It’s natural for people to want to see others like them reflected in television and film. For people with ASD, the characters they see onscreen often serve a dual purpose, not just providing representation but also increasing awareness. As these characters increase in number, though, the stereotypes often increase with the awareness. This makes ASD character portrayals a hot button topic, with disagreement even among those in the ASD community about whether or not they’re beneficial.
One problem often cited is the feeling that these characters serve as stereotypical punchlines.The show “Atypical”, for instance, is sometimes lauded for addressing the difficulties faced by teenagers with ASD, but faces criticism for playing ASD for laughs, and not having people with ASD on the writing staff. Another stereotypical portrayal is Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory”, a scientific genius with Asperger syndrome-like tendencies.
On the other hand, ASD is often portrayed too optimistically.In the movie “Rain Man”, Dustin Hoffman played a savant who could memorize half the names in the phone book in one reading. Similarly, “The Good Doctor” centers around a surgical resident who struggles with social skills, yet is a brilliant doctor. This perpetuates the idea that people with ASD are super-powered geniuses, when in fact people with ASD range from those with a genius-level IQ to those with intellectual disability.
Misunderstanding of ASD is often reflected in the creation of these characters.People with ASD tend to be portrayed as socially clueless, interested in geeky things like computer technology, math, or science, with odd ways of speaking or behaving, discomfort in social situations, impeccable ethics, and poor fashion sense. While some of these characteristics are shared by some people with ASD, the truth is that these portrayals do not sufficiently reflect ASD, particularly because people with these disorders are all unique individuals.
Still, there are some shining examples of realistic portrayals. For his character in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”, Leonardo DiCaprio observed teenagers with ASD and other learning disabilities. Filmmaker Janel Grillo, who has a child with ASD, has written, produced, and directed “Fly Away” and “Jack of the Red Hearts”, which have won acclaim for their authenticity. Claire Danes, too, played real-life Doctor Temple Grandin authentically and accurately, bringing awareness to the achievements of this accomplished scientist and respected ASD advocate.
There are some benefits to the portrayals of people with ASD onscreen.They raise awareness and empathy, normalize neurodiversity, create conversations that promote understanding, and provide new opportunities for people with ASD.