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Autism on TV: The Good, The Bad, and the Spectrum

Updated: Feb 24, 2020

Let’s face it. We get many of our ideas about the world around us through media, whether through social media, cable news channels, or online streaming entertainment. The struggle to reconcile how modern media can either divide us or unite us is as real in the Autism Community as anywhere else. When it comes to whether the portrayal of fictional TV characters with autism is doing more harm than good, the jury seems to be out.

With the astronomical rise of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) diagnoses in the past 20 years, there is likely no one today that hasn't met or had some relationship with an individual somewhere on the spectrum. Along with a growing demand for diverse representation in main characters on television, the portrayal of autism has evolved However, some criticize that, in general, the depictions we are seeing are not “accurate”, or at least, not broad enough to portray a more realistic, full picture of what autism really looks like day-to-day for many.

The criticism getting the most attention is aimed at the overwhelming number of characters who are represented as "savant" geniuses, who otherwise are relatively highly functioning. We’ve got beloved characters like Temperance "Bones" Brennan, a forensic anthropologist and kinesiologist on Bones, Dr. Dixon, a heart-surgeon on Grey’s Anatomy, Sheldon, an endearing physics grad student on Big Bang Theory, and most recently and popularly, Dr. Shaun Murphy, on The Good Doctor. Some argue that these characters represent a minority of individuals with autism. Less than 10% of individuals with autism have savant abilities. Bob D'Aminco (Getty Images) says, " ...promotes the falsehood that an autism diagnosis nearly always comes pre-packaged with extreme giftedness." Alison Singer (President of Autism Science Foundation) writes, "We need to start seeing characters on TV and in movies who reflect the breadth of experiences of people with autism - not just the brilliant surgeon, but the child who bangs his head on the floor to hard and so often that his retina detaches; and not just the high school student who struggles to date, but the one who is so fascinated by the color yellow that he sits home alone watching ‘Sponge Bob Square Pants’ all day. Otherwise, people who are highly challenged and struggle every day are at risk of becoming invisible."

Getting more favorable reviews are Max Braverman on Parenthood and Sam Gardner on Atypical. Even Sesame Street is getting kudos for a character named Julia. “We felt that creating a character who was autistic would allow children to identify her but equally important, it would allow us to model for all children the differences and commonalities of a child with autism”, says a spokesperson for Sesame Street.

The main message that television can take from this debate is that Autism Spectrum Disorder is just that, a spectrum. An unbalanced portrayal may unintentionally be depriving many people of the attention and support they need, because on TV, autism doesn't look that bad.

What is not at dispute is that overall portrayals on television of characters with autism is on the rise. It is encouraging when we see more multi-faceted representations and hope to see more. At the end of the day, mother and blog-writer Kimberlee Rutan McCafferty says, “My eldest son is not like the protagonist on “The Good Doctor.” He’s not like my other son with high-functioning autism. And yet the truth is, with two sons on opposite sides of the spectrum, I am thrilled when either side is represented.”

So what's the verdict? Is any representation progress? Are the current portrayals doing more harm than good? You be the judge and jury and let us know what you think on our Facebook page. (Link for the customer was provided.)

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