The “Cute” Syndrome: A Survey Of Autism In Popular Culture

I don’t remember how we got there, except that it had come after several bonding sessions, nights drunk on each other’s companionship, telling truths that we kept close to our chest. Utterly remarkable, watching a friendship grow, but simultaneously banal; it was like any other day. All that matters for this story is that we had gotten to the point in the friendship where I felt it was time I told them, I’m autistic.

This sort of thing, while meaningful, is also par for the course. I know how people respond, I know what to expect, but this response surprised me. People generally weren’t candid about their previous expectations toward autism.

“That’s so strange that you feel the need to hide that part of yourself,” they told me, “Autism is sort of the ‘it’ syndrome right now.”

They paused, searching for a better way to say it. I was trying to wrap my head around the idea.

“I don’t mean to say a disorder can be fashionable, but… it’s like, the cute syndrome.”

I wasn’t sure how to react to this. It still floats up in my mind and I still have mixed feelings. It bothers me that people can diminish the struggles of my disorder by considering it the “in” thing to have. I imagine people rushing off to their name brand psychologist to get their name brand diagnosis. But also, I like being told I’m cute. The simple fact is that I, as well as many others, struggle with how the public perceives this disorder and how it is portrayed in popular culture, because that deeply informs others’ reaction to me, whether they know about my identity or not. There’s me, and all my nuances and personal traits, and what I look like to my peers, and there’s the floating idea of what autism is, and what it looks like, and the two seem impossible to separate.

Autism and popular culture have had a complicated relationship for a long time. In 1988 the film Rain Man introduced the disorder to the general public. After its release diagnoses in the United States skyrocketed, and so did the presence of autistic characters in pop culture. In the 1980’s there were only two films starring autistic characters. In the next decade there were thirteen. The older the movie or book or show, the less autistic the characters often seem, some of them carry the label ‘autistic’ but with very few symptoms. Instead, the characters are inflicted with some generic mental disability, which when labeled as autism sells more tickets.

Rain Man, however, was nuanced. I’ve always appreciated the story, not just on a personal level, but also as a writer. It told a story set in a time when the common way to deal with a diagnosis was to send it away, to a mental institution. The filmmakers show the institution as a welcoming, safe, comfortable place for the character Ray, but in reality, these places were often run terribly, and kept up worse. A real life Ray would have found his handicap intensified by such a place. Many autistic children born in this era grew up to have severe mental deficiencies because so little of their nature was understood. Dustin Hoffman showed immense respect in his performance, painting a multifaceted character that felt human, but because of his place on the spectrum he is often a nuisance to the story, or worse, a vehicle solely there to move the plot forward. I don’t mean to bash Rain Man, which I consider a great first step, but it’s just that; the first step.

Today autistic characters are everywhere. Many works of fiction feature characters, central and less so, on the spectrum. Their presence on television, in film, on stage, and in literature keep the disorder in the public eye, and relevant to the lives of those unaffected. I should preface this by saying I mainly focus on television characters for this column, because the hours of narrative give an opportunity to paint the most complex images of these people, and because we are a society that has a television in every home. In many ways, when we watch these shows, we welcome them into our living rooms; we live with these characters.

Some of these characters are notable. In Parenthood, young Max Braverman is diagnosed in the first episode. The show isn’t necessarily about Max, even when it tells one of Max’s stories, but it is as honest and fair a treatment of the character as it can be. Max feels real, like a person even. When the show first began to air I was still in high school, and Max’s story mirrored my own experiences with diagnosis so much that it was sometimes painful to watch, and so I had to stop. I’ve since gone back through much of it. The show’s creator, Jason Katims, wrote from his own life, his son being diagnosed with Asperger’s, and the show’s perspective of the parent observing autism from afar is clear. After all the show was called Parenthood. Katims put a lot of work into making a realistic autistic character. He brought in a behavioral psychologist to help. Because of this, almost all of Max’s stories center around his autism, and his struggles to connect with peers. When he finally makes friends they too struggle with their own disabilities. As real as he feels, It’s still impossible to color Max as a completely real person, his identity is so engulfed with the diagnosis. Nothing seems to happen to him wherein Asperger’s isn’t at the center. While I want to criticize the show for taking a somewhat medical approach to Max Braverman’s autism, opposed to an experiential or personal angle, I can’t completely. Watching Max’s father struggling to connect with his brash son during an adventure to a theme park, I couldn’t help but think about my own relationship with my parents, how much work I was growing up. Max feels real and heartfelt, and in an era where everyone is still figuring out how to handle these issues, that is enough.

The other commendable bit of storytelling I have to mention is the character of Abed on Community. I’ve been a big fan of Dan Harmon, the showrunner, for a while. My interest peaked when he unofficially diagnosed himself with the disorder. Harmon talks about autism extensively in a podcast episode he recorded with the author of Neurotribes, and you can see his complex understanding of  Asperger’s in how they discuss it. I highly recommend looking it up. Harmon’s character of Abed struggles with social conventions but he is also, as another character puts it, a Shaman. His high intelligence isn’t portrayed as if he were a savant, simply a smart guy. He’s self aware, aware of the camera, aware the way the show’s world works, in a way none of the other characters are. Most importantly to me, he has a strong, close knit, supportive group of friends. The most adversity Abed faces comes from the way the world reacts to his oddities. In a pivotal episode, his peers find out a girl likes him, and jump at the opportunity, acting like it’s rare or special for a girl to be interested in someone like him. They try to force him out of his comfort zone to talk to this girl, while saying comments that, unknowingly, could be hurtful to someone on the spectrum, usually along the lines of “You might never get another opportunity [for a normal life] like this!” They try to train him, to fix him. All the while Abed goes along with his pals, without a protest, or an expression of discomfort. The narrative concludes with the realization that Abed knows what he’s doing. He’s aware of the subtle charm of his goofiness, and that really, he just prefers the girls come to him. I haven’t seen an autistic character portrayed with such competence and humanity since Abed, and other creatives should take a page from Dan Harmon’s book.

Simultaneously, we have narratives from shows like TheBig Bang Theory, which I recognize is a beloved show filled with beloved characters. Every time I visit my parents their DVR is loaded with episodes. But I can’t get on board with it. When I was a kid, my parents would lovingly compare me to the most on-the-spectrum character, Sheldon. I would cringe at this, and it took me a long time to understand why. It’s not that the portrayal of Sheldon is unfair to autism–it’s a parody, he’s an amped up version of a real person, played for laughs. And I strongly believe that it’s okay to laugh at autism! The problem is his peers. In a show where the nerds are usually the butt of the joke (seriously, try watching it without a laugh track, it feels mean.) Sheldon is the at the bottom of the totem pole. His friends can’t stand him, they barely put up with him. You can hear a palpable distaste for his antics in their voice, which they keep subtle so as not to perk his untrained ears. It brings back memories of bad interactions with less than understanding neurotypical people, who don’t mind laughing at a real person’s symptoms. Previously, I’ve dismissed it as just a television show, but the problem is these prominent bits of media define culture, they define people’s expectations of each other, and they define how we should and shouldn’t react. According to The Big Bang Theory, autistic people are obnoxious and unbearable, and should be treated with subtle hostility and contempt. At least it’s funny.

There’s lots of examples of bad autistic characters out there, many I don’t feel the need to list. They suggest false and unrealistic images of autism. They suggest autistic people are defined by their disability, not the other way around. They suggest autistic people can only connect with other autistic people, and can only find love with other “odd” people, because they are too weird for anyone else to be interested. Characters yell and fight with each other when someone suggests their loved one has autism, as if it is some horrid accusation. The problem with most media portrayals of autism isn’t that it’s unfairly stereotyped, it’s that it’s usually too sympathetic, opposed to empathetic, and through that it fuels society’s problematic tropes and anxieties about autism. The autistic character is trying, look how hard they are trying. The autistic character wants to fit in, but they can’t and they never will because autism. Don’t you feel sad? Don’t you feel sorry for them? You know there is more to you than that. From this angle, pop culture is caring and compassionate, but it lessens us, it makes us look weak and in need of charity.

We are not at the mercy of our label, this is not how the world has to look at autism. The label is defined by those who live under it, not the other way around. All characters, not just those with autism, need to be portrayed with empathy, not sympathy. A good friend once told me you have to love every character you write, because that’s the only way you’ll get them right. Autistic characters need to be shown outside the light of their disorder, in just as complicated and nuanced a way as neurotypical characters are written. We shouldn’t be consulting doctors and studied experts on the disorder to get these people right, we should be consulting the real life people who live with the diagnosis themselves. This is how you love a character. That is how you make them a real person.

If you want to see this change, get involved in the creative world. If you write, write autistic characters as you’d like them to be portrayed. If you act, fill autistic roles, the same way Hollywood should cast Pakistani roles to Pakistani actors, and trans roles to trans actors. Simply put, represent your people. We already have great examples of this. Though in my own experience, these have been minority cases, they exist. We have writers like Dan Harmon out there, making good work. The creator of Wrong Planet, our very own Alex Plank, consults for a show with an autistic character, FX’s The Bridge. I’m no regular viewer, but I can say honestly that he seems to be doing right by the label.

33 thoughts on “The “Cute” Syndrome: A Survey Of Autism In Popular Culture”


    • iamchuckles on April 5, 2016

      Thank you. Just wanted to say that your column has pushed me over the edge to register. Your references to media presentations of aspies are especially appreciated. I never seem to get enough of seeing how the world perceives us. I think it is partly a need for validation and partly a desire to get information to aid in relating to the ‘Normal’ world.

    • Cookiebasher on April 6, 2016

      Thank you. Great article.

    • hurtloam on April 6, 2016

      “Sheldon is the at the bottom of the totem pole. His friends can’t stand him, they barely put up with him. You can hear a palpable distaste for his antics in their voice, which they keep subtle so as not to perk his untrained ears. It brings back memories of bad interactions with less than understanding neurotypical people, who don’t mind laughing at a real person’s symptoms. Previously, I’ve dismissed it as just a television show, but the problem is these prominent bits of media define culture, they define people’s expectations of each other, and they define how we should and shouldn’t react. According to The Big Bang Theory, autistic people are obnoxious and unbearable, and should be treated with subtle hostility and contempt. At least it’s funny.”

      I think that’s actually quite true to real life actually. Have you read this forum? Have you read people’s experiences of how others react to them. TBBT does show the truth. I’m sorry if you don’t like that, but people find Aspies annoying.

    • Quinn Koeneman on April 6, 2016

      Hurtloam, I don’t deny that. But, at the same time, there are places where autism is perceived as “cute” and “interesting.” There is a reason all these characters are appearing in pop culture, and it’s not because all the writers and directors want to vent about how annoying aspies are. There is some mystery they are trying to unlock.
      Shows like TBBT, shows which are culturally prominent, they provide a face to autism in homes that don’t have any connection to the spectrum, and so they create preconceived notions of what aspies and autistic people are like. If wdde want to make this world more accepting and accommodating to people like us, we have to stop accepting things as they are. We have to try and create portrayals of autism that are both accurate and beneficial to society. If more shows portrayed autism the way Community does, we would find ourselves in a warmer and more accepting world. and wouldn’t that be great?

    • Willard on April 6, 2016

      First, Big Bang has never officially labeled Sheldon as autistic. We who live with it know, because we see ourselves in much of his behavior (and why not, the writers have clearly used the DSM to create the character, since they stuck religiously with the generic example of trains as a special interest). However, I would submit that every single one of the 4 male leads on BBT ALL have varying levels of High Functioning Autism. Besides, it’s ridiculous when they pick on him, because they are each equally, if not more annoying in their own ways.

      Personally, I have found Temperence Brennan on Bones to be a far more interesting and realistic portrayal of HFA in a fictional format, though that show also has chosen never to officially label her an Aspie (unless I missed a crucial episode), the behaviors are unmistakable.

      Bottom line, I think if the media is labeling it as ‘cute,’ you should gratefully accept it, because in the real world, you will be discriminated against and abused for it your entire life. What’s amusing on screen drives NT people to distraction when they actually encounter it and realize it’s not a put-on to amuse people, we really do have issues – because to them, an invisible handicap is not a real handicap and they will always believe that you could behave normally if you really wanted to.

    • Green Asparagus on April 6, 2016

      Interesting read! I happened to read this today, about the same subject:

    • Luke Skywalker on April 7, 2016

      I kind of completely disagree about Parenthood. It felt like the show assumed the audience would sympathize with the parents more than the child and the viewers wouldn’t be autistic. Narratives of autistic people told through the view of an allistic person, rather than giving an autistic person a voice, always seem to be to be negative representation, which I think is worse than no representation. We need more narratives about autistic kids by autistic kids, not ones that focus on the “struggle of the parent” like autism $peaks loves doing.

    • HermanHesse on April 7, 2016

      “Sheldon is the at the bottom of the totem pole. His friends can’t stand him, they barely put up with him. You can hear a palpable distaste for his antics in their voice, which they keep subtle so as not to perk his untrained ears. It brings back memories of bad interactions with less than understanding neurotypical people, who don’t mind laughing at a real person’s symptoms.”

      Sheldon has to be a jerk otherwise his lack of social graces could be viewed as tragic. However, Sheldon has some variant of Narcissistic personality disorder so he’s a jerk. This makes him unlikeable so it’s OK for him to be the go-to butt of the joke.

    • mikewhateverm on April 7, 2016

      I don’t know about this, I would like to see more portrayals of autistic people where the disability significantly handicaps their life, but it would be hard to market, although it is needed.

    • Hyperborean on April 7, 2016

      Very thought-provoking article, thanks.

      The answer, I think, is for mainstream TV shows (such as soaps) to routinely include a variety of characters who are somewhere on the spectrum, who represent as broad a cross-section as possible from severe to mild ASC, and who range from empathetic to annoying. Over the years this has been done successfully – in the UK at least – with minorities of all kinds, gradually introducing the public to gays, lesbians, transgender people and those of different ethnic or cultural backgrounds, and portraying them in the same everyday situations that are experienced by the majority of the population. In other words, they become ‘real’.

      The BBC are currently showing ‘The A word’, a 6-part drama series about a 5-year-old boy who has just been diagnosed. The young actor puts in a good, if sometimes stereotyped performance, but the most convincing part of the production is the behaviour of the adults around him, who are mostly in denial, ignorant and self-absorbed. If nothing else it shows that we still have a lon way to go.

    • Emperor Zhark on April 7, 2016

      A Swedish film about an autistic boy:
      It’s very good

    • HermanHesse on April 7, 2016

      “but it would be hard to market, although it is needed.”

      That is pretty much every good idea ever.

    • BuyerBeware on April 18, 2016

      Well, I guess “the cute syndrome” is better than “the monster disease.” Sheldon isn’t anybody’s hero, but better than Adam Lanza. He represents a wider swath of the spectrum, too. Painful though it may be, the fact is that, unless we luck across some remarkably sensitive, tolerant people (who are likely sensitive because they know what it is to struggle, and are likely tolerant because they aren’t getting the pick of the litter either), being barely tolerated so long as we accept being the butt of everyone’s jokes IS life on the spectrum.

      It ain’t all bad. You find some really cool people among the various flotsam and jetsam– people with SOME disability are, after all, a sizable segment of the population. Autistics, ADDers, fat girls, people struggling with depression, anxiety, and PTSD, gamma and lower males, poor people, people who adhere to the ‘wrong’ religion… There are a lot of freaks, geeks, and losers out there. It’s a big barrel with all kinds of interesting stuff hanging around the bottom.

      You learn to laugh at yourself– at least, if you stop pining after being one of the “cool kids” who “win.”

      You get better at playing by the rules– if you want to, if you work really hard, if you don’t buy into a bunch of “I’m ok, you’re ok” bullshit.

      You learn a measure of self-acceptance.

      And Sheldon???

      One evening, I was watching TBBT with my in-laws. My FIL looked at me and said, like he’d been hit by a beam from Heaven, “You’re like that guy, aren’t you?!”

      “Yes, dad. I’m like that guy. I hope I’ve learned to be a little less annoying, but yes.”

      He grunted and kind of nodded, which I took to mean I was, in fact, marginally less annoying than Sheldon Cooper.

      And ever after that, he thought of me as retarded instead of thinking of me as a selfish, evil, manipulative monster that needed to be disposed of as quickly and aggressively as possible.

      Which was a massive improvement.

      Every time I see Sheldon, where other Aspies wince, I smile. TBBT convinced my in-laws to stop trying to put an end to our marriage.

    • GreenSky on May 3, 2016

      I always felt a close connection to Spock.

      He looked like them, almost fit in but would be teased for his differences, felt more emotion than everyone else but suppressed it, and many other traits.

    • mixtape02 on May 5, 2016

      In Community they called Abed Rain Man as a “funny” insult. Abed doesn’t recite the same things over and over seemingly for no reason. He doesn’t not respond and then say yes and no at the wrong times–not reflecting his real answers to questions, like Rain Man.

      I see the same when people have called me Spock, but I’m not an intelligent emotionless person. I also see it when people display autistic traits and then someone says they remind them of Bubbles (Trailer Park Boys). There’s no real correlation, yet they give them a nickname they got from television/movies and script-writers proceed to use it in comedy, so we can be the butt of a joke.

    • GreenSky on May 6, 2016

      Mixtape02, I am sorry other people have called you Spock. I would not call anyone else Spock. I said I felt a close connection to him.

      BTW vulcans are not emotionless.

      “Vulcans are capable of experiencing extremely powerful emotions (including becoming enraged enough to kill their closest friend); thus, they have developed techniques to suppress them.”

      I am a trekkie. I connect with Spock’s battle to control his emotions. I also connect with him because the humans do not see the real Spock. They see an emotionless person when in fact he is exactly the opposite.

    • Cass on May 13, 2016

      When I was a kid and Star Trek was first on network tv, I felt Spock validated me. However, nobody told me then that he was Aspie, just that he was half alien. So I assumed I was half alien, too.

      But what particularly confused things for me was that I was an attractive female, in honors classes and then Yale and Harvard Law, which were, in the seventies, nine-tenths male. So I became convinced that I was half alien because I was female, and the other half alien, too, because I was scared of the few other females I encountered.

      Now, having just received a diagnosis of Asperger’s at age 63, I just feel relieved. So many things make more sense to me, including Mr. Spock. :)

      So I used a picture of him in an article published yesterday in “The Art of Autism” blog. As I am a newbie here, I can’t post the link. :(

    • tamarasherwood on June 2, 2016

      Very interesting post, thanks for sharing here.

    • crylie on June 22, 2016

      this is an incredibly moving article; you’re a wonderful writer. i made my mom read this! it really helped her understand a bit better. thank you!

    • DrManhattan on June 29, 2016

      I’ve spoken multiple girls that watch Big Bang Theory and they absolutely adore Sheldon. Sheldon seems by far the most popular and funny character of the show, they find him cute, smart and hilarious. It’s not mockery like “look at that loser”, more like “such a clueless dork he’s almost kind of cool” (quoting Enid in Ghost World about Seymour). It’s his innocence and purity.

      Similarly Commander Data of Star Trek The Next Generation is outrageously popular among women. It’s that certain innocence combined with vast intelligence and knowledge and being downright funny while not intending to be. I’m glad that it’s not all bad boys that get the attention and cute has it’s own sex appeal.

    • stevens2010 on October 22, 2016

      From where I sit, the relationship between popular culture and autism–particularly high-functioning autism–is rather straightforward. I’ve been an engineer and a technical nerd since the 1960′s. The one place an Aspie could feel comfortable was in the presence of math and science nerds and with engineers. Engineering was dominated by people like me, and society thought we were rather quaint.

      One must recall that this was around the time NASA was in the news all the time, due to President Kennedy’s challenge to put humans on the moon. Engineers were people who worked in large rooms, with a forest of desks and no privacy, at defense contractors like Boeing or Lockheed. It didn’t pay particularly well, either, compared to today. No one wanted little Johnny to be one of those nerds, with the narrow tie and strange glasses, and all-too-often awkward social skills.

      In the 1980′s the technological revolution was well underway. Engineers, always a necessary evil in the high-flying world of American business, suddenly were in increasing demand. In 1985, a newly-graduated chemical engineer could command a starting wage of $50,000 a year or more. Remember, these were 1985 dollars. Front page stories abounded with these numbers, comparing them with the dismal amounts paid to the usual “neurotypical” majors.

      That’s when things changed so you didn’t get kicked out of your fraternity anymore, for being an engineering major. While, in 1970 any pothead or academically challenged student could declare an engineering major, in 1985 there were many more applicants than there were available slots. And so it was that engineering started to attract more neurotypicals, if they had the stamina and perseverance (two things Aspies have in abundance) to survive engineering study. Let’s just say it takes a lot more pain and suffering to get an engineering degree than a business degree (I know this from actual experience).

      Most of those neurotypical engineers were miserable after they graduated, working with socially challenged people like me, unless they got promoted. And many did, because they had the social skills and we didn’t. After that, I started meeting a lot more people in engineering who were “normal,” meaning neurotypical and, as they progressed into management, the discrimination ramped up against people like us. But parents no longer were worried that little Johnny might turn into an engineer.

      But somehow, people always knew that individuals who are autistic have an aptitude for math and science (and music and other technical fields), where focus and attention to detail are quite important. And they knew after the 1980′s that individuals with those talents can make money. In America, it’s all about the money. But one should keep in mind that the general population draws a very clear distinction, between the fifth grader genius who ran the chess club, and the jock who managed to stick it out through engineering school.

      And so they view us as mystical and interesting, but for all the wrong reasons. In the December 1954 issue of The Bent of Tau Beta Pi, Dr. Charles E. Goshen, a psychiatrist, published an article about “The Engineer Personality.” He concluded that “the ideal solution would be to wait until this type of person acquired the training necessary to be an engineer, then change his personality so that he can use the training.” The short article is a very revealing glimpse of society’s view of “nerds.” I don’t think the attitude is any different today, except that the media suck up to us because of the high pay we sometimes receive.

      For every shark like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, there is a Paul Allen or a Steve Wozniak. Guess which ones get more publicity.

    • Grishnar on January 2, 2017

      I was blissfully unaware of Sheldon until I visited my God children and noticed them giggling, whispering and looking over at me whilst watching a TV show. When I insisted on knowing what the joke was, they introduced me to Sheldon. We watched a few episodes and the youngest one (10 years old) looked me and very quietly said, “…… that’s us” (meaning himself and me). Many weeks later when spending some time with some adolescents that I work with, an episode of TBBT started and they said, “Have you seen this, its you”. When I got back to my office, an open plan nightmare, I asked those around me if they had seen TBBT. At least a dozen instant replies came back in unison from behind PC monitors with, “You’re in it”.
      So, love him or hate him, Sheldon brought some self-awareness and kicked off my current voyage. At 42 I’m not sure where all this is going but it is helping me to answer a few questions and put my life into some kind of context.

    • FragMichNichtWiesMirGeht on January 19, 2017

      I’m not insulted by Dr. Cooper or Jim Parsons’ performance, because I know that Sheldon is different from me. We have one or two familiar traits in common (talking to children I don’t know in public about things we both like, for instance), but that’s it. He can be as wacky as he wants but he’s never going to offend me.

    • Potion.Motion on January 28, 2017

      A fantastic analysis of Autism in pop culture. I particularly liked your critique of The Big Bang Theory and the normalisation of the ill-treatment and passive aggressive bullying of Sheldon by his closest friends. I actually find the show to have a serious undertone of anti-intellectualism and that it is far from the celebration of nerd/geek culture offset by self-depreciating humour that it masquerades itself to be, there are relatively few ‘in jokes’for the ultrageeky and at the end of the day for all its promises is just another piece of sitcom fodder for the mindless masses.

    • Jacobi on February 21, 2021

      Hello quinnprk this is jacobi hoida. I live in Menominee Michigan. i like sea creatures. and trains. I like shooting games. I like cellphones. I like highflyer carnival rides. I like bigcats. and i like fire alarms. I like tornadoes. My favorite color is blue. would you like to be friends.

    • HaydenEllis on December 30, 2021

      Great post!

    • 3americas on January 12, 2022


    • Newhavening92 on March 17, 2022

      Nice article!

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