How Has Autism Been Portrayed in the Media?

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Autism is an issue that has been brought up in the media recently, and as people become more aware of it, autism-related content is becoming increasingly popular. There are a wide range of opinions on how to portray this disorder creatively without perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

The “good autism representation in media” is a question that has been asked many times. There have been some good representations of autism in the media, but there are also some bad ones.

Even while the movie and television industries and other media sources are doing better at integrating people from various socioeconomic classes and walks of life, most people would agree that the media still needs to work on correctly representing certain categories of people. There are undoubtedly many who think that portrayals of people with autism in the media are erroneous or unfavorable. Some people are happy with how the traits of autism are presented.

Let’s examine the history of autism depiction in the media, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of how characters with autism are depicted. 

The Evolution of Autism in Movies and TV

Numerous films have been produced since the late 1960s that include fictitious characters that exhibit traits and symptoms of autism, but are they accurate? Do they portray people with autism in a certain way? Read the plot summaries of the two prior movies that include individuals with alleged autistic spectrum disorders. 

Run Wild, Run Free is a movie (1969) 

Philip Ransome, a northern English youngster who is roughly 10 years old and has been silent since age 3, is portrayed by Mark Lester (of Oliver fame). He spends his days by himself wandering the moors. His parents are hopeless about a remedy. Philip gradually comes out of his shell. But there are many heartbreaks and disappointments along the road.

Change of Habit is a movie (1969)

Elvis portrays a doctor who manages a clinic in an underprivileged area. Elvis receives help from three nuns in his medical profession. A parent takes their daughter to the clinic for a diagnosis and care. Because the child rocks, doesn’t want to be held, and doesn’t react to noises, autism has been identified in her. After receiving treatment from Elvis, the girl starts to overcome her autism.

Looking over the highlighted passages, you can find parallels to how people with autism were depicted in the media decades ago. The producers claim that people with autism are silent, odd, helpless, reclusive, wild, and that Elvis can heal them! 

You may examine the differences in how people with autism are depicted by taking a look at recent motion pictures. 

Please Stand By, a movie (2017)

A young autistic lady stealthily leaves her caretaker to send her 500-page Star Trek screenplay to a Hollywood writing contest. 

Temple Grandin, the movie (2010)

a biopic of Temple Grandin, a woman with autism who rose to prominence as a leading expert in the field of humane cattle management.

The way people on the spectrum were depicted by the media in the past compared to how they are now is a glaring and evident contrast. The majority of contemporary movies and television programs depict people with autism as highly functioning—many are even savants—with eccentric personalities. 

Why the huge disparity? What negative effects result from the media consistently depicting people with autism in a specific way? 

The Benefits and Drawbacks of the Media’s Representation of People with Autism

Even while it’s very unlikely that the majority of filmmakers, television producers, journalists, and artists intentionally misrepresent or denigrate autistic individuals in their media works, it nevertheless occurs. 

It is said that ignorance is not a defense. 

“Given that much of what society as a whole learns about disorders on the autism spectrum is produced by representations of autism in novels, TV-series, movies, or autobiographies, it will be of vital importance to scrutinize these representations and to check whether or not they are misrepresenting autism,” the author writes in a journal article titled “Stereotypes of autism” (Draaisma, 2009). 

The following, among others, are some unfavorable effects of how people with autism are wrongly portrayed in the media:

Preventing the general public from seeing the full range of features on the spectrum 

Excluding certain demographics from the media 

Maintaining the stereotype of “the genius” or “the mute”

Causing parents or guardians of young children to ignore specific signs because of what they have learned from the media.

Not properly informing the public about the disorder 

Since no one individual possesses every single attribute of autism, no single TV program, movie, news article, or work of art can accurately depict every aspect of autism; nevertheless, they might do better by being more accurate in line with statistics, the DSM-V, and less stereotypical. 

The following are some advantages of appropriately showing people from all backgrounds:

Fostering diversity and acceptance 

Informing people about a range of difficulties 

Enabling many people with autism to identify with fictitious or actual persons 

Showcasing the abilities of people with autism

The percentage of regular characters on broadcast television who have a handicap has climbed by more than 1% in the last year, according to GLAAD, a media advocacy group. Even while it may not seem like much, this is a development. 

Hollywood is still accused for not depicting both sides of the spectrum despite these advancements. Although many representations in popular media aim to raise awareness, others have reinforced untrue prejudices. The most typical case of a “autistic savant” is a person with autism who has outstanding talent or genius in a certain niche. The most well-known of them is “Rain Man,” a 1988 MGM picture. A similar concept has been used in more modern TV programs including “The Good Doctor” on NBC and “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS. Although depicting a character with ASD and savant talents is not wrong, it only accurately portrays roughly 10% of people with autism,” (Study autism.) 

What can we do going ahead to enhance how people with autism are portrayed in the media? 

To promote an accurate portrayal of people with autism, the general public can educate themselves, speak up for marginalized or underrepresented social groups, take media stereotypes with a grain of salt, rely on research and science rather than opinions, fact-check, and use social media and other creative outlets. 

There will always be detractors, but the media can play a role by doing its share to correctly and favorably represent all sorts of persons on the spectrum. 

Taylor Wilson

Northeastern State University offers the Master of Education degree.

Disorders of Behavior and Learning | Georgia State University

June 2020

More Interesting Articles

The “pros and cons of character portrayals of autism on tv and film” is a topic that has been discussed for years. There are many different opinions about how autism should be portrayed in the media, but there are some positives as well.

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