By ABP Staff
Today, one in every 68 American children is affected by autism (one in 54 is the prevalence for boys, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention). Those are astounding rates considering autism was thought to affect only three people in 10,000 during the 1990s. And yet, despite any major increase in prevalence, very few book, television, or movie characters with autism spectrum conditions exist.
Autism is the fastest growing developmental disorder, and there is no cure. As more and more children are diagnosed, and as more and more non-autistic children become surrounded by those on the spectrum, it is more important than ever that we achieve further “neurodiversity” in our entertainment. Children without autism are likely to be more understanding of their autistic friends and classmates if they’ve seen Julia, the autistic character on Sesame Street. Meanwhile, those on the spectrum are sure to feel less alone when they are able to recognize characters like them.
With these things in mind, we created this list of the 30 best book, movie, and TV characters on the autism spectrum. While some of these characters are the creations of writers who have officially diagnosed them as autistic, others are pure speculation. Of those latter characters, we’ve been careful to include only those that many in the autism community claim as their own, and we’ve done our best to present the most accurate information regarding each character’s behavior.
Adam Raki, “Adam”
While nearly all of the characters on our list are supporting roles, Adam Raki is the star of his movie! This well-received, but little-seen film tells the story of Adam (played by Hugh Dancy), who falls in love with and begins dating a woman (played by Rose Byrne) who is not on the Spectrum. If you’re reading this article, you can likely predict the challenges that occur. Besides the typical social quirks, Adam has a hard time connecting with those around him, a necessary ability when in a relationship. While Dancy’s portrayal of Adam is often praised, some in the Aspie community have a hard time with the alien leitmotif that runs throughout the film. As one online Aspie blogger rightfully asks, “Why is the association of autism and alienism so common?”
Amelie Poulain, “Amelie”
Though it’s never a stated fact in the film, the character of Amelie Poulain in the film “Amelie” displays a number of tendencies that one with Asperger’s would display, and the character is proudly claimed by the Aspie community as one of their own. Those who insist Amelie falls on the Autism Spectrum cite things like her general quirkiness, the way she often misunderstands other people and situations, her constantly subdued expressions, and her sensory hypersensitivity. While we can’t say either way whether Amelie really does have some form of autism, we can definitely say that she is one likable and interesting character.
Dr. Sheldon Cooper, “The Big Bang Theory”
Easily the most debated character on our list is Dr. Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory. Does Sheldon actually have Asperger’s, and if so, does the show make fun of those on the Spectrum or embrace them through such a quirky, yet lovable character? While we aren’t totally sure about the answer to those questions (the show’s creators have never given Sheldon a formal diagnosis either), we think co-star (and scientist) Mayim Bialik is right on the money with her statement on the matter: “OCD was the topic of my thesis when I did my doctorate. I think that Sheldon would definitely be on the spectrum, as we say. I actually don’t think that I would give him the diagnosis of Asperger’s. I would give him Obsessive Compulsive probably moderate to severe, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, possibly Social Anxiety Disorder… but not pure Asperger’s as we know it.”
Dr. Amy Farrah-Fowler, “The Big Bang Theory”
While Sheldon Cooper may be the favorite among most viewers of “The Big Bang Theory,” those in the Aspie community seem to favor Sheldon’s long-time girlfriend, Amy Farrah Fowler. Amy, an Aspie, tends to present a more balanced view of those on the autism spectrum. She yearns for affection and various social graces, doesn’t vary in her emotions, and turns the literal into laugh-out-loud humor. While the writers have as much fun as they possibly can with a character like Sheldon, Amy serves as a reminder that female Aspies can have a lot in common with just about any other girl.
Brigid Tenenbaum, “BioShock”
Leave it to role-playing video games to pave the way for characters on the autism spectrum. At least, that is definitely the case with Brigid Tenenbaum, a character in the popular game “BioShock.” Game creator Ken Levine describes Brigid as “a high-functioning autistic Jewish woman” who must learn to live in the game’s not-so-bright-and-sunny world. Brigid succeeds through her passion for science, and over the course of her story arc, positively benefits a number of people.
Tina Belcher, “Bob’s Burgers”
Tina’s parents may frequently insist that she’s not autistic, but we’re not sure we agree. The 14-year old animated heroine of the hit show Bob’s Burgers displays a number of tics and foibles that suggest she falls somewhere on the Spectrum. She’s obsessed (obsessed!) with horses, is never quite sure what’s appropriate and inappropriate during conversation, and dealing with customers is not exactly her strongest ability. But it’s something else entirely that makes Tina such a favorite among viewers who themselves are on the Spectrum. While so many other autistic characters are portrayed as being asexual, teenage Tina is a refreshing version of the opposite as she spends most episodes obsessively composing erotic fan fiction.
Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan, “Bones”
Asperger’s in women is often much harder to detect and diagnose due to symptoms that are often subtle and widely varying, which may go a ways in explaining why female characters with Asperger’s are so rare. But one such female “Aspie” is Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan on the hit crime drama “Bones.” Though actress Emily Deschanel and series creator Hart Hanson will only go as far as to say that Brennan “almost” has Asperger’s, the series heroine displays a number of telltale signs: a lack of interest in being social, a sharp intellect and knack for scientific facts, and an elementary understanding of sarcasm. Asperger’s or not, Brennan is easily one of the most interesting and likable characters on TV.
Jerry Espenson, “Boston Legal”
The legal drama “Boston Legal,” from the early 2000s, is likely one of the earliest television shows to have a character with Asperger’s. Jerry Espenson, played by actor Christian Clemenson, may not be the most accurate portrayal of the Autism Spectrum, but the humor Jerry conveyed as a man and lawyer having to overcome the challenges brought on by Asperger’s made him a favorite character for many viewers.
Eric Gibb, “The Boy Who Could Fly”
“The Boy Who Could Fly” is about an autistic boy named Eric. Though Eric’s character frequently falls into the trap of feeling more like a stereotype of autism, the movie is often cited by those in the AS community — probably because it is one of the few films to feature an autistic main character and actually admit that he or she is autistic. First released in 1986 — two years before “Rain Man” — “The Boy Who Could Fly” is praised for its portrayal of a family and group of friends that show quite a bit of empathy towards Eric. The Superman-era special effects aren’t bad either.
Detective Sonya Cross, “The Bridge”
One of the few shows to actually use the word “Asperger’s” to describe its main character is The Bridge. Based on a popular Swedish drama, the show follows Sonya Cross, a detective working to solve a political nightmare of a murder along the U.S. -Mexico border. Detective Cross often tends to be an over-the-top version of a woman with Asperger’s. She doesn’t make eye contact, often spouts off inappropriate comments, and barely shows an ounce of empathy over the course of the series — things which may or may not be very realistic, depending upon who you ask. Still, most agree that actress Diane Kruger’s raw and heartfelt portrayal of the detective is spot-on and goes in the right direction when it comes to portraying characters on the Autism Spectrum.
Dr. Isidore Latham, “Chicago Med”
Perhaps it makes sense to have an autistic character be a doctor — a top surgeon in this case. But the character of Isidore Latham on “Chicago Med” happens to be so much more than just a brainiac scientist. Dr. Latham may be only one character in a large cast, but the show uses him to explore all kinds of questions about humanity, from just how much our medical professionals should care about their patients, to what kinds of emotions actually make one human. In one especially memorable episode, Dr. Latham hears about a controversial shock-treatment that allows those with Asperger’s to detect and understand human emotion — albeit temporarily. Latham begs a co-worker to help him, which unearths a number of moral dilemmas for the both of them.
Abed Nadir, “Community”
While most characters on the autism spectrum display an obsession with math or science, Community’s Abed Nadir is infatuated with something totally different: pop culture. Though the popular television comedy hasn’t officially diagnosed Abed, the online Asperger’s community has proudly claimed him as its own. Friendship and other relationships are a major theme of the show, and viewers on the Spectrum seem to appreciate the portrayal of Abed’s ability to show empathy and to form meaningful relationships.
Christopher Boone, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time”
Maybe the best-known autistic character in fiction is Christopher Boone, protagonist of the bestselling novel-turned-stage play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.” Charming Christopher is perhaps one of the most straightforward examples of a young boy with autism. He rattles off random facts such as every prime number up to 7,507, but gets himself into the drama of the storyline when he misunderstands events surrounding the murder of a neighbor’s dog. Christopher’s character and story are often heartbreaking, but the popularity of Mark Haddon’s book has meant a big step forward in making a fictional character with autism part of the mainstream.
The Driver, “Drive”
Whether intended or not, Ryan Gosling’s character of The Driver in the film “Drive” has Asperger-like tendencies that one blogger in the online Aspie Community calls “awesome.” The Driver, a highly skilled auto mechanic who makes himself available to criminals as a getaway driver, spends the entire film practically mute both vocally and physically. Indeed, Gosling’s face remains guarded and inexpressive throughout the movie. Don’t mistake this for bad acting, however. Gosling’s subtle behaviors — an inability to negotiate without becoming agitated, his perfect memorization of the L.A. street grid, etc. — contribute to an interesting, clever, and well-acted character who likely falls somewhere on the Spectrum.
Oskar Schell, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”
Nine-year old Oskar Schell’s tests for Asperger’s may have come back “inconclusive” (as he states in the early part of Jonathan Safran Foer’s bestselling novel “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”), but this smart-as-a-whip’s aversion to loud noises, lack of comfort in social interactions, obsessive compulsive tendencies, and fixation with numbers all suggest some sort of diagnosis somewhere on the Spectrum. Oskar’s character has been the subject of brutal debates between those in the autism community who find Oskar inspiring and relatable, and critics who found the movie-version Oskar to be everything from “creepy” to “totally weird.” Regardless of the media’s disdain, Oskar Schell was one of the first autistic main characters of a bestseller, and undeniably paved the way for more characters like him.
Forrest Gump, “Forrest Gump”
Few PC words to describe the classic character of “Forrest Gump” are thrown around the entirety of the movie, but a number of people in the Autism Spectrum community recognize the lovable Forrest as one of their own, one with autism. One particular blogger cites Forrest’s literal interpretation of speech, his superior performance of things that follow rigid patterns (“Why did you put that weapon together so quickly, Gump?”), and his incredible ability to maintain a singular focus (those ping-pong skills!). Like so many other characters in the world of entertainment, Forrest Gump does not have any official diagnosis. Still, the fact that so many people find they can relate to the genuine, caring, and successful Forrest gives this character, book, and film a whole new meaning and value.
Astrid Farnsworth, “Fringe”
The storyline of the hit sci-fi drama “Fringe” consists of a number of alternate universes, one of which includes an Aspie version of Astrid, a lab assistant. While neither Astrid nor anyone else ever explicitly uses the words “autism” or “Asperger’s Syndrome,” Astrid’s symptoms are pretty clear: lack of eye contact, little emotion or empathy, and a knack for math and science, among other things. Actress Jasika Nicole was praised for the portrayal of her autistic character, which she based on her sister in real life.
Lisbeth Salander, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”
Though author Stieg Larsson never uses the words “autism” or “Asperger’s” to describe the titular character of Lisbeth Salander, co-protagonist Mikael Blomkvist often wonders aloud if the girl has the latter. Indeed, the withdrawn Lisbeth often avoids social contact, and her knack for facts and computers often falls into the stereotypical representation of those on the Spectrum. Still, we think a Lisbeth with Asperger’s is most likely because of the events in the fourth book, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” in which Lisbeth goes out of her way to protect a young, non-verbal, Autistic savant who witnesses his father’s brutal murder.
Maurice Moss, “The IT Crowd”
The Aspie Community seems to agree that, although he may not be the best known, Maurice Moss of The IT Crowd is easily one of the most researched and best portrayals of Asperger’s on television. Likable, funny, and absolutely brilliant, Maurice — played by Richard Ayoade — often embraces his self-proclaimed “weird” and finds ways to appreciate his difference. As one blogger in the Aspie community mentions, “[Maurice] is not the butt of the joke, but rather a part of the joke.”
Lars, “Lars and the Real Girl”
This quirky Indie starring Ryan Gosling gives plenty of reasons why titular character Lars is a little bit different: his mother died giving birth to him, his anti-social father blames him for her death, his old brother leaves the family at a young age, etc. But a number of people in the Aspie community have insisted that Lars is also autistic. After all, he compares being touched to an excruciating burn-like sensation and he continuously rejects offers of social interaction. Whether autistic or not, Lars forces both his fellow characters and audiences to face exactly what it means to be different, and that all of our individual differences actually make us all quite normal.
Mary and Max, “Mary and Max”
“Mary and Max” may be an animated, claymation film, but don’t mistake this for a feel-good children’s film. Rather, this sweet Australian movie explores a number of themes that have to do with the autism spectrum. Mary, an eight-year old Australian girl who is often teased at school because of a birthmark on her forehead, randomly chooses an American out of a New York City phone book to write a letter to out of loneliness. She chooses Max, a 44-year old man who happens to have Asperger’s. The two continue their correspondence for many years. Max finds joy and further self-understanding through his letters, while Mary finds answers to her own feelings of self-worth and loneliness.
Brick Heck, “The Middle”
The Middle, one of the funniest shows on television, is about a run-of-the-mill Midwestern family and their many exploits (none of which end up seeming so run-of-the-mill). The youngest son in the family is Brick who, though he has never officially been diagnosed with anything specific, has all of the tics and quirks of one on the Spectrum. Indeed, Brick has at least one blogger in the online Asperger’s community convinced that “someone involved in the show has an autistic kid.” We don’t know about that, but we do know Brick has every quality that makes an especially lovable character.
Donald Morton and Isabel Sorenson, “Mozart and the Whale”
“Mozart and the Whale” has not one, but two main characters with Asperger’s Syndrome. Donald, a taxi driver with passions for birds and numbers, spends his days driving the same patters and routines, and his evenings leading an autism support group. When he meets Isabel, another Aspie who joins his group, he almost immediately begins to fall in love. The film follows the course of their relationship, and the challenges that come about. The theme here isn’t really different than any other romantic comedy: Donald and Isabel must accept their own and each other’s differences in order to become stronger as a couple.
Like so many other characters on television these days, Abby of “NCIS” hasn’t officially been declared autistic or an Aspie. But that hasn’t stopped the online Aspie community from declaring that Abby does indeed fall on the spectrum. They cite the fact that Abby often displays various forms of eccentricity (without caring much what others think), her bigger fondness for her named computers than the people around her, and her occasional lack of patience when she’s trying to explain something scientific to “clueless” folks around her.
Max Braverman, “Parenthood”
Said to be the most accurate portrayal of Asperger’s on television is Max Braverman of the now classic series “Parenthood.” Max’s scenes and story arcs may not always be the easiest to watch, but as parents of those on the Spectrum can probably agree, that’s part of what makes Max so wonderfully realistic. This raw, yet accurate, portrayal of a young boy with Asperger’s is the result of hours of work and effort by executive producer Jason Katims, whose own experiences with his son led him to create the most realistic character possible.
Daniel Connolly, “P.S. I Love You”
Fictional characters on the autism spectrum aren’t often part of a romantic comedy, at least not in a serious sense, but the 2007 film “P.S. I Love You” includes the wonderful character of Daniel, a bartender with Asperger’s who falls in love with Holly, played by Hilary Swank. While musician-turned-actor Harry Connick, Jr. certainly knew what Asperger’s was when he took on the role, he acknowledged the challenge that comes with playing such a character, specifically Daniel’s tendency to say whatever comes to his mind. Daniel may not get the girl in the end, but his inclusion is this big-budget mainstream film was a big step forward for characters on the autism spectrum.
Raymond “Ray” Babbitt, “Rain Man”
Rightfully considered the breakthrough film for characters on the autism spectrum, “Rain Man” is a film about Raymond, an autistic savant, and his selfish brother Charlie. Dustin Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Raymond, and has long been praised for his realistic and respectful performance, which he based on close observations of two real-life autistic individuals. While recent years and further scientific discovery have brought about some controversy surrounding Raymond being an autistic savant, the film remains an important step in the evolution of the portrayal of characters on the autism spectrum.
Dr. Alfred Jones, “Salmon Fishing on the Yemen”
“Salmon Fishing on the Yemen” is a 2011 film about a fisheries scientist, Dr. Alfred Jones, who receives an unusual request from a wealthy sheik: bring the sport of salmon fishing to Yemen. This presents all sorts of challenges, of course, one of which is the fact that Alfred seems to lie somewhere on the Autism Spectrum, likely Asperger’s. Most notably, this presents a problem as he begins to fall in love with a businesswoman played by Emily Blunt. As screenwriter Simon Beaufoy describes, “[Fred] is spectrum autistic, rude, humorless, apparently passionless. However, in a moment of weakness (as far as he’s concerned) he reveals his care and love for Harriet by making her a “duck sandwich.”
Julia, “Sesame Street”
With one in every 68 children affected by some degree of autism, it’s about time that the classic children’s television show introduce a character on the spectrum. Enter Julia, an adorable muppet of a girl who effectively teaches children at home about the differences and similarities of those with autism. Julia is still a pretty new character, but has so far gained a lot of positive buzz from parents eager to see such a character in such an iconic setting.
Boo Radley, “To Kill a Mockingbird”
Though the classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” was written long before most people were familiar with the term “autistic”, hundreds of essays, articles, and blog posts have been written to discuss whether the character of Boo Radley might today be considered autistic. Boo certainly has some kind of social anxiety disorder; he leaves trinkets in trees in order to let people know he likes them, he shows little feeling when he stabs someone in the leg, he likes children but not bright lights, and he’s antisocial to the point that the neighbors have made up stories about him. Still, by the end of the book it is clear that he’s one of the good ones, which makes quite the statement about those who are different, even if author Harper Lee didn’t yet have a label to put on that “different.”