Autism in the Media

The media has a subtle yet powerful effect on our lives. Everything we do, everything we think, and everything we feel is influenced by the stories told by those in the media. Autism is relatively new in the public eye so the stories we hear have an even greater impact on what we think.

When I was growing up, I developed much of my interpretation of the world from the television, films, and books I read. But when I got diagnosed at the age of 9, the only mainstream representation of autism was Rain Man.

mediaWhile many people are quick to criticize Rain Man, it came at a time when very few people had even heard the term autism, and even less knew what it was. The movie brought autism to the mainstream and I think we underestimate how important it was for so many people to finally have something they could point to in the media (especially parents who were growing tired of explaining it to everyone they encountered in public). A lot has changed since then and we’ve seen more representation, both good and bad.

We’re certainly in a better place in 2018 than we were when I was diagnosed in 1995. Shows like The Bridge and The Good Doctor show autistic characters as more than just a stereotype and their autistic protagonists even hold jobs that audiences may envy.

The show Atypical centers around a family raising a teen on the spectrum. The show even portrayed the autistic character dating and eventually getting a girlfriend. While many people were critical of the first season, the showrunners made an effort to change things and season two will feature autistic actors playing autistic characters on screen. With that said, I hope to see more shows being sensitive to the realities from the start instead of reacting to criticism after damage is already done.

Negative stories that hurt those of us on the spectrum are not limited to TV series and films. Some of the worst offenders are news organizations. For instance, when an act of violence occurs in our society (like a shooting), reporters and commentators on cable news are quick to look for an explanation. Often times, they point to an autism diagnosis, despite the fact that autism has absolutely no link to violence. Even bringing up autism in these stories, serves no purpose, and confuses audiences into thinking it must be related.

But this is all gradually improving over time. Every time something negative is released in the media, I am relieved to see voices of those on the spectrum speaking out and many allies echoing these voices.

I can’t wait for the day where we don’t need to speak out against negative portrayals, but it’s important to understand that things won’t change overnight and patience and understanding is key to convincing others to listen to our stories. Autistic people have the responsibility to advocate respectfully and understand that parents also have stories to tell. But parents also have to realize that their children grow up and don’t always share the same opinions. If we can all work on listening to each other more, I think the world will be a better place and the media landscape will be more inclusive.

83 thoughts on “Autism in the Media”


    • Fnord on August 9, 2018

      … The media has a subtle yet powerful effect on our lives. Everything we do, everything we think, and everything we feel is influenced by the stories told by those in the media… Whether we accept, reject, or ignore whatever The Media tells us, its influence is indeed pervasive.

    • Child of the Universe on August 9, 2018

      Most of the media representation of autism is awful in my opinion. There are the few cases of good representation though.

    • ASPartOfMe on August 9, 2018

      I was diagnosed and joined this site in 2013 and the progress in these 5 years has been beyond my expectations. At that time while there were autistic characters on TV despite an exception or two the autistic characters were not called autistic. At that time most of the news stories were about what burdens we were and what a tragedy it is to have an autistic member of the family. While those stories are far from gone you have a lot of stories about autistics accomplishing things by using their autistic traits. Even as recently as a year ago we were always described as a "person with autism" despite many autistics preferring to be called "autistic". Now you do see "autistic" or "autistic" and "person with autism" in articles.

      There are still way too much stereotyping, having autistic characters that have every autistic trait and have it to the extreme and inspiration porn and it would be nice if seemingly not every autistic character was a savant. Those very significant problems do not negate the progress made.

      My favorite autism portrayal over the last 5 years is Dakota Fanning’s portrayal of Wendy in the movie ‘Please Stand By’.

    • gbollard on August 9, 2018

      Good article…. and I think you’re right. No matter how much we diss "rain man", there’s no denying that it brought autism to mainstream fictional media. Since then, there’s been a plethora of shows which use characters on the spectrum as central or background characters. Often I think that the best of these are the ones in which the reason for the characters’ differences aren’t stated at all. The UK-French series, "The Tunnel" is one example of this.

      As to the news media. I’m not sure that they’re getting better. IMHO, they’re getting worse but we, the people with autism, are finding new ways to express solidarity and outrage. We’re acting as one to get these biased news stories shut down…. and that’s a good thing. It’s the start of the civil rights movement for autism and I’m proud to be both a part of it and a witness.

    • MrMacPhisto on August 10, 2018

      It is important how Autism is portrayed in the media.

      I have been diagnosed 3 times. The 3rd Time was for clarifications as the 1st diagnosis when I was 11 years old 1997 said I was Autistic the 2nd when I was 14 2001 said I wasn’t the 3rd one claimed the first diagnosis was correct.

      Now the psychologist contacted my workplace to inform them the news as the psychologist knew I wouldn’t say anything. One that same day that evening there was a TV show on where they had an Autistic character on this particular episode and it was such a bad portrayal. The boss thought I was turning into that person and I got laughed at and bullied which lead to me leaving which was sad as the day before the diagnosis I was told I had a promising career.

      I think the way Autism should be portrayed in the media it has to be done in a positive but realistic way. Whether TV drama or documentary.

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