As a media junkie myself, seeing the proper representation of minority groups is extremely important to me, and we have gotten so much better in recent years with movies like Coco and The Black Panther coming out this past year.
While we are making so much amazing progress recently, there are still a few minority groups that are still trying to get their foot in the door with representation, and autistics are one of them.
The most well-known autistic character in the media is Ray Babbitt, Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, and like I said in the previous “Autistic Feminist” episode, if the first thing someone mentions to you is Rain Man, dump their ass because they’re not worth your time.
But in all seriousness, Ray Babbitt is also a savant, and since he’s the first character that comes to mind whenever people think of autistic characters in the media, it does give others a pretty skewed perception of the autism spectrum.
In recent years, we have been getting more characters that are canonically on the autism spectrum, but most of them are within the same box of diagnostic criteria that people tend to expect when they think about the autism spectrum.
The first recent example I can think of is Sam Gardner, the protagonist of the Netflix series, Atypical. He’s an 18-year-old boy with a fixed interest and struggles to learn about the social nuances of dating.
Another character that fits this criterion very well is Dr Shaun Murphy, the protagonist of the ABC series, The Good Doctor. He is a surgical resident, and like Ray Babbitt, he also has savant syndrome, but his abilities include a photographic memory and the ability to note small details and changes.
Both of these portrayals fit the textbook definition of autism perfectly, but in a way, they miss the mark on the reality of autism for a lot of people. Most people would think “that sounds awesome! More people will have a better understanding of how autism works in those who are on the spectrum!” Well, yes and no. Now, obviously, both of these shows were made with an older audience in mind that knows better, but what about the portrayals in children’s media?
The representation of autism and other marginalized groups plays a bigger role in children’s media than any other target audience because children are still at the stage in their lives where they are still learning about the world around them, and many of them don’t have the best understanding of autism, which leaves them confused whenever they meet a child to acts or does things differently from them.
In late summer/early fall of 2015, an episode of Girl Meets World aired on Disney Channel discussing the topic of autism and is revealed at the end of the episode that Isadora Smackle, the rival-turned-love interest of Farkle Minkus, was diagnosed with autism at age five.
While this does play a big part in the inclusion of autistic characters in tween and younger teen media, especially since that tends to be the age where girls are obsessed with fitting in, there’s still a little bit that’s missing.
In the show, Smackle shows lots of similarities to Sam Gardner and Dr Murphy, that is she also fits into the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorders. She doesn’t like physical affection, struggles with emotions and empathy, and is obsessed with science.
While this can give the show’s target audience a better understanding as to why that kid in their class doesn’t like being hugged or why they’re obsessed with that one specific thing, this is only scraping the surface of understanding what autism actually is.
For instance, I was diagnosed when I was still in middle school, and at the time, most people did not believe me when I would talk about being autistic because I have high empathy, thrive off of physical contact, and I’m much more interested in things like theatre, music, dance, cosplay, and activism than I am with math or science.
The thing is that when people think about autistic characters, they tend to envision someone like the aforementioned four characters, and I do understand that since there aren’t that many autistic characters portrayed in the mainstream media, so many people tend to think these characters are an accurate representation of all of us.
While I am extremely happy to see that there are more autistic characters, especially autistic women since they are so underdiagnosed that seeing any representation of them in the mainstream media is nearly impossible, I still would love to see more diversity in how these characters are portrayed. While it is common for many autistics to not be too fond of physical affection, many other autistics love it, and while many autistics do have a special interest in a STEM field, many other autistics have a special interest in fashion, the arts like theatre or music, or the humanities like literature or history.
I know I would love to one day see an autistic character in the mainstream media who loves physical contact, spends a lot of her time engaged in literature or theatre, loves to get lost into deep, emotional conversations with others, and is super adept with sarcasm.
I am super happy that there are more autistic characters being portrayed on the small screen, but I am also somewhat disappointed that it’s always the same traits over and over again. The best autistic characters would not be a set of diagnostic criteria, they would be as diverse and different as the real-life autistic community is.
What also makes me disappointed is the lack of representation of nonverbal autistics in the mainstream media. While looking through the representations of autism in the mainstream media I was able to find, I couldn’t find any that was nonverbal.
Approximately 33% of people diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder are nonverbal. That’s higher than the percentage of people diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder that are women, which is approximately 20%. However, we are still getting more representations of women on the autism spectrum than nonverbal autistics.
While 33% is still less than half of the people diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, nonverbal autistics still make up a third of the current autistic community, and the lack of representation can lead to a lot of assumptions not only about nonverbal autistics but the autism community in general.
Even autistics of colour and LGBTQ+ autistics are not getting as much representation as their white cisgendered counterparts. Not only women have a harder time being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder than men, but people of colour also have a harder time being diagnosed as well, so proper representation can show others that they do exist.
The LGBTQ+ community can also benefit from a character who is both queer and autistic since many people tend to believe that the autistics in the LGBTQ+ community don’t know what they’re talking about or are going through a phase.
I will say that we are making progress, with Sesame Street introducing Julia in an ebook three years ago and then on the show last year. She has limited speech and loves art, and is implied in the clip that yes, each autistic experiences autism differently. And knowing how Sesame Street is not one to shy away from more serious topics that children need to be taught about early on, this is a great start.
Power Rangers has also made a few strides when portraying Billy Cranston as an autistic of colour in the 2017 movie. And knowing that autistics of colour will more likely be shoved under the rug than their white counterparts, this is also a massive stride.
Writers tend to rely on a checklist of certain “autistic traits” when it comes to writing these types of characters rather than seeking out updated information or diversity, which would explain why it’s so hard to believe that I love makeup and social media and am also autistic.
There’s an old saying that goes “if you met one autistic person, you met one autistic person,” and most people tend to throw that out the window. I hope that one day the mainstream media would keep the pace.