Media Stereotypes of Autism podcast

Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson (Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences), along with colleagues at the University of Oslo, has recently published an article in Psychiatry Research dissecting portrayals of autism on film and TV.  They found that representations of autism on screen tend to portray characters that perfectly align with the diagnostic criteria, making portrayals of autism stereotypical, but not true to life. It’s possible that this is contributing to the narrow stereotypes that are generally held by neurotypicals about autism.  In turn, this impacts on the day-to-day experiences of people on the autism spectrum, like me.

So, the research found that autism on screen may reinforce stereotypes. Fictional portrayals of autistic people – such as The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper – are not fully representative of those with the condition, and that can cause those with autism some problems. The team from the Universities of Edinburgh and Oslo analysed Sheldon’s character along with a further 25 fictional personalities from TV and film, such as the movies “Adam” or “Mozart and the Whale” as well as characters such as Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory”, who the public generally believes to be on the spectrum.. They judged each character against the standard criteria that doctors use to diagnose autism, known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-5; they found that most of the characters displayed at least nine of the 12 defining characteristics of the condition. Yet in reality, this high level of alignment with the diagnostic criteria is rare.

The study published in the journal Psychiatry Research looked at on-screen representations of characters with a stated autism diagnosis

About half of those analysed are portrayed as being a genius or having some other exceptional skill – such as Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1988 film Rain Man. In reality, the researchers say, fewer than one in three people with autism will have such a skill.  Seeing characters with autism can help increase public awareness, those behind the study noted, but the narrow portrayals may reinforce stereotypes.  From my experience, I think it’s likely.

Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson, of the University of Edinburgh’s Patrick Wild Centre, said: “To deepen public understanding of autism spectrum disorders, we need more autistic characters on our screens. These characters should reflect the diversity we see in real life, rather than being artificially built from a textbook diagnosis of someone with autism.”

A few weeks ago, ABC premiered a new drama called The Good Doctor, about a young surgical resident with high-functioning autism. Dr Shaun Murphy has a traumatic past and many challenges to overcome, but a clear talent for his chosen profession.

He’s also a genius. It says so right there in the promotional trailer for the series. In the first episode, audiences can see the visual representation of his brain working overtime as he taps into a bank of memorised facts and manipulates anatomical diagrams in his head, all before synthesising that information in superheroic fashion during medical crises.

This is not a show I want to watch. I’m tired of what the entertainment business thinks autism looks like—it’s a perception that’s far removed from reality.

The well-known pop culture motif of the “autistic savant” likely started with the release of the film Rain Man in 1988. While savant syndrome is real, it’s actually quite rare—only 10 percent of people with autism are estimated to have savant abilities. But the stereotype has hung around stubbornly since then, appearing in film and television to spread the misconception that autism—despite its varying degrees of impairment—is something that can also bear desirable or even enviable gifts.

That message is damaging in more ways than one. It’s insulting to the large percentage of people on the spectrum without savant abilities, because it implies their stories aren’t as valuable or worth telling. It also promotes the falsehood that an autism diagnosis nearly always comes pre-packaged with extreme giftedness.

With more characters with autism appearing in film and on television, a new study is questioning whether such representations are good or bad for people with the developmental disorder.

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