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How TV Shows Are Changing Perceptions of Autism

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For many years, autistic people were usually depicted in mainstream media as individuals who are nonverbal, unable to feel emotion, or non-functional in life. Recently, there have been more television shows for all age levels showcasing autistic characters in a way that parallels the movements to include more people of color and LGBTQ+ representation onscreen.

There are both positive and negative benefits to portraying autistic characters on television, and reactions from the autism community have yielded mixed results. These pressures to portray autism accurately have sometimes caused series creators to not officially diagnose a character with ASD. While autistic representation on television is important, there are pros and cons in regards to showcasing autistic characters, particularly at different stages of life.

The popular children’s television program, “Sesame Street,” introduced Julia, a Muppet on the autism spectrum in April 2017 as a part of Autism Awareness Month. It was groundbreaking to have a TV show geared towards preschool-aged children introduce an autistic Muppet. Sesame Workshop had already introduced several initiatives over the years to expose children to various differences and build inclusive communities. Some of the programs found on the Sesame Workshop website include resources for military families, children coping with traumatic experiences (poverty, homelessness, divorced parents, an incarcerated parent etc.), and health and hygiene.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 1 in 59 children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Since the number of autistic children has been increasing over the years thanks to better screening and testing, Sesame Workshop began an autism initiative on their website in 2016 for both families of children with autism as well as to aid neurotypical children in understanding the autism spectrum. While there has been controversy regarding Sesame Workshop’s choice to pair with Autism Speaks, the introduction of Julia on both Sesame Workshop’s social impact initiatives as well as a character on the television series has been a great stride in teaching preschool-aged children about autism and how the differences in their behavior are OK.

In addition to “Sesame Street,” another long-running children’s television program features a character with Asperger’s syndrome. The PBS Kids series, “Arthur,” also features an autistic character. Carl Gould, a character who befriends George Lundgren, has Asperger’s syndrome. At first, George did not know how to treat Carl; Carl has obsessions with puzzles and trains, he only drinks apple juice from a box (not a bottle), and was afraid of George’s dummy, Wally, causing Carl to rock back and forth in the corner (a form of stimming, which is a behavior consisting of repetitive actions or motions).

When George asks his friend, Alan “the Brain” Powers, to help him understand Carl, the Brain uses the description his uncle told him about what it is like to have Asperger’s syndrome in an attempt to help George understand Carl’s behaviors and experiences better. Since Arthur has introduced children to many different topics throughout its 22-year history, incorporating an autistic character has taught elementary school-aged children about how to understand children on the autism spectrum.

While children’s programming has begun to include autistic characters over the past several years, adult-oriented/family-oriented programming has been introducing autism storylines as well. One prominent show that had an autistic character was NBC’s family dramedy, “Parenthood.” During the pilot episode of the series, 8-year-old Max Braverman was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Throughout the series, Max faced many unique challenges, including social connections. The earlier seasons of the series portrayed Max’s parents, Adam and Kristina Braverman, and sister, Haddie, as well as his extended family adjusting to his diagnosis, detailing not only how autism affects the individual person, but also their family. As the show progressed and developed Max’s character, the audience witnessed his struggles to connect socially with his classmates.

One of the most poignant episodes of “Parenthood” involved Max excitedly going on a camping trip with his classmates. While he was on the camping trip, his fellow classmates bullied him, and even went so far as to urinate in his canteen. While Max did not fully understand why his classmates were bullying him, he eventually came to the conclusion it was because he’s “weird” and broke down in tears. Not only did this scene help the viewers empathize with Max, but it also showed a very important misconception about how autistic people do not have the capability to feel or show emotion.

“Parenthood” has helped to take away the stigma surrounding autism and autistic people. While the producer’s son has Asperger’s syndrome, Jason Katims has admitted he was initially hesitant to include the storyline in the show. Though Katims did not know whether or not including Max’s storyline would do autism justice, he ultimately showcased autism in a way that showed both the hardships and the unexpected beauty of being on the spectrum.

By creating an empathetic character, ABC’s “The Good Doctor” has encouraged viewers to learn more about autism in the manner “Parenthood” did. Based on a South Korean medical drama of the same name, “The Good Doctor” showcases the life of Dr. Shaun Murphy, a surgeon with autism and savant syndrome, including both the triumphs and the struggles that come with being on the autism spectrum. Throughout the past two seasons, Shaun has faced communication difficulties, prejudice, discrimination and struggles with forming both platonic and romantic relationships. Though Shaun has his struggles due to being autistic, his savant syndrome aids him in saving many of the patients since he comes up with solutions the neurotypical surgeons do not view as a viable option.

Through their characterization strategies, the writers of “The Good Doctor” have made autism a part of Shaun, not all of him. The show has portrayed him as a person the audience can sympathize with during his struggles and celebrate with during his triumphs. He has successful surgeries, develops friendships and has grown in character development over the first two seasons. Because Shaun has been developing into such a well-rounded character, the show and Freddie Highmore’s portrayal of Shaun have even caused individuals to want to learn more about autism. A study conducted by Stern and Barnes concluded that participants who watched the first 28 minutes of the pilot of “The Good Doctor” were both more interested in learning more about ASD and had more positive views of individuals with ASD than participants who watched a lecture about ASD. By creating empathetic characters, both “Parenthood” and “The Good Doctor” have contributed towards ending the stigma surrounding autism and have increased understanding about individuals on the spectrum.

While television shows have helped TV viewers understand autism better, including autistic characters has also garnered criticism from both critics and the autistic community. Often on television programs, autistic individuals are portrayed as geniuses with savant-like abilities, holding down successful jobs, and maintaining both romantic and platonic relationships for the sake of creating a “Hollywood Happy Ending.”

Not every autistic person fits Hollywood’s depiction. On “The Good Doctor,” Shaun has savant-like abilities, a trait only 10 percent of autistic people possess. Not only does the majority of the autistic community not possess genius abilities, but many are also faced with other challenges not often showcased on television. There are people on the autism spectrum who are nonverbal, who have other intellectual disabilities, or might not have high emotional regulation or knowledge of subjects outside of their obsession or specialty. While including autistic characters on TV has increased awareness and acceptance of autism, it has also been a disservice to a portion of the autistic community since autistic television characters have fewer struggles and hold successful jobs and relationships with seemingly little help and therapy compared to some real-life autistic individuals.

Due to the pressures of portraying autism accurately, some TV programs chose not to officially diagnose their characters that showed classic symptoms of ASD. Dr. Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory” and Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan from “Bones” are two characters who demonstrated classic symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, though they were never stated to be autistic (Sepinwall). Both characters often displayed behaviors typical of those individuals with ASD (Sheldon had a particular spot in which he had to sit, neither Sheldon nor Brennan understood pop culture references or sarcasm, and both were extremely knowledgeable in their chosen fields of physics and forensic anthropology).

Though autistic characters have been introduced into more television shows, some showrunners have admitted that they chose not to officially diagnose a character due to the fact that there would be more pressure to portray autism accurately; this was one of the main reasons “The Big Bang Theory” producer Chuck Lorre never officially confirmed Sheldon as having Asperger’s syndrome. “Bones” creator Hart Hanson also admitted he decided not to confirm Brennan as having Asperger’s syndrome due to having been on a major network (Fox) compared to a cable channel, though he did confess that Brennan was based on someone he knew who had Asperger’s.

Though these two characters and many other television characters have articles speculating on whether or not they do indeed have ASD, having characters where audiences are not 100 percent certain about the nature of their conditions has reflected reality in the fact that autism can be difficult to officially diagnose, particularly in adulthood.

The movement to include characters with autism spectrum disorder and other disabilities has been similar to the movements to include more people of color and LGBTQ+ people on television, but there will always be challenges. Since autism is a spectrum, not every character has represented every single autistic individual, especially autistic people who are nonverbal or do not have savant-like skills. But just like representation for POC and LGBTQ people, increasing the number of autistic characters has helped bring more awareness and acceptance of the autistic community over the past several years. Though autistic people all experience the condition differently, increasing neurodiversity on television is important to aid in both representation and the autism acceptance movement. Now the question becomes how much of an impact the autism acceptance movement will make in the future.


Getty image by Kristen Prahl.

Originally published: May 17, 2020
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