Autism in the Media

From the film Forrest Gump in 1994 to the new Netflix series Atypical, characters who have autism have featured in the mainstream media. As someone who has worked with peers who have neurodevelopmental disorders, I perk up when I notice a character on TV who is working through the challenges that come with autism. It’s important to have this representation both so that people on the spectrum can find someone on the big screen they can see themselves in and so that those who are not as aware of such disorders can learn about them. Unfortunately, a very narrow section of the spectrum is usually represented on TV.

Atypical and The Good Doctor are two new shows that have protagonists with autism. Unlike in older films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, these shows illustrate supporting characters that are accepting when it comes to dealing with the social issues people with autism often face. The protagonist in Atypical, a high school student named Sam Gardner, and the protagonist in The Good Doctor, a surgical resident named Dr. Shaun Murphy, lead different lives but face similar challenges. Both characters are intelligent, sometimes socially awkward, and have both a good support system but sometimes have to deal with the occasional bully. Both characters are white males on the high-functioning side of the autism spectrum.

Romila Santra is a freshman at Johns Hopkins University who has a nonverbal twin brother with autism. She notes, “Media portrayals of the disorder often forget that it is a spectrum…which means that there’s many more degrees of severity. It’s not always Asperger’s syndrome or savant syndrome. I think the TV shows and movies show the side of autism that is convenient to portray.” Santra also expresses her wish that the media would show the behaviors that come with autism beyond just social awkwardness. “It would help the situations where people automatically assume that a kid having a full meltdown in the aisle is a brat. I promise my brother is not a brat. He’s just having a really bad day and doesn’t know how else to express it.”

Kayla Shim, the vice president of the Best Buddies club at Hopkins, has a brother on the spectrum too. While she agrees that having representation for autism is great for raising awareness, she notes that it’s important to remember that these works can romanticize real life issues and can stereotype individuals with autism. “ Almost all portrayals of autism in the media are those who are verbal, high-functioning, and socially awkward in a way that is meant to be endearing. It’s important that the media portrays those with autism as their own individual person, rather than the same recycled character,” she says.

In the TV shows I watch with characters who have autism, I see many situations that I’ve witnessed personally. But as Shim states, “I’m afraid that the media perpetuates the idea that everybody with autism is exactly the same, when that’s far from true.” Santra summarizes the issue with representation: “It’s very difficult to get rid of stereotypes, and representation in popular media is what fuels the creation of stereotypes.” While it’s awesome that people who have autism are getting more representation beyond being the butt of the joke, the media needs to do a bit more work in order to accurately portray the whole spectrum.