Article: Autism in Reel Life

Autism in reel life
Mary Hall
September 16, 2017

In just more than a week, ABC is premiering “The Good Doctor,” a show which follows a young surgeon with autism and savant syndrome joining a prestigious hospital’s surgical unit.

The show is a latest in a pattern that’s been emerging in the last few years, a stark shift in how people with autism and other disabilities are portrayed in the media, compared to old favorites such as “Forest Gump,” “I am Sam” and “Rain Man.” While those are critically acclaimed, Academy-Award winning films, it’s impossible to divorce these characters from the disability that defines them.

But there’s a new model for writing characters with autism spectrum disorder — characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts — seen most recently in Netflix’s “Atypical” (released earlier this month) and the newest “Power Rangers” film (released in March). (If you’re wondering, the Blue Ranger mentions briefly in one scene he has autism.)


Autism is just one aspect of these well-rounded characters. They also fall in love, succeed or struggle with their school work, have friendships and, occasionally, even fight crime.

“It’s important for [people with autism] to see characters in media that have autism, to see how it’s portrayed,” said Jenna Varley, a 24-year-old from Kankakee who has lived with the label of autism her whole life. “To see that it’s just one of their personality traits.”


One show that did this well is “Bones,” the crime drama following Dr. Temperance Brennan, nicknamed “Bones” for her focus on using the skeletal system to solve crimes. Many inside the autism community have pointed to her personality quirks — such as reading others very literally — as evidence she is a high-functioning person with autism.

What, perhaps, is the most positive thing about the character though, is that it’s never mentioned in all 12 seasons (the show incredibly lasted on network TV for 12 years) that Brennan has any kind of disability. “Bones” isn’t unique in not labeling their character. A quick Google search for “Tina, Bob’s Burgers, autistic” reveals a myriad of YouTube videos, blog posts, memes and Reddit threads debating whether the character has autism.

“I’m glad to see they’ve done things like ‘Bones’ where she’s an exceptional person,” said Janice Miller, president of the Merchant Street Art Gallery of Artists with Autism. “She does the socially awkward things, but it’s a positive thing in that show. … And I’m glad to see they are depicting her that way because there’s a spectrum here,” adding there can be a tendency for people with disabilities to be shown one way.

Perhaps one explanation for the increase of this portrayal is growing awareness. More than a decade ago, before large-scale awareness campaigns, people in the general community didn’t know what autism was — and wasn’t.

“I really saw it in the field I was in at the time, because I was trying to get people to take my students in to work in their businesses,” Miller remembered. “I had to go back and explain to them everything about autism, because nobody knew. And as soon as they did that publicity campaign, I didn’t have to do that anymore, and people were more accepting. It made a big, big difference.”

Perhaps that’s why writers and directors are so much more comfortable giving their characters labels today than they were more than 10 years ago, when “Bones” premiered. “In the world in general there’s a lot more awareness now,” Miller said.

Even without a specific diagnosis, these kind of characters are inspiring, many in the autism community said.

“It’s very highly important,” said Sean Howard, a 30-year-old from Pembroke Township with autism. “When [people with autism] are a teenager, they’re looking for identify in who they are, so they need someone on the TV with who they can identify with.”


Mom Dinah LaFarber and son Marc, of Bourbonnais, both say they’ve seen a positive shift in both the media and the community when it comes to what people with autism can do.

“When Marc was in school it was totally different, how they treated people with autism,” Dinah said. “I’ve seen the negatives, but I see the positives now, the acceptance. That’s good to portray it on TV in a positive way. That [people with autism] are a normal contributing person. They’re different, but so are you.”

And it’s beneficial to the larger community, too, Marc said. “It’s so they know how to not offend someone [with autism] so easily; how to interact, touch — you know, how to approach them,” he said.

Of course, not all representations released lately were successful. “The Accountant,” released fall 2016, received wide-spread criticism for its portrayal of a cold, emotionless, immoral character with autism.


One blogger titled his review “How ‘The Accountant’ Victimizes The Autistic Community,” and called the film, “an honest depiction of what autism looks like through the eyes of humans who are … not autistic themselves. As such, it is a painful and often stereotypical rendering of a character who is constantly and explicitly signified as ‘Other.'”

It’s that type of representation that stereotypes people with autism as unfeeling, Howard said.

“[People with autism] are not emotionless,” he said. “They have a lot of emotions. I have [autism]. I can feel hurt, sadness and feelings of other people without disabilities. [People with autism] can reason between right and wrong.”

Another tendency in screenwriting is to fall back on stereotypes, Varley said, where characters are either low-intelligence and lovable, or rude and brilliant.

“You can get into that trope really easily with autism because people are perceived as the idiot savant,” Varley said. “The media’s going to take the most extreme version of that or the most notable and portray that. … You see everyone who has Tourette’s in a movie have the kind where they blurt out cuss words uncontrollably, and hardly anyone has that in real life.

“I guess if you only see the extreme version being done, people are going to have some really sensational views of it,” she continued. “If every time you meet someone who says they’re high functioning autistic, do you say, ‘Oh, can you count cards?'”

That doesn’t even begin to address critiques that there aren’t enough female characters with autism, or actors with autism utilized in Hollywood.

And in the general community, there’s work to still be done.

“I would hope that through a TV show, people would realize that people with special needs, they need to be treated like everybody else,” said Monica Brigham, who started Easy Street Theater more than 10 years ago for actors with special abilities.

“That’s what probably 95 percent of people who meet a person with autism believe: Because they are not looking at them, because they are fidgeting, because they are looking out, they are not listening. … They are listening, probably more intently than someone who is looking you in the eyes. And they are treated as if they don’t have as much ability,” she said.

“Brilliant people have [autism]. Brilliant people have ADHD,” she continued. “Everyone has a disability. Everyone that I’ve ever met, myself included, has something that we expect other people to adjust to. My actors wear it on the outside. Everyone else wears it on the inside.”

It’s a thought Howard shares.

“[People in the community] need to have representation of what autism actually is,” Howard said. “People with autism are just normal, everyday people. Yeah, they probably lack conversation, like me. They have to get familiar with their surroundings. They’re not the most talkative in the group, but that’s OK.”


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