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Age: 65
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08 Oct 2022, 8:40 am

How Gregory from ‘Abbott Elementary’ Embodies Authentic Autistic Representation to Many Fans by Suzannah Weiss

When people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are represented on-screen, the plotline often either revolves around the diagnosis, or it's portrayed as a defining trait of their character. That's why some Abbott Elementary viewers are especially excited about one character on the show who displays traits of someone who has ASD—a developmental disability caused by brain differences that presents differently for different people—but without the show explicitly saying so much.

As fans on TikTok have pointed out, schoolteacher Gregory Eddie, played by Tyler James Williams, shows certain traits common to people who have ASD, like meticulously planning, making blunt statements that his peers consider socially inappropriate, having a blank expression, having a aversion to certain foods, and standing up against illogical and unjust social conventions. Regardless of whether Gregory actually has ASD (viewers, of course, cannot diagnosis him), it's important that none of these traits are presented in a negative light. Some experts say this is helpful for normalizing the lived experience of people who have autism.

Developing a character with traits common to someone with autism without labeling them as having the disability is known as “autistic coding,” says Corrie Goldberg, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago who works with people with ASD. Autistic coding can be useful because it allows for the character in question to be well-rounded and multidimensional, rather than being defined by their autism. “Autistic-coded characters tend to be represented with a broader range of personality traits, skills, idiosyncrasies, and complexities than characters who are explicitly written as autistic,” she says.

As an autistic person myself, I am hopeful that a broader range of characters in media with traits in line with autism can help all people view ASD with increasingly less stigma.

In addition to Gregory's character not revolving around any potential diagnosis, it's also beneficial for people with autism to see his portrayal as an example of not needing to disclose a disability. “Someone’s neurodivergence or diagnosis of autism is a personal decision of how or if they chose to identify with that lens—a decision that should remain the individual’s and not a descriptor for an observer,” says clinical psychologist Anjali Ferguson, PhD. By using autistic coding rather than explicit labeling, Abbott Elementary is backing up the reality that there's no need for anyone to broadcast any diagnosis should they prefer not to.

Intersectionality is another positive component of the character of Gregory, in that he is both Black and coded with traits common to people with autism, giving a face to two historically under- and misrepresented communities. To the point of misrepresentation, it's key to note that some traits of Gregory’s that could be read as being hallmarks of autism are depicted as strengths. "One thing that is important about Gregory, for me, is that his differences and particularities are not the butts of the joke,” says Alyssa Jean Salter, a neurodiversity and disability specialist who has ASD herself.

Finally, given that adults with ASD are disproportionately unemployed, Abbott Elementary coding Gregory as a person who could have autism who is also accepted in his workplace is helpful for supporting the reality that people who are neurodiverse can be effective workers.

Despite her awareness of these benefits of autistic coding in Abbott Elementary and other media, Dr. Goldberg has mixed feelings about the fact that the word “autism” is never used on the show. “To only label certain portrayals of the autistic experience marginalizes autistic people who do not fit those often stereotyped examples,” she says. “Additionally, showing autistic characters without acknowledging them as autistic can reinforce messages of shame for neurological differences and create pressure for autistic people to ‘mask’ in order to be accepted.” It is possible, after all, for a character to identify as having autism without that diagnosis being central to their role or negative in spirit.

Michelle Hunt, LMHC, a licensed therapist with Empower Your Mind Therapy, agrees that it would be beneficial for the show to describe Gregory as autistic: “Naming it—and showing he can interact with others, hold a job, and form authentic bonds with children—shows that there is an overall misconception of autism in the world.” She adds that it wouldn’t be too late to bring this into the storyline, perhaps by starting a discussion about late diagnosis or masking of autistic symptoms.

Despite these areas for improvement, Abbott Elementary can serve as a good starting point for positive representation of ASD on-screen.

The part I bolded is my opinion on about this. Autism does not have to be central to the character or plot like it is with Extraordinary Woo and As We See It. If there is not a way to label a character autistic without it
seeming forced all it would be take the writer to say character written as autistic.

Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman