actor, Dustin Hoffman.
It has its detractors of course, and there are many Issues with the film. Interactingwithautism.com writes about some of them in their article on media representations of autism, quoting an expert as saying – “There is a danger of walking away from the movie with the impression that all autistic persons are savants and that all savants are autistic.. [and] the film concludes that [Raymond], and presumably other individuals with autism, are better off being institutionalized rather than living with their own family.”
But many autists recognise the film’s important contribution, and nuanced elements. “As Charlie learns to truly love his brother as the movie unfolds, Raymond too seems to have ‘opened up’ and created a lasting emotional attachment with his newly reunited brother… [while] Raymond’s development of a loving bond with his brother should not be seen as him ‘overcoming’ his autism, it should be viewed as a relationship developed because of his autism…” Cassie & Therese note on their site autismmythbusters.com.
In our view here at spectra.blog, Rainman isn’t a misrepresentation of autism exactly, more a (dated) amplification of a character trope.
The Good Doctor
Elsewhere, Freddie Highmore’s recent ‘autistic savant’ part in TV’s The Good Doctor, while drawing praise for its inclusion of a (main) autistic character (although Highmore is neuro-typical), drew criticism from some quarters for yet another ‘savant’ character with a Hollywood Disability Superpower. (In fact, savantism of these kinds is rare.) BUT – many autists welcomed Freddie’s performance, and the show as a whole.
Writing on Slate.com, autist Sara Luterman states approvingly: “Freddie Highmore is not autistic, although he does a decent job portraying one of us on TV. When he plays Dr. Shaun Murphy, he has an ‘autism accent’, that unusual cadence that many of us speak with. He holds his body the way I hold my body. It’s the best representation of an autistic person I’ve ever seen on television.”
In Netflix’s Atypical, the autistic main character, Sam, is described by Sara Luterman for Slate.com more disapprovingly as ‘hollow inside’. “Autistic people rarely get portrayed as real, complete human beings. In Atypical, [he’s] essentially a diagnostic checklist, not a whole person.
He’s hollow inside—there’s nothing in his mind except sex and penguins. The show isn’t really about Sam. The show is about Sam’s autism, and how it affects Sam’s family.
He is, in many ways, a plot device in what is supposed to be his own story.”
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time is a book/play that, despite drawing praise for having a main character who has Asperger’s Syndrome, is actually a fairly uncomfortable read/watch, as the depictions are to a degree, inaccurate, and actually could be seen to be damaging to autists, promoting the view that autists have no empathy, may be aggressive, and are easily abused by others. At least, that’s how many autists feel!
Now, the publishers of the book don’t even describe the main character as being autistic/having Asperger’s, presumably due to the criticism. The author told the Hay Festival audience in 2012 that he had never specified any disorder [when writing the book], and was uncomfortable with the book’s status as a ‘handbook for autistic spectrum disorders’.
There are further programmes that have been made of course – here are some more recent examples of autism representation in the media –
Broadcaster Chris Packham’s fantastic, groundbreaking TV documentary, Asperger’s and Me
#actuallyautistic Talia Grant being cast in TV’s Hollyoaks
#actuallyautistic actor Jules Robertson’s ongoing role in TV’s Holby City
TV’s The A-word – with an #actuallyautistic cast-member, and a lead character who’s autistic
Saga Noren from the acclaimed Scandinavian TV crime drama, The Bridge
Julia, Sesame Street’s autistic muppet/puppet
CBeebies’ animation, Pablo, with an autistic cast
The new Power Rangers’ Billy Blue Ranger (played by RJ Cyler) – an autistic super-hero
Channel 4’s ‘Are You Autistic?’ – an ‘intro-level’ programme with some interesting elements, presented by autists
Finally, we also enjoyed an article called ‘Autism is a Creative Boon – A list and celebration of 5 openly Autistic actors, musicians, and artists’, by E Price, which detailed the ‘usual’ autistic ‘celebs’, but in more detail than is usually seen.
Please do share any other resources about autism in the media with us!
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences.
Also published on Medium.