Hollywood’s Exclusion of Autistic Actors Highlights its Biggest Diversity Problem: Disability
Hollywood has come a long way in the representation of autistic people since the release of Rain Man almost 30 years ago, but one major problem that still exists is the lack of representation of autistic actors. There are an increasing number of autistic characters on television and in film, but almost none of these characters have been played by actors who are actually autistic, despite the fact that there are many of us able to play those roles.
I’m autistic and work as a consultant for autistic characters in Hollywood. I’m best known for my work on FX’s The Bridge, in which the main character was a female autistic detective, played by Diane Kruger. The Peabody-award-winning show was widely praised for its accurate and nuanced portrayal of an autistic character, a departure from the unfortunately common autistic hollywood stereotype. I worked closely with the writers, producers, directors, and Ms. Kruger to develop the character. Additionally, I was on set, ensuring that her portrayal was always authentic. The Bridge’s commitment to diversity could also be seen in its writer’s room, which included writers who were female, gay, and Hispanic. The room even included writers whose identity had an intersectionality of those three Hollywood minority groups.
But the character was not played by an autistic actor. FX wanted a celebrity to star in the show and unfortunately, there were no autistic actors with enough star-power to play the part. To the credit of The Bridge’s commitment to diversity, I was actually cast in one minor recurring role, a newspaper employee, which ironically was written as a neurotypical character. But I don’t know of any other openly disabled actors who worked on the show.
Ben Affleck is the next major star to take on autism. He will be playing an autistic accountant in the upcoming film, The Accountant.
But even autistic roles for which star-power isn’t important are usually given to neurotypical actors. For example, NBC’s Parenthood cast Max Burkholder, an unknown neurotypical actor at the time, to play a major autistic role in the series. The show didn’t even hire an autistic consultant and Burkholder regrettably commented that he didn’t think one was necessary. Fox’s show Touch also cast a non-autistic actor to play an autistic child. Unlike Parenthood, however, Touch did hire an autism consultant, but she was not autistic and only worked on the pilot. Even Sesame Street’s new autistic Muppet, Julia, is played by a neurotypical in a suit.
And in the recent independent film, Jane Wants a Boyfriend, Louisa Krause played an autistic woman opposite Eliza Dushku. The filmmakers certainly could have cast an autistic actor instead of Krause because she is relatively unknown and Eliza Dushku is enough of a star to secure financing and attract an audience. The same was true with the independent film, The Story of Luke, in which neurotypical actor Lou Taylor Pucci played an autistic character opposite Seth Green. And there are many more examples of minor autistic characters being played by neurotypical actors, where star-power has absolutely no influence on casting.
The only example I could find of an autistic actor playing an autistic character was in this season of BBC’s Holby City, where Jules Robertson was cast as a recurring character in eight episodes. I was excited to see the show but upon watching it, I became a bit disappointed by the writing, which was stereotypical. In the first moments the character is introduced, he takes a few things literally, unknowingly makes an offensive comment about an older woman’s age, and states “If I’m direct, it’s because I have Asperger’s Syndrome.” While Holby City should be commended for casting an autistic actor, the writers room didn’t write a nuanced character. Despite this, Robertson did a great job playing the role and he seemed authentic even when the writing was over the top (which was most of the time). I can’t imagine a neurotypical actor handling that character as well as Robertson did, which underlines the importance of authentic casting but also highlights the importance of autistic input behind the camera.
Diversity has become a hot-button issue in Hollywood, where discussions focus on race, gender, sexual orientation, and even gender identity. Disability and autism, however, are left out of the discussion. At this month’s Television Critics Association presentations, CBS was criticized for its schedule of shows in which there are no non-white leads. But no one ever thought to criticize CBS (or every other network, for that matter) for having no disabled leads, despite the fact that individuals with disabilities are the largest minority group in America. If Hollywood wants to represent true diversity, it needs to make a much better effort to be inclusive of autistics and people with disabilities.