"I know all about autism, I've seen that film" is a quote from the movie Snowcake. A woman confidently tells Alan Rickman's character that the idiosyncratic behaviours displayed by Sigourney Weaver's character, who is autistic, needs no explanation. The line alludes to the Oscar-winning Rain Man where Dustin Hoffman played Raymond Babbitt and is often considered detrimental to the cultural canon of fictional autism portrayals. However, following the film's release in 1988, the world saw a gradual rise in autistic characters in the entertainment industry. It marked the starting point of an impactful increase in the awareness of ASD (Conn & Bhugra, 2012).
I have been working with autistic individuals for about 20 years. I started as an assistant to autistic children, pursued studies in special education, and researched a range of topics related to autism, mainly from a developmental perspective. Over the last two decades, I have noticed something that almost always comes up about my work in social gatherings; autistic portrayals in major films and TV shows. This piqued my curiosity, and along with my colleagues, I decided to delve deeper into this topic.
We believe this line of research is important because of how pervasive and accessible the entertainment industry has become to the general public. The reach of autism-related content on-screen is significantly higher and more potent on public perception than other sources such as publications I produce 'hidden away' in scientific journals (which, perhaps, can be quite dull for non-academics). After several years of research, we believe that autistic portrayals on-screen have pros and cons in influencing the audience's perception, including autistic individuals and their families. It's a double-edged sword, raising awareness and acceptance on one side and a potential source of emphasizing stereotypes and increasing stigma on the other.
Awareness and stereotypes
The accuracy of autistic narratives is central to this distinction between beneficial and detrimental representations in popular culture. It remains a matter of intense debate, especially for autistic people and their families. In one of our studies, we used the DSM-5 diagnostic manual to investigate whether the behaviours and traits displayed by fictional autistic characters lined up with the symptom criteria (Nordahl-Hansen, Tøndevold, & Fletcher-Watson, 2018). In a sample size of 26, 22 films and 4 TV shows were highly popular and included characters linked to the autism spectrum (e.g. Rain Man, My Name is Khan, Community, The Big Bang Theory, The Bridge, Alphas). We found that a majority of character portrayals were in very close alignment with the diagnostic criteria for an autism spectrum diagnosis as described in DSM-5.
Now, one might think this is a good thing, but we must tread with caution. A problem here is that it is too "perfect", and characters become textbook and homogenous representations of a highly complex and heterogeneous condition. As the saying goes, "if you have met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person". Thus, while portrayals of autistic characters might positively raise awareness, they may also reinforce stereotypes (Nordahl-Hansen et al., 2018).
'Savantism' is usually a topic of high interest for producers in the film and TV industry. It refers to a person's exceptional abilities within one specific area, such as having calculus, spatial, artistic, or musical skills. It's easy to acknowledge why savant skills are fascinating and just as easy to understand that screenwriters tend to "give" these features to their characters, perhaps hoping to make them more interesting (Nordahl-Hansen et al., 2018). However, this has led to the incorrect impression that Savantism is something that most people with ASD have. While it is true that it's more common in autistic individuals than in those without a diagnosis, the prevalence of Savantism in media does not match its reality. It's also not mentioned in the diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder (APA, 2013). All in all, it's probably not sensible to approach autistic persons or families of autistic people by asking them what special skills the individual has.
The current state of research
Publications on the topic of 'autistic characters in film and TV' can be found in scholarly journals across various disciplines, including American Studies, Asian Diaspora, Education, Emergency Medicine, English, Film, Mass Communication, Journalism, Psychology, Psychiatry, Sociology, and Spanish (Dean & Nordahl-Hansen, 2021). While there is growing diversity in the current research base, in comparison to other psychiatric conditions on-screen such as schizophrenia, split personality disorder, anxiety, and depression, to name a few, studies on autistic portrayals are in their infancy. We need to do a lot more.
Portrayals of autistic characters moving forward
In our latest systematic review (Dean & Nordahl-Hansen, 2021), we argue that there is some distance to go for the film and TV industry in focusing on marginalized groups within the autistic spectrum. Paying attention to this may spur a broader understanding of the richness and complexity of the condition. Some examples of underrepresentation include the non-white, LGBTQIA+, older adult, and female communities who sometimes appear as 'incidental characters' rather than in lead roles.
Possibilities for the future
Film and television can highlight various aspects of living with ASD. Recurring themes include family life and dynamics, consequences of hypersensitivity to environmental stimuli, problems in school, struggles with academic success, and severe bullying, to name a few. Difficulties in dating, sex, and relationships are also frequently depicted. We also see more overarching existential issues and general difficulties with social communication that lead to feelings of social ostracism. Nevertheless, many argue against the over-representation of middle-class white males, either as teenagers or young adults, who are so-called "high functioning" (Nordahl-Hansen & Øien, 2018).
To give the general audience a nuanced view of the heterogeneity that lies within the autism spectrum, we need variety in on-screen portrayals to take steps in the right direction. One character in a film or TV show cannot capture the complexity of the entire spectrum, nor do justice to the diversity in autistic lived experience (Nordahl-Hansen, 2017). While there certainly are some fictional films and TV series that depict autistic characters with this variety, many of these don't reach as wide an audience as mainstream 'Hollywood' productions.
In addition to the increased portrayal of autistic characters who have higher needs of everyday support, it would be welcoming also to see non or minimally verbal or display self-injurious behaviours. The Swedish/Danish TV Series called 'The Bridge' is one of few examples that have female characters with ASD, and we need more. Portrayals of autism and ageing are almost entirely missing as well. Overall, while we have seen progress, there are still many gaps we need to fill. Character portrayals can never fully capture real life, and it is important to make use of insights from autistic people themselves to strengthen representations and truly help spread awareness.
The entertainment industry is growing in reach across the world and in diversity in a way we have not seen before. Several communities continue to be underrepresented and misrepresented, and there is a vast opportunity to learn how we can navigate our way to progress and be more inclusive. It's in our best interest to diversify while we create, listen to communities while we produce, and use the massive power of film and television to encourage open conversations rather than strengthen stigma.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.
- Conn, R., & Bhugra, D. (2012). The portrayal of autism in Hollywood films. International Journal of Culture and Mental Health, 1, 54-62
- Dean, M., Nordahl-Hansen, A. (2021) A Review of Research Studying Film and Television Representations of ASD. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40489-021-00273-8
- Nordahl-Hansen, A. (2017). Atypical: a typical portrayal of autism? The Lancet Psychiatry, 4(11), 837-838.
- Nordahl-Hansen, A., Tøndevold, M., & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2018). Mental health on screen: A DSM-5 dissection of portrayals of autism spectrum disorders in film and TV. Psychiatry Research. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2017.08.050
- Nordahl-Hansen A., Øien R. (2018) Movie and TV Depictions of Autism Spectrum Disorder. In: Volkmar F. (eds) Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Springer, New York, NY
- Nordahl-Hansen, A., Øien, R. A., & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2018). Pros and cons of character portrayals of autism on TV and film. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 48(2), 635-636.