Can we please change how autism gets depicted in film and television?

Originally published at: Can we please change how autism gets depicted in film and television? | Boing Boing


Autism is such a wide spectrum that manifests in so many different ways, it is difficult to imagine a “right” way to depict it. Both of my brothers-in-law are on the spectrum, and yet they are so very different from each other (though part of that could be due to the 10-year age gap).

I think that the best depictions would not draw attention to the autism itself, but would let autistic characters just be who they are, which can run the gamut and of which autism is just a part.


Wow, that series of Sia videos are disgusting and disrespectful to autistic people on multiple levels.


It’s fair to say that everyone lies on the spectrum, somewhere.

When my son was evaluated at age seven (and I’m going from memory here) there were about 25 traits that were looked at, and this evaluation was done across many, many sessions. Just about everyone has 3-5 of the traits. Those with aspergers tended to have 14 or more of the traits. The severely autistic would tend to have more than 20.


No, it’s not. Having a few traits doesn’t make you “a little autistic”.

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I’m pretty sure I didn’t say that. Read the rest of the post.


How else should I read that?


Okay, there are about 25 traits, or tendencies, that get looked at. Some of the traits looked at include fine motor skills, sensory sensitivity, monotonic speech, social engagement, obsessivness, attention deficit, future planning, lack of objectiveness, anxiety, regression of speech. Even within these traits there are scales.

Even in this short list many people could be found to have one or two of these traits. Maybe the thought of meeting people makes you ill and you’d prefer to stay home and work on your vast collection of model trains. But nobody would claim you were autistic.

As I said earlier, I’m going off memory of my son’s evaluation around 15 years ago. But hopefully that clears up what I was talking about.


Then don’t state that everyone is on the spectrum. Autistic people are on the spectrum. It means something. Don’t “all lives matter” the spectrum. The world is hard enough for those on the spectrum without everyone claiming it as some cute quirk.


The right way is “respectfully”, regardless of the details. And that’s the part that’s conspicuously absent.


This all reminds me of a rejected speech idea I had 10+ years ago. I was comparing autistic representation (and therefore public conception) to LGBT representation. I think the gay rights movement got a lot right in how they normalized the idea of being gay,* as in your kid’s best friend might have two moms, Bob from accounting might be gay, and some random person living a completely ordinary life could happen to be LGBT. This is the reality. Ordinary people tend to be ordinary, who knew? But the way anyone not 100% heterosexual was portrayed in the media, we literally didn’t think this could be possible, and we thought being anything other than straight was not only shameful but immoral and should not be seen. I’m old enough to remember those times. And that’s what autistic representation was like ten years ago, and that’s what it’s still like. There needs to be a real effort put toward normalizing and accepting autistic people, and simply treating us as ordinary people whose experiences are valid and whose presence is welcomed. But sadly this is something that nobody apparently cares about.

*they normalized G, part of L, and need to work on B, T, Q, I, and A, but that’s a story for another time


I can’t even watch most hollywood representations of neurodiversity. Just as Hollywood renderings of teenagers seem to be rooted in some writer’s vague memories of what a teenage life was like, neurodiversity is almost always portrayed as some form of angelic/heroic savant character.

I know from personal experience it is much, much more complex than that, and such portrayals come off as patronizing bullshit at best. Just once I’d like to see a person on the spectrum who:

  1. Isn’t a savant. Just regular intelligence.
  2. Is possibly not an all knowing, all seeing angelic hero striving to overcome their disability. Maybe even a jerk.
  3. Alternatively, just someone who is on the spectrum or otherwise neurodiverse but their friends are just friends who hang out sometimes rather than all-wise heroes who can see the beauty within blah blah barf.

The author speaks about Rain Man being one of the major influences in media behind the inaccurate portrayal of autism, but I can definitely remember St. Elsewhere’s long-running character of Tommy Westphall or that “very special episode” of Quincy, M. E. where viewers were introduced to the “fixation and hand-waving” tropes.


So, Abed Nadir.

Yeah, I can see that. TV needs more Abeds.


That definitely describes me. I was diagnosed severely autistic in the early 80s and easily have 20 of the indicators @NukeML alluded to. One of the problems with media representation of autistics is that there’s a false dichotomy where stims a bit = worthless and not worthless = mildly socially awkward but basically normal. Meanwhile in real life, there are a lot of people such as myself who appear autistic but are otherwise normal people with normal lives. The only time I ever see a character’s autistic traits depicted accurately is when their humanity is depicted grossly inaccurately.


The world has changed too

Now we have




The key is to cast autistic actors as autistic characters. This gal on instagram (I think she may be on TikTok too IDK I don’t have it) is an aspiring actress and she just got cast as an autistic character in a new Netflix show. And an actual autistic character not autistic coded. And if they’re writing about autistic people there need to be autistic people in the writers room too.

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Kayla Cromer plays Matilda in Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, an autistic actor playing an autistic character. (It turns out that Josh Thomas’s character was diagnosed as autistic in the series, and Josh came out as autistic himself in real life.)

While the character of Beatrice Mason in the episode of The Miss Fisher Mysteries, “The Blood of Juana the Mad”, was not played by an autistic actor, and the character wasn’t explicitly stated as being such in the script (because it was set in 1929 when the diagnosis didn’t exist yet), and the character isn’t in any of the source books either, I found her portrayal to be both accurate and sensitive.

Even Temperance Brennan had her moments, although I hate that the showrunners were too cowardly to let the script come out and just say she’s on the spectrum. The episode “The Spark in the Park” was, to me, a deeply moving depiction of autism, which wasn’t really about the autism (and it wasn’t even Bones or an intern).

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There’s an excellent recent documentary called “Code of the Freaks” that discusses a variety of ableist tropes that are ENDEMIC to film and television.

After watching an early 20-minute cut of the film, my (art education) students who are roughly two decades younger than me were able to discuss how they saw similar tropes playing out in the media landscape they were most familiar with - social media. A lot of “inspirational” viral memes and TikToks and shit perpetuate the same dehumanizing depictions of disabled folks.


I regret that I have only one like to give for bringing this to my attention. I’m watching it now, and it’s brilliant.

It’s also, I have to say, not saying a lot that’s not already being talked about in the disability community, but it’s put it all together beautifully and laid it out to be easy to see what’s going on.

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