Autism Representation in the Media — And How It Impacts Real Life

Published April 13, 2021

In the past few years, autism has been in the media more than it ever has before. This is a very positive change — or, at least, it should be. Many pieces of autism representation in the media share similar themes about autism that portray the autism community, and the condition itself, negatively. These media sources may be fictional, but they have very real-life effects on the way people perceive autism. They can introduce or reinforce harmful ideas about autistic people.

The idea that all autistic people are white and male

In the media, almost all of the autistic characters are white men. This is grossly unrepresentative of reality. The autism community has a spectrum of people of all shapes and sizes. Any person of any race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or other characteristic can be autistic.

The near-exclusive portrayal of autistic people as white men has incredibly harmful consequences. In some circles, autism is known as a "white person’s condition," which undoubtedly discourages many people of color from getting the support they need.

The idea that autistic people are inspirational

In many autism-related media, autistic characters are depicted less as independent, autonomous characters and more as tools that serve to inspire the non-autistic characters around them. For example, in the movie Temple Grandin (2010), autistic woman Temple Grandin becomes a scientist and animal activist, which many moviegoers found "inspiring" and "heartwarming." The implication here isn’t that Grandin is inspiring because of the difference she’s making in the world. It’s that she was able to do all this in spite of her disability.

This furthers the notion that having autism is a negative experience that limits people, an obstacle that needs to be overcome for people to find fulfillment. In addition, as disability activist Stella Young (video) put it, this is inspiration porn — a concept that has nothing to do with sex. Inspiration porn is a portrayal of disabled people that "objectifies disabled people for the benefit of nondisabled people. The purpose of these images is to inspire you, to motivate you, so that we can look at them and think, 'Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.'"

In my opinion, inspiration porn such as Temple Grandin serves to give real-life non-autistic people hope about their own abilities and about the world. After all, if even a supposedly pathetic autistic person can accomplish something with their lives, then a non-autistic person can, too. Non-autistic people can feel reassured by the thought that if the world is kind to even the weakest of the weak, it can be a good place for non-autistic people to live in, as well. Thus, inspiration porn such as Temple Grandin is less of a representation of autistic people and more of a representation of the role non-disabled people want them to play in society.

The idea that autistic people have exceptional abilities

In The Big Bang Theory, The Good Doctor, Rain Man, and countless other shows and films, there’s a stereotype that people on the autism spectrum have special, almost magical abilities. For example, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory is a renowned scientist, and Shaun from The Good Doctor is an expert surgeon. This sounds innocuous, even flattering, towards autistic people.

When one looks closer, this stereotype has sinister implications. In our world, everyone’s worth is dependent upon the perceived benefits that they can contribute to make society run smoothly. This is why so much of people’s identities hinge upon what they do for a living, for instance. Autism characteristics are devalued because people perceive that these characteristics cannot serve this purpose.

The notion that characters such as Shaun or Sheldon’s have exceptional abilities is designed to prove that autistic people can contribute to society. These abilities are supposed to prove that autistic people can be cogs in the wheel. The fact that they bring something to the table of society justifies them getting a seat at that table.

This train of thought informs many real-life autism initiatives. Autistic contributions to society are often cited as a reason why autistic people should be seen as worthy human beings. Many people with good intentions strive to advance autism acceptance by proving that autistic people can give back to society. However, this method is a trap. It’s a social contract: if autistic people can benefit non-autistics in some way, non-autistic people will tolerate autistic quirks. They’ll begrudgingly include autistic people in society despite their disability. This contract is conditional. The minute that autistic people do not benefit non-autistics, they will be dropped like a hot potato. This kind of inclusion does not mean that non-autistic people will truly accept or appreciate autistic people for who they are, disability and all.

The concept that autistic people have special abilities beyond what normal human beings have also deepens people’s stereotyped perceptions of autistic people. It gives people the impression that autistic people are alien or inhuman, something beyond normal comprehension.

The exaggeration of autism characteristics

In almost all autism-related media, autistic characteristics are portrayed in a very extreme, stereotypical fashion. In The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon’s autism-based preference for routines, such as sitting in the same seat all the time or having the same Chinese food on certain days of the week, are portrayed as him being inflexible and inconsiderate of others. Sam from Atypical handles his dislike of sharing his personal space with others by shoving his girlfriend into a closet when she tries to go into his room. Shaun from The Good Doctor, as well as Sam from Atypical, have stiff body movements and vocal tics that greatly exaggerate the way some people on the spectrum present themselves. Shaun, in particular, shows his supposed lack of social skills at the very worst times, and when he has the self-awareness to ask others questions about how he can improve socially, he is met with exasperation.

All in all, autistic characters in the media always manage their autism in the most outlandish, inappropriate way possible. They are portrayed as the worst version of themselves, an annoyance that non-autistics have to bear. At best, their needs are treated as being quirky. It feels as if non-autistic people want to poke their audience and say, "Look! Don’t those cute little autistic people say and do the darndest things?" When people with little exposure to autism see these exaggerations, they might assume that all autistic people act in an irritating, self-centered manner. In addition, it isn’t good for autistic people’s self-esteem to see themselves constantly portrayed so poorly.

The idea that being autistic is a struggle

This is one of the aspects of autism representation that bothers me the most. Without exaggeration, every piece of autism media out there focuses on the hardships of being autistic. Every. Single. One. I can’t think of one show or movie in which the main source of conflict the autistic character faces isn’t their autism.

This idea is problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, it conveys to non-autistic people that the autism experience is nothing but suffering. This, in turn, encourages people to view autistic people as objects worthy of patronizing pity instead of people worthy of respect. It reduces autistic people to what they experience instead of who they are as human beings. It sends the message that autism is a tragedy that need to be fixed.

I am less concerned with the implications that this trope has on non-autistic people, however, as I am on its ramifications on actual autistic people. While some autistic people might legitimately find it validating to see their real-life challenges on screen, I find all the focus on the negative aspects of autism to be discouraging. I already experience the things portrayed in the media in real life on a regular basis. I don’t need to open those wounds again even when I’m trying to engage in a little escapism. It says so much about how society treats autistic people that we can’t even catch a break in fictional stories.

While there is certainly a time and place to see our difficult experiences on camera, there’s a limit to what this can achieve. It doesn’t tell us anything new or revelatory. In my opinion, good representation shouldn’t just show us who we are. It should show us all the possibilities of who we can be. It should give us hope.

Yes, watching an autistic person struggle with situations such as conversing with their non-autistic peers is relatable for autistic people, as well as educational for non-autistic people. But we’ve seen such scenarios play out time and time again. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see an autistic person succeed in their career? Wouldn’t it be empowering to watch an autistic person play out their own "When Harry Met Sally?" Wouldn’t it give both autistics and non-autistic alike joy to watch a confident, self-assured, happy person on the autism spectrum? Autistic people deserve someone to admire and aspire to.

The idea that non-autistic people can tell autistic stories

One thing I need to address is the way that non-autistic creators are the people who, more often than not, write and act in stories about autistic people. This is a problem because autistic people deserve to have ownership of their own stories. They have the right to get the credit and profit for the stories that they inspired, stories that are about them.

I have heard excuses that justify when non-autistic people take over roles that portray autistic people, such as "It’s an actor’s job to act, to play a role other than themselves, so it must be okay for them to play an autistic person." I’ve heard that "just because a person isn’t autistic doesn’t mean they can’t write great stories about autism." In addition, I’ve heard, "non-autistic people are just trying to help uplift and bring awareness to you! Why can’t you be grateful?"

At their core, all of these arguments boil down to non-autistic creators’ sense of entitlement to stick their heads wherever they want when it comes to autism. They feel that autism is a topic that belongs to them more than it does to actual autistic people. They want the license to be at the front and center of anything autism-related. They feel that they have the right to tell stories that aren’t even theirs. In essence, they want to capitalize on the public’s fascination with inspiration porn and otherworldly autistic people. That way, they can derive the self-satisfaction, attention, and money that comes with "uplifting" the very group they oppressed in the first place. Not to mention that if they think that autistic people are in need of "uplifting," that says all I need to know about how dimly they view autistic people.

These comments hold even less weight when you think about this: every single piece of media I have ever seen or heard of that is made by non-autistic people portrays autism in a patently offensive way. No exceptions. Non-autistic artists insist that they can make our stories just as well as we can, but for all their bravado, they keep failing at it again and again. They have proven that they simply are not capable of telling our stories with accuracy and sensitivity.

Conclusion

If we want better representation of autistic people, we have to have more content made by, and for, autistic people. Autistic people deserve to see positive, affirming stories about themselves on TV, in the movies, and elsewhere. If we can improve autism representation, we can help autistic people feel more included in society.

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