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It’s easy to forget sometimes, but the media and entertainment industry has come a long way. Even though, in 2016, we still have racist caricatures on mainstream television and a stunning lack of diversity, progress has been made.

One group that has seen their depictions change considerably is that of the autistic population, who have increasingly been portrayed in more nuanced, complete characters. This is especially important when you consider that about 1 in 68 children are autistic. And just as one minority group will cringe at hurtful stereotypes onscreen, these children will find narrow, one-dimensional roles harmful and limiting. After all, to paraphrase filmmaker Rebecca Brand, if one can’t see it, then one can’t be it.  Autistic individuals already have their own struggles; fighting for fair screen time should not be one of them.

With that being said, let’s take a look at how depictions of autistic individuals have changed over the years.

A changing understanding of autism

Does life influence art, or is it the other way around? It’s clear now that popular culture, society, and science influence and cross-pollinate each other, and autism is no different.  

Early origins

Perhaps one of the earliest and most memorable portrayals of autism was that of Lennie, in John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men. While Lennie was never clearly said to be autistic and may have actually suffered from a number of disorders (of which autism was only one), Steinbeck does write him out to be a sympathetic and likable, if tragic character.

What Steinbeck does not do, however, is tell the story from Lennie’s point of view, or even to explain Lennie’s mindset or background at all. This was not so uncommon, however, given the limited scientific understanding of the era, which informed the majority of the portrayals of autistic individuals. In fact, as the documentary Refrigerator Mothers makes clear, throughout the early-mid 20th century, rather than autism being seen as the mysterious mental condition that it was, mothers were blamed for the stunted development of their autistic children, a troubling and emotionally devastating turn of events for already-stressed mothers.

This unfair, totally unfounded perception was based on the works of one man: Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of concentration camps in Europe, and an utterly unqualified and controversial, if charismatic “scientist”. In particular, Bettelheim wrote that cold, unconscious hostility on the part of mothers caused children’s autism. Unfortunately, his teachings shaped the autism world for many years, casting autistic children as malcontents who simply needed a bit of direction and love to get them on the right track.

Autism in the media today

Rain Man: a landmark film

The turning point, as many note, probably came in the form of groundbreaking movie Rain Man, specifically thanks to Dustin Hoffman’s sensitive, nuanced portrayal of an autistic savant. True, Rain Man was not perfect: it established autistic savants as the default type of autism, in the process creating the film trope of the super-powered, high-performing autistic individual. Still, Rain Man has its touching moments, in particular the touching relationship between brothers Raymond and Charlie Babbitt, which gave the autistic a tender, loving side little seen before.

Autism as a superpower

The trend of high-powered autistic individuals as superheroes continues today in many forms.  Most recently, the Ben Affleck thriller The Accountant, which centers around an autistic assassin who uses his powers to derail powerful corporate interests, was derided by critics as an uninteresting, shallow, and worst of all, exploitative film.

Unfortunately, The Accountant is not alone, but simply the latest example in the trend of the perception of the autistic being able to leverage their disability to perform at a higher level. This trend is alive and well today, seen in police procedurals like BBC’s Sherlock, in which the updated Sherlock Holmes outright calls himself a high-functioning sociopath to anti-government thriller Mercury Rising.

Animation and Documentaries

Surprisingly, the two areas which feature some of the best, most sympathetic portrayals of the autistic are polar opposites: animation and documentaries.

Pixar: Inclusion and Neuro-Diversity in Animated Film

But animation is not as strange as it looks at first: perhaps because of its focus on inclusion for all ages and conditions, animation has consistently portrayed autistic individuals in a sympathetic, believable light. From Finding Nemo to Inside Out, Pixar has truly pushed our society’s understanding of autistic people, challenging us to practice empathy and understanding, not to mention putting us in the perspectives of autistic individuals and their loved ones.  

Critically, Pixar does two important things for its autistic characters: first, they often set the action in a fantastical, mythical space (such as an ocean of talking, anthropomorphic fish in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory)–a clever move that allows its creators space to draw real-world parallels. Also, as evidenced by Dory and Riley of Inside Out, Pixar takes the radical step of having its characters capitalize on their own unique strengths, not being held back by their limitations, but thriving in spite of them.

Documentaries

Because they are true to life, documentaries can provide wonderful, in-depth look at autistic individuals. Two notable releases are How to Dance in Ohio, which centers around three autistic teenagers who prepare for their prom, and Autism in Love, which as the name suggests, centers around people on the autistic spectrum seeking out and managing their love lives.

More importantly, both documentaries provide something that has long been denied those who find themselves on the autism spectrum: a voice, and more importantly, agency. In both How to Dance in Ohio and Autism in Love, autistic individuals fall in love, prepare for life-changing events, and struggle with the same things that many non-autistic individuals do: acceptance, belonging, and of course, meaning.

Truly, both the media and the public have come a long way from refrigerator moms who were blamed for causing autism through their “hostile parenting style.” Still, while portrayals have shifted to showing the individual and societal challenges that people on the autism spectrum face, problems remain. The persistent trope of autism as a superpower remains, despite the fact that autistic savants are actually quite rare, and that autism is a life-changing condition.