There is no such thing as ‘looking autistic’ in movies and TV

Our image of what it’s like to be autistic is often shaped by popular media, according to Sian O’Clary, director and co-creator of “Love on the Spectrum,” an Australian reality TV series about what dating looks like for adults. Autism. “People may have seen Rain Man and they may think that everyone on the spectrum can count cards, or people may have seen The Big Bang Theory and think that everyone [autism] Spectrum is like Sheldon,” Cian tells DW.

Autism is a spectrum condition and affects people in different ways.  (Roman Budnikov/Junar/Picture Alliance)
Autism is a spectrum condition and affects people in different ways. (Roman Budnikov/Junar/Picture Alliance)

Not all autistic people are the same

Autism has many different signs and symptoms, and people do not experience them in the same way. For some, social communication can be overwhelming and challenging, while others have learning difficulties or hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli.

“There’s still a misconception that autism has a ‘look’. I was told by a consultant at a hospital that I didn’t look autistic. What did they expect to see?,” says Emily, who lives in the UK. Illustrator and host behind the 21andsensory podcast. Emily was diagnosed with autism in 2019.

The definition of autism has changed since it was first described 80 years ago. In fact, even the current international diagnostic criteria for autism may leave some individuals on the spectrum. At the very least, they introduce ambiguity into what it means to be autistic.

(Also read | World Autism Day: Stitching, painting: Children with special needs unleash their artistic side)

The autistic ‘superhuman’ idea is dated and wrong

Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Rain Man” can memorize numbers in a telephone book in seconds, calculate complex equations and easily win at blackjack by counting cards.

Like Rain Man, autistic characters in popular media often fall victim to being portrayed as “savants”—people with extreme intellectual abilities and special talents.

Emily says, “It’s a big misconception that we’re intellectually superior. I’m actually dyslexic and have dyscalculia and I’m terrible at maths so there’s an expectation that I’m good at numbers.”

While research shows that approximately 10% of autistic individuals exhibit exceptional cognitive abilities, some studies have reduced this number to less than 1%.

So why does the Hollywood cliché of the “autistic savant” still persist?

Assistant Professor of Special Education at Wayne State University. According to Theodoto Ressa, people on the spectrum are rarely the target audience for popular shows and movies featuring autistic characters.

“In order for the media to capture the interest of the neurotypical audience, they have to make certain movies palatable to them. There is now a lot of this focus on truth and ‘superhuman qualities.’ That’s where the danger comes in,” says Theodoto. To DW.

A study of 23 Hollywood movies showed that on-screen autistic characters are often used as entertainment tools with little thought given to accurately portraying people on the spectrum.

“It’s very important to be realistic and holistic in representation—it avoids perpetuating one stereotype about people with autism,” says Theodoto.

Autistic experiences are best told by autistic people

The best way to accurately portray real autistic experiences is to cast autistic actors, says Emily.

“The number of casting calls that ignore autistic people is depressing. In fact, autistic people are more qualified to play roles, because we’ve been masking our whole lives. Essentially, acting is wearing a mask, and it’s something we do every day. I I think we have to pay for it,” she says.

‘Masking’ is a strategy that autistic adults use to “fit in” with non-autistic people and cope in social situations. Spending too much time masking can have detrimental effects on mental health, including increases in anxiety and depression.

“Love on the Spectrum” director Sean O’Clary believes that people on the spectrum should be able to tell their own stories on screen. “When it comes to fiction, people write a character. In our show we say ‘here’s this person and here’s their story, who they are'”.

‘Love on the Spectrum’ has also faced criticism. Some autistic viewers have found the show to enforce neurotypical social norms for autistic people having children and dating people on the spectrum.

“The most important thing is that the people we cast are happy with their stories. For me, it’s the people themselves, the participants, who are the most important critics of the show,” says Sian.

Break the new series mold

More than thirty years after the release of “Rain Man,” depictions of autism on screen seem to be becoming more diverse.

“I think the representation is getting better. I really enjoyed watching Heartbreak High with Chloe Hayden. I love Chloe’s energy and her portrayal of Queenie, she’s high on life and I love that. It’s great to see a woman and someone. Autistic,” says Emily.

“Heartbreak High” is a Netflix reboot of the Australian comedy drama series starring Chloe Haden, an autistic actress as queer, autistic teenager Queenie.

On screen, Quinney reveals the everyday sensory struggles of people on the spectrum. Adolescent self-soothes with agitation, struggles with vocal overstimulation, masks her autistic traits to avoid being judged, and relies heavily on planning and visual scheduling.

“Heartbreak High” steers clear of the male, heterosexual representation of autism that has so far dominated TV and film. People on the spectrum are now more likely to identify as LGBTQ+.

“It’s nice to see different people from different walks of life talking about being autistic. I think women and non-binary people are probably really good at putting on a mask and going under the radar,” says Emily.

“Heartbreak High” also challenges the stereotype that people with autism have low emotional intelligence – Queenie is empathetic and emotionally self-aware. Science backs up the character, with one study showing that adults with autism are just as able to interpret the emotions of others during social interactions as accurately as non-autistic individuals.

We can do better

Better representation of autistic people on screen means more content made by and for people with autism. For Emily, that means more shows with autistic actors portraying characters on the spectrum aimed at younger audiences.

Accurate representation not only helps autistic audiences feel included, but also helps them understand the challenges that people with autism often face.

“It’s great for people to be able to put themselves in the shoes of an autistic person and realize how overwhelming even a simple space like a classroom can be,” says Emily.

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