Autism spectrum disorder is a nuanced and complex condition, so it makes sense that the pop-culture portrayals of characters on the spectrum are as well. With rates of ASD increasing, according to the Centers for Disease Control, it's more important than ever that there are accurate depictions of the condition that go beyond Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man.
And while a recent report from Otsimo — a game-based special education learning app — found that more than half of Americans want society to do more to accommodate people with ASD, only 29 percent would feel comfortable during an appointment with a skilled professional diagnosed on the spectrum. In other words: There is a major gap between ASD awareness and ASD acceptance in the U.S.
While we can't depend on accurate TV portrayals of people living with ASD to educate the general public on the condition, they absolutely can help. The key is making sure the characters with ASD are as nuanced as the condition itself.
"Although we’ve seen more representation of the autistic community in TV shows and movies, such as Max Braverman from NBC’s Parenthood and Shaun Murphy from ABC’s The Good Doctor, Hollywood still hasn’t gotten it quite right," Otsimo CEO and cofounder Hasan Zafer Elcik tells SheKnows. "The entertainment industry is in the business of entertaining, and as such, these characters can be dramatized and even glamorized. It’s no surprise that only 31 percent of Americans think these depictions accurately represent daily life of people with autism. Autism is a spectrum disorder, and therefore, it can be challenging to really paint an exact picture of what daily life is like — it varies from person to person."
According to Elcik, characters with ASD are often stereotyped as awkward and antisocial: Some even have a technical niche like math or computer science. But he's quick to point out that these stereotypes were not born in the entertainment industry but instead out of real-world misconceptions. "People think that they are unable to express emotions, don’t understand others’ emotions or are unintellectual, none of which are true," he adds.
So why does this matter? In short, the more we're exposed to other people — whether real or fictional — who are different than we are, the more we'll know about, and ideally, understand, where they're coming from.
Here are a few examples of TV characters with ASD.