The Portrayal of Autism in the Media

Pros and Cons of Autism on TV

TV for younger children
Getty Images

As autism has become more and more prevalent, characters with autism have become more popular on TV. We've seen documentaries, comedies, dramadies, and even dramas featuring (or sometimes starring) autistic characters. TV, of course, is a powerful tool for communication and education, but is it really doing a good job of raising autism awareness in a positive way?

TV Documentaries and Reality TV

There have been very few autism-related documentaries or docudramas on TV (though there have been quite a few Indie films and even main-stream films).

Those that have been made tend to fall into one of several groups:

  • An exploration of what it's like to be autistic, using film-based techniques to represent unusual thought processes, sensory experiences, or interactions (an example is Temple Grandin, a biographical made-for-TV movie starring Clare Danes).
  • An exploration of how autism affects family and friends (an example is For Peete's Sake, a reality TV series about the lives of Holly Robinson Peete and Rodney Peete that, in part, describes the impact of one son's autism on family and friends).
  • A heartfelt exploration of the struggles of an autistic person and/or his/her family to either fit in or find acceptance (an example is the PBS documentary, Aspergers in Love).

Each of these types of shows has its own purpose and following. The reality, however, is that most attracted people already interested in autism. Thus, for those in the "autism community" they had a significant impact, but they were not big hits in the sense that a major TV drama or comedy might be.

Why TV Dramas and Comedies Feature Autistic Characters

Starting in the 1980's, every network had its share of "private eye" TV shows. At first, all the private eyes were good-looking men in gritty urban settings (James Garner of The Rockford Files leaps to mind).

After a while, though, producers and writers wanted more variety.

So they created private eyes with a variety of personal qualities that made them unique. Ironsides was in a wheelchair. Jessica Fletcher was an older woman living in a rural area. By the 21st century, we had a private eye show featuring a character with OCD (Monk), and, arguably, a private eye with autism (Sherlock). All were or are classic private eye shows; the addition of a diagnosed disability is simply another twist on an old format.

Today, we have a classic medical drama (The Good Doctor) featuring an autistic character with savant syndrome. A sort of comedy/drama, Atypical, features a teenager on the autism spectrum. There's nothing unique about the style or format of the shows. The Good Doctor is all about medical mysteries that are solved in an hour; Atypical is a situation comedy in which (most) situations are resolved in half an hour (with a little bit of soap-opera-style continuity tossed in).

Sophie Shafer-Landau, who works with the social-impact firm ProSocial to raise awareness of both Aytpical  and The Good Doctor in the autism community, says: "For both shows, creators wanted a new lens on old story lines.... Trends in Hollywood to create more diversity within their characters of minority groups in general: female leads, people of color, trying to veer toward more inclusive casting and representation of all characters from all walks of life.

People on the spectrum are a component of that. Hollywood is pushing for more inclusion and representation. So not just more shows about autism, but more about differences."

Bottom line, these shows are not about autism. They are tried-and-true TV classics that include an autistic character in order to create some buzz, spark new types of situations, and provide some interesting drama or comedy (depending upon the genre). It shouldn't be surprising, therefore, that TV dramas and comedies do not present perfect renditions of what it's like to live with (or around) autism. Even well-researched characters and well-intentioned writers and producers must bend their characters to the needs of the genre, the plotline, and the number of minutes available.

Diagnosing TV Characters With Autism

In the last few years, more characters have appeared who have actual autism diagnoses. Sam in Atypical is an example of such a character; so is Max on Parenthood. The diagnostic process is the subject of discussion on the show, and there is no doubt that the character really is autistic.

But actually, "autistic-like" characters have been and are a standard "type" on television, closely akin to the Nerd or Geek stereotypes. Many people like to diagnose characters with autism, based on their personal qualities which typically include:

  • Intelligence (not all people with autism are intelligent, but virtually all autistic-like TV characters are either brilliant students or brilliant in their chosen field)
  • Social cluelessness (ranging from speaking the truth at the wrong time to asking a socially clueless question)
  • Odd ways of speaking or behaving (usually sounding or looking "uncool" or old fashioned)
  • "Geeky" interests such as physical science, computer technology, math, or science fiction
  • Discomfort with social activities such as large parties
  • A rotten fashion sense (generally involving things like buttoning the top button on a polo shirt or wearing inappropriate clothes because they're comfortable)
  • Impeccable ethics (virtually all autistic-like characters are honest, justice-seeking individuals who prefer to avoid ethically questionable behaviors such as casual sex, drinking to excess, mistreating friends or lovers, etc.)

Are these realistic portrayals of autism? To the degree that many people with autism share at least some of these characteristics, the answer is yes. But these behaviors and preferences are not sufficient, in and of themselves, to indicate autism.

A few such characters include:

  • Dr. Sheldon Cooper (and Amy Farah-Fowler) of The Big Bang Theory
  • Sherlock Holmes of Sherlock (who claims to be a sociopath but is clearly too decent a human being to fit that diagnosis, so is often described as autistic)
  • Maurice Moss, The IT Crowd
  • Brick Heck, The Middle
  • Abby, NCIS
  • Will Graham, Hannibal
  • Steve Urkel, Family Matters
  • Tina, Bob's Burger's

Impact of TV on Real People With Autism and Their Families

The impact of TV has been paradoxically positive and negative for people on the spectrum and their families. Not surprisingly, reviews of shows featuring autistic people have been similarly contradictory. In fact, shows like Atypical receive positive and negative reviews even among autistic adults and people who work in the autism field.

Michelle Dean, Assistant Professor, Special Education at CSU Channel Islands was a consultant for Atypical. She is pleased with the way in which the show portrays a young man with autism coming of age and seeking a relationship. "You see the spectrum of the family and the spectrum of acceptance; his good friend is completely accepting, we see job acceptance, we also see bullying and appropriate and inappropriate responses to that. It gives a realistic portrayal and helps people reflect on their own responsibility in society. Having some sort of model takes the message of autism awareness up a notch to autism acceptance. For me, that’s a really powerful message that comes out of Atypical."

On the other hand Mickey Rowe, an autistic actor who plays the lead in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, has this to say in Teen Vogue about the same show: "In watching the show, I noticed that it seems to play into stereotypes that I’ve experienced firsthand that could have easily been avoided and that may present damaging information about autistic people. There is so much misinformation about autism in part because we nearly always learn about autism from non-autistic people, instead of learning about autism from autistic adults."

Here, then, are some of the pros and cons of autism on TV:

Pros

  • Much greater awareness of and sympathy/empathy for people with high functioning autism and their families
  • "Normalization" of neurodiversity through portrayal of people with high functioning autism holding down jobs, graduating from school, building relationships, solving crimes, and so forth
  • Increased willingness to include people with autism in typical activities based on greater understanding of the disorder
  • More programs and opportunities spurred by or even started or run by TV producers for people with autism
  • More financial support of autism-based projects built on the work of famous actors and others in the entertainment business

Cons

  • Poor understanding of autism as a spectrum disorder which includes people with very low intelligence, aggressive behaviors, and other major health issues (and very few genius-level savants)
  • Misunderstanding of certain aspects of autism ranging from sensory challenges to difficulties with executive functioning and much more
  • Belief that "most" people with autism are like TV characters who hold down jobs, have successful romantic relationships, and need very little external support or therapy
  • Belief that autism is inextricably bound to specific talents, interests, fashion choices, and abilities

Sources:

Interview with Michelle Dean, Assistant Professor, Special Education at CSU Channel Islands. September, 2017.

Interview with Sophie Shafer-Landau, Prosocial. September, 2017.

Continue Reading