The Importance of Being Aspie: Autism-as-Asperger's on TV

Curator's Note

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?


I'm intrigued by your description of characters with Asperger's as being superhero-like, and I think you are right that disability (in general) may be framed through extra-ordinary skills and gifts (see also a range of potentially mentally/physically disabled folks, from Dr. House to the cop on The Bridge to that new show on ABC with the bipolar red-haired doctor). What about the broader anxiety about folks with (a) crap personalities, and (b) poor social skills. It seems like naming a possible disease explains away the discomfort generated by these characters engaging with others. Are illnesses a way to reinforce normative standards? To modulate social anxiety? To reinscribe the very expectations that these characters fail to live up to?

YES Karen, you've hit on yet another annoyance I have with the ubiquity of the Asperger's label. It's become TOO convenient; a shorthand, if you will. Writers say a character has Asperger's and it suddenly makes it OK for them to be rude/inconsiderate--even though people with ASD work hard to learn social cues and to be considerate! The most extreme example I can think of is the character "Sugar" on GLEE. In her first appearance on the show, she said insulting things to fellow glee club members, then explained away her behavior with "I'm self-diagnosed Asperger's." As most folks are aware, the APA actually did away with Asperger's as a separate diagnosis. This leaves me wondering whether TV will cling to the label, or whether they will learn some new tricks.

I agree that many depictions of people with Asperger's (or Autism Spectrum Disorder since the label technically no longer exists) rely too much on a savant-like ability to define a character. As stated, this ability bestows value on the individual that is otherwise assumed to be lacking. The harmful effect of this media trope is that people too often incorrectly attach a label of savant in the real world, assuming that an entirely normal ability--like simply being reasonably good at math--must be a savant-like trait.

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