Google “autism on television.” You’ll likely find article upon article scrutinizing specific shows and characters that represent (or are thought to represent) people with Autism. But if you look deeper at those representations, you’ll often find that only one form of Autism is being represented: Asperger’s Syndrome. Additionally, these characters frequently demonstrate genius, or savantism, in some area, whether in astrophysics or mathematics (a la Rain Man).
Even though the majority of people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) do not fall within the definition for Asperger’s, it’s no surprise that TV producers regularly depict higher-functioning people to the exclusion of lower-functioning, perhaps non-verbal, people with Autism. People with Asperger’s have average to above-average intelligence and regular language development. Clearly, they are more relatable to mass audiences than a character who is nonverbal or who communicates through an iPad.
So we might, to a small extent, forgive or at least overlook TV for presenting only one side of the Autism Spectrum. However, is it accurate or fair to portray all these characters as savants? Research suggests that the chance of being on the Spectrum and being a savant is actually pretty rare. But to look at mass media portrayals of Autism, one might think that all people with an Autism diagnosis are also savants in one area or another.
Dr. Stephen M. Edelson aptly sums it up:
The movie Rain Man exposed millions of people to autism as well as the autistic savant phenomenon. (Unfortunately, some people now have the impression that all autistic individuals have these abilities.)
- Why do all these characters have to have at least one amazing, superhero-like ability?
- Are we still that uncomfortable with depictions of more severely disabled people?
- Is the underlying message that these special skills are what make people with Autism worthy or redeemable in our society?
- Is this yet another case of mass culture fetishizing/exoticizing a group of people with unique, somewhat misunderstood, traits?