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How Has Autism Been Portrayed in the Media?

Autism in mediaThe film and television industry as well as other media outlets are doing better at including individuals from all walks of life and social groups; however, many would agree that the media still needs to improve upon accurately portraying certain groups of people. There are definitely those who believe that individuals with autism are portrayed inaccurately or negatively in the media. Some are quite content with how autism characteristics are displayed.

Let’s take a look at how the representation of autism has evolved in the media throughout history and the pros and cons of how characters with autism are portrayed. 

The History of Autism in Film and Television

Since the late 1960’s there have been multiple movies depicting fictional characters with characteristics and symptoms of autism—but are they accurate? Do they cast individuals with autism in a certain light? Read the descriptions from two earlier films that describe characters that have supposed characteristics of autism. 

The film Run Wild, Run Free (1969) 

Mark Lester (of Oliver fame ), plays Philip Ransome, a northern English boy about 10 years old, who has been mute since age 3He spends his days roaming the moors alone. His parents despair of a cure. Gradually Philip emerges from his shell. But the way out is full of heartbreak and setbacks.

The film Change of Habit (1969)

Elvis plays a physician who runs a medical clinic in a poor neighborhood. Three nuns are sent to assist Elvis in his medical practice. A parent brings her girl to the clinic for an evaluation and treatment. The girl is diagnosed as having autism because she rocks, does not want to be held, and does not respond to sounds. Elvis treats the girl, and she begins to break out of her autism.

While looking at the underlined portions, you can see similarities in how the media portrayed individuals with autism decades ago. According to the filmmakers, those with autism are mute, strange, helpless, recluse, wild, and can be cured by Elvis! 

Looking at current movies, you can see the difference in how individuals with autism are portrayed. 

The film Please Stand By (2017)

A young autistic woman runs away from her caregiver to boldly go and deliver her 500-page Star Trek script to a writing competition in Hollywood. 

The film Temple Grandin (2010)

A biopic of Temple Grandin, a woman on the spectrum who has become one of the top scientists in the humane livestock handling industry.

There is an obvious and clear difference between how individuals on the spectrum were portrayed by the media in the past versus how they are today. Most modern films and television shows portray those with autism as very high-functioning—many even savants—with quirky personalities. 

Why the vast difference? And what are the repercussions of continuously portraying those with autism a certain way in the media? 

The Pros and Cons of Portraying Those with Autism a Certain Way by the Media

While the majority of filmmakers, television producers, journalists, and artists more than likely do not create pieces of media about people with autism to purposefully misrepresent or disparage them—it still happens. 

As the saying goes: ignorance is no defense. 

In a journal article entitled Stereotypes of autism, the author states “Considering that much of what society at large learns on disorders on the autism spectrum is produced by representations of autism in novels, TV-series, movies or autobiographies, it will be of vital importance to scrutinize these representations and to check whether or not they are misrepresenting autism,” (Draaisma, 2009). 

Some of the negative repercussions from the media inaccurately portraying individuals with autism are, but not excluded to, the following:

● Not allowing the general population to see the range of characteristics that are on the spectrum 

● Omitting certain groups of people from the media 

● Perpetuating the stereotype of “the mute” or “the savant”

● Leading parents/guardians of young children who have certain symptoms to disregard them due to what they know from the media

● Not correctly educating the general population on the disorder 

While no one single TV show/movie, news report, or piece of art can portray every single characteristic of autism—because not one single person has every single characteristic of autism—they could do better at being more accurate according to statistics, the DSM-V, and not overly stereotypical. 

Some positive consequences of accurately representing individuals from across the spectrum include:

● Promoting inclusion and acceptance 

● Educating others on a variety of disabilities 

● Allowing many with autism to see themselves in fictional or real-life characters 

● Showing what those with autism can do

According to GLAAD, a media advocacy organization, the number of regular characters on broadcast programming with a disability has increased by more than 1 percent in the past year. While this does not seem like much, it is an improvement. 

“Even with these steps forward, Hollywood is still criticized for not representing all ends of the spectrum. Although many portrayals in popular media are meant to spread awareness, some have perpetuated unrealistic stereotypes. The “autistic savant,” a person with autism who has exceptional skill or brilliance in some limited field, is the most common. The 1988 MGM film, “Rain Man,” is most well known. More recently, TV shows such as NBC’s “The Good Doctor” and CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory” have followed a similar theme. Although portraying a character with savant abilities and ASD is not inaccurate, it only represents about 10 percent of individuals on the autism spectrum,” (Research Autism). 

Going forward, what can we do to improve the representation of individuals with autism in the media? 

The general population can educate themselves, speak out for disadvantaged or underrepresented social groups, take media stereotypes with a grain of salt, rely on research and science instead of opinions, fact check, and use social media and other creative avenues to promote an accurate representation of individuals with autism. 

No matter what, there will always be critics; however, those within the media can do their part by taking responsibility to portray all types of people on the spectrum positively and accurately. 

Brittany Wilson

Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University

Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University

June 2020

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