By Zoey Giesberg, MSW
When I was young and was unaware of my autism diagnosis, I only knew about autism through a Baby-sitters Club book. The book, entitled Kristy and the Secret of Susan, was about one of the titular “baby-sitters” taking on a non-verbal autistic charge and I honestly don’t remember much about it, except that the main character Kristy decides to leave her autistic charge Susan alone after unsuccessfully trying to force her to integrate with other kids. I didn’t much care much for the book at the time, and I’m sure if I read it now I’d be appalled at how the characters were written and treated. Either way, I didn’t have a reference point as to what autism was because I didn’t really have that much exposure to it in media. I had characters that I liked and related to, but none that felt especially representative of me as an autistic girl.
I think it’s safe to say that the days of autism being a non-entity in pop culture are coming to an end. Since diagnoses have risen in the last twenty years, movies and television have slowly come to recognize and insert autistic people as characters. Various television shows like Girl Meets World, Sesame Street, Parenthood, and Community have featured characters explicitly stated or implied to be on the autism spectrum. The 2016 crime thriller “The Accountant“, starring Ben Affleck as an autistic accountant was a unexpected box office hit and is green-lighted for a sequel. And this August, Netflix will premiere a dramedy about an autistic teenager looking for love called “Atypical”:
It looks as though we’re getting to a place where there is real case for meaningful autism representation. So why do I feel that we could do better in portraying autism as a whole?
I think the place to start in looking at how autism is portrayed is who is doing the portraying. From Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man to Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, the most well-known autistic characters tend to be played by white men or boys. Guys being diagnosed with autism is not exactly unrealistic – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently estimates that autism is 4.5 times more common in boys than in girls. But growing research into that diagnostic gender disparity is highlighting that we might need to rethink how prevalent autism actually is and how it affects different people. I have my own theories as to why this imbalance exists but you can imagine how frustrating it is for me as a woman to continually see my disability shown in media as an almost exclusively male phenomenon. Racial discrepancies in autism diagnosis are also becoming a big deal, so I can only imagine how trying it is for my non-white autistic friends to continually see autism painted with a Caucasian brush.
Then there’s the characterization of the autistic character in question. For a disorder that affects people in a wide variety of ways (the DSM calls autism a “spectrum” disorder for a reason), the depiction of autism in film and television seems to fall under one of two categories – the automaton savant or hyper-awkward nerd. In the aforementioned Baby-Sitters Club book, the autistic Susan is described as a piano prodigy who is otherwise non-verbal and robotic, thus falling into the automaton savant category. Rain Man’s Raymond Babbitt is the most notable of the savant type of character. He even lends his name to the Rain Man trope – where a disabled character has some kind of extraordinary ability to “make up” for their disability. But more increasingly common in autism portrayal is the hyper-awkward nerd. The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper is the most well-known example of this trope – hyper intelligent and yet an exaggerated socially awkward penguin (and thus often the butt of jokes on the show). There’s no nuance to either characterization and neither characterization fully encompasses the complexity autism presents in various people. There is a reason why the expression “if you meet an autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person” exists, but it’s hard to get that message across when your media representation of autism is so limited.
That isn’t to say that I automatically take issue with every autistic character that I come across in media. Abed in the television show Community is often postulated to be on the autism spectrum and while he is eerily similar to Sheldon Cooper in portrayal, the show does not treat him as a punchline. He gets to be a complex individual and is often the calm one amongst a cast of zany characters. Bob’s Burgers’ Tina Belcher is similarly thought to be autistic among fans. She is funny and relatable while exhibiting traits not uncommon in autistic people. I am also on record for liking the HBO Temple Grandin biopic. But these more rounded depictions tend to be few and far between, so whenever I hear of any film or show or story with or centered around an autistic character I tend to be initially skeptical of how they will be portrayed.
On the whole, I’m glad to see mainstream media pick up on telling stories about autistic people – general exposure to autism does help society learn to be more accepting of autistic people. But I think we need to carefully consider what type of autism stories are currently being told and grow beyond those in current circulation. I’d like to see stories of non-verbal autistic people who need live-in help. I’d like to see stories of highly social autistic people trying their best to appear “normal” to others. I’d like to see stories of autistic women and autistic people of color doing anything and everything. Autism is not a “one size fits all”, and I think it’s time the media caught on.