While there is still a long way to go in terms of positive representation of autism in entertainment media, a select few fictional autistic personalities have achieved an impressive degree of Hollywood fame. Many of these highly-visible portrayals, however, fall victim to a certain problematic character trope: the autistic savant. Savantism refers to a minority of autistic individuals with particularly extraordinary or “genius” aptitudes in niche subjects, such as art, music, or memorization. The condition only accounts for approximately 10% of the autistic population, but it is by far the most visible representation of autism in movies and TV.
Critically acclaimed works such as the 1988 film Rain Man and ABC’s ongoing popular drama The Good Doctor both depict autistic characters in main roles, a rarity in an industry where less than 3% of characters display any difference in ability at all. Giving these types of characters a center stage is an important step in combating the representational inequality neurodivergent people often face; however, fictional depictions of autistic people in movies and TV structurally neglect the diverse range of abilities present on the spectrum. Such limited movie and television portrayals fail to serve the autistic community its deserved justice in terms of representation.
The range of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) extends far beyond the savant condition. In fact, about 40% of those diagnosed with autism actually have an intellectual or learning disability; the condition manifests very uniquely from person to person. This well-established medical fact is often lost in TV and film. For example, a recent study conducted at the University of Edinburgh assessed a sample pool of 25 on-screen autistic characters and found most of these depictions to be unrealistic. The majority of sampled characters met nine or more of the twelve medically defining traits used to diagnose autism, a rare occurrence in the real world. Furthermore, approximately half of these characters displayed savant abilities – a value five times the actual proportion of savants in the autistic community. The study concludes that this representational phenomenon is damaging to society in that it reinforces inaccurate stereotypes about autistic people.
Several autistic people themselves also take issue with today’s on-screen overrepresentation of extremely gifted autistic characters. In regards to The Good Doctor, Sarah Bradley states in an op-Ed piece for Vice magazine, “this is not a show I want to watch. I’m tired of what the entertainment business thinks autism looks like—it’s a perception that’s far removed from reality.”
Representation is a powerful force. Television’s tendency to ignore commonplace manifestations of ASD is greatly damaging to the vast majority of people with autism. As stated by Judith Heumann, a leading disability rights activist, “People need to see themselves. People with disabilities, like any other group ― when you don’t see yourself, you feel invisible.” By disregarding the experiences of most autistic people and instead overrepresenting a small percentage of the community, television and film media promotes unrealistic expectations and disinformation regarding the autistic community.This is especially socially harmful to autistic people with non-savant abilities who are too often denied the opportunity to see themselves in popular media, an increasingly fundamental prerequisite to feel fully integrated within one’s society.
Television and film media reach massive audiences and thus hold tremendous capacity to shape public perception of a community, as well as the community’s perception of itself. For example, psychological studies show a correlation between on-screen underrepresentation and low self-esteem in children of minority groups. Neglecting more diverse representations of autistic people inherently posits that their stories are not as “interesting” or “valuable” without an extraordinary talent added on to their condition. There is a largely untapped wealth of poignant, entertaining and important stories to share through film and TV with a more representational cast of autistic characters at their center.
Photo: “Woman in Auditorium“