How Can we Improve Media Representations of Autism?

How Can we Improve Media Representations of Autism?

Collaborate with Autistic People

Have you ever seen an autistic character on TV? Chances are, you answered yes. Since Rain Man introduced autism to the general public in 1988, autistic characters have become increasingly common on TV [1] and in movies. Learning about autism from autistic characters can help people understand and accept autism. Indeed, high quality contact is linked to more positive attitudes toward diversity [2]. However, media representations also have the potential to decrease autism acceptance by promoting stereotypes [3]. So, how can we improve media representations of autism? Hint: You would get the same general answer if you asked other types of minorities how to represent their identities more accurately.

Shows with autistic characters are often developed with substantial input from clinicians and family members of autistic people. For example, the puppeteer behind Julia, an autistic character who is wholeheartedly accepted by her peers on Sesame Street, uses her experiences as the mother of an autistic child to create a believable character. Yet autistic people themselves are generally NOT part of the process of developing autistic TV characters. This lack of involvement is surprising given that autistic people are often more knowledgeable about autism than others [4] and bloom socially through engagement in theatre [5].

By leaving autistic people out of the process of developing autistic characters, we risk creating one dimensional characters that represent only limited aspects of the autism spectrum. Indeed, most autistic TV characters are highly gifted and eloquent, albeit with social difficulties. Not only are savant-like characters overrepresented in media representations of autism, the gifts autistic characters exhibit show repetitive tendencies on the part of content creators. For example, the autistic characters in two separate TV shows (Touch, one of the few shows to portray a non-speaking autistic character, and Waterloo Road, one of many shows with verbally precocious autistic characters) demonstrated savant skills by reflecting on the Fibonacci sequence. Repetitive representations of autism may reinforce stereotypes while also depriving the large population of autistic young people of role models they can identify with.

We, 3 autistic college students, 1 autistic college graduate and a professor, would like to share personal reflections from the autistic members of our team about how media representations of autism get it right, get it wrong, and can get it better.

What do you like about how autism is represented in the media?

Billy: I would say in the past 10 years alone, we’ve come pretty far in the way autism is shown in the media. 10 years ago, the characters you saw on TV shows who had autism were side characters whose only defining characteristic was their disability. Today, you see characters on the spectrum who are stars of their own show like Atypical (2017) and the Good Doctor (2018) and are portrayed as complex characters in their own right. On the Good Doctor, Shaun is shown to be going through personal struggles of his own unrelated to autism such as him having not fully recovered from the trauma of his older brother’s death when they were kids.

Jin: I think Adam (2009) was a good portrayal if you consider the fact that the titular character is not only autistic. He’s depressed (his father died shortly before the film’s start) and that exacerbates the classic withdrawn symptoms that might present in someone who’s autistic. I heard complaints from someone that he didn’t end up “getting the girl” at the end and that this reflects negatively on autistic people and their ability to get into relationships, but personally it felt clear that they weren’t right for each other at the time (I didn’t like Beth anyway). It’s not like they made Adam void of sexual attraction (an issue with disability representation in general), because he very clearly voices it. I think Adam is a good look into someone who has to navigate depression and anxiety along with functioning differently in general.

 

What do you NOT like about how autism is represented in the media?

Nick: One of the biggest problems with characters with disabilities, not just autism, in media is that when writing a character with a disability, one can fall into the trap of writing a disabled character before one writes a character with a disability. In layman’s terms, the disability becomes the character instead of informing it. However, I’d argue a bigger problem is a hesitancy to portray people with autism who can be unpleasant on purpose. One example of this is The Good Doctor, where all of the ideas the autistic doctor has worked. It would have been a lot more interesting if something that he thought of didn’t work and he would have to take the responsibility of having made a decision that caused a patient’s death.

Billy: One of the biggest problems with how autism is represented in the media is that when a character with autism is portrayed on television, they’re presented as one dimensional characters whose depth is the stereotypical symptoms of their disability. Like Nick said, their disability becomes their character. In Atypical, the main character Sam, who has ASD, is portrayed as hopelessly naive with no idea how to approach social, and by extension romantic situations. We’re also presented as savants with total brilliance in one area, but disabled in all other areas. This goes back to Rainman (1988), in which Dustin Hoffman’s character is portrayed as a math genius, but is unable to take care of himself and lives in an institution.

Bella: Unfortunately, the media doesn’t include everyone on the autism spectrum. While the Good Doctor has an autistic character named Shaun who works as a surgeon in a hospital, there are not a lot of TV shows that show how autistic people struggle to get jobs. Sheldon, a scientist that shows autistic symptoms on the show Big Bang Theory, lived with his friends before he got married which is in contrast to stereotypes about how autistic people live in society as people who can’t have jobs or get married.

How can media content creators better involve autistic people in the process of developing media?

Nick: The best way to write a character with autism is to have it inform their character instead of being their entire character. For example, in Mary & Max (2009), Max is a man who is a social outcast because of the way the world has treated him. This is not always obviously reflective of autism.

Bella: Directors could research what life is like for autistic people. Although some shows illustrate how autistic people deal with their lives, they need to include autistic characters who display diverse symptoms. Autistic people can exhibit great strengths in technology, so directors could hire them to work at their companies. People can interview autistic people so that viewers can understand what life is like for autistic people. If TV shows could show how autistic people struggle to live in society, then society would understand more.

Here are some actionable insights for storytellers:

  • Media creators should employ autistic people as writers, actors, technicians and in other roles helping to create autistic characters. Rather than just having one isolated autistic character in each show, thus magnifying the sense that autistic people are different from “the norm,” diverse communities of people should be represented.

  • Greater representation of non-speaking autistic people is needed. Autistic characters should be as complex as any other character, with autism one aspect of their multifaceted identities. Autistic characters should have opportunities to succeed and to fail, to help and to be helped, and autistic people should play a central role in helping to create them.

Kristen Gillespie-Lynch

The graduate Center; City University of New York

Collaborator of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers

Nicholas Tricarico

The College of Staten Island; City University of New York

Billy Pinkava

The College of Staten Island; City University of New York

Bella Kofner

The College of Staten Island; City University of New York

Jin Delos Santos

Hunter College; City University of New York

References

1Morgan, J. (2019). Has autism found a place in mainstream TV?. The Lancet Neurology, 18(2), 143-144.

2Corrigan, P. W., Larson, J., Sells, M., Niessen, N., & Watson, A. C. (2007). Will filmed presentations of education and contact diminish mental illness stigma?. Community mental health journal, 43(2), 171-181.

3Draaisma, D. (2009). Stereotypes of autism. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1522), 1475-1480.

4Gillespie-Lynch, K., Kapp, S. K., Brooks, P. J., Pickens, J., & Schwartzman, B. (2017). Whose expertise is it? Evidence for autistic adults as critical autism experts. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 438.

5Corbett, B. A., Gunther, J. R., Comins, D., Price, J., Ryan, N., Simon, D., ... & Rios, T. (2011). Brief report: theatre as therapy for children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 41(4), 505-511.

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