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Understanding Media Portrayals of Autism Spectrum Disorder

by Ripal Sheth

It is undeniable that media portrayal of minorities directly correlates with public perception of these groups. Every TV show, news article, and advertisement perpetuates or contradicts popular stereotypes. As mainstream media has experienced greater overall diversity, autism representation has also increased, and with that, autism representation has increased. Although this media diversification has had an overall positive impact, the media has failed to holistically and accurately represent the autism spectrum. When it comes to autism representation, mainstream media has a very niche view. Males and savants are often overrepresented in media portrayals of autism, and these recycled portrayals often perpetuate common misconceptions of autism. 

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is classified as a developmental disorder that affects behavior and communication. It is classified as a spectrum disorder because there is a wide range of people included in those affected by autism. However, generally ASD manifests with difficulty communicating, restricted and repetitive behavior, and other social difficulties. There are three major divisions when it comes to ASD: autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS). Autistic disorder includes people with more severe communication difficulties, language delays, and often times intellectual disability. Asperger syndrome is a milder version of autistic disorder without language or intellectual disability, but has social challenges and unusual interests and behavior. PDD-NOS includes people who exhibit some symptoms of both autistic disorder and Asperger syndrome.  

Three of the most popular representations of autism in the media include movies such as Rain Man and TV shows such as Big Bang Theory and The Good Doctor (the Big Bang Theory has not confirmed its representation of autism)Every performance does have nuances that make their portrayal of autism spectrum unique, but there are some recycled depictions. One common theme throughout these movies and TV shows is the repeated portrayal of males with savant syndrome. Rain Man portrays a man with autism having extraordinary ability in card counting, The Good Doctor represents a medical resident with incredible memory and skill, and Big Bang Theory represents a man with symptoms of Asperger’s with remarkable  

This portrayal of autism has success in some ways at dispelling common misconceptions and myths about people who have ASD. These portrayals directly contradict the misconception that people with ASD cannot function on their own or cannot be successful in life. However, these portrayals commonly only show one perspective of life with ASD. Not every person with autism is a male and not every person with autism falls on the savant part of the spectrum.  

Mainstream media has a tendency to focus on a single part of the autism spectrum: savants. Despite the fact that only about 10 percent of ASD individuals have cognitive autism, the media grossly over represents this population as a representation of the entire spectrum (Vital et al., 2009). Perhaps this is the method by which media is able to make autism more “accessible” or more “relatable” to the general public. Regardless of the reasons why media chooses to focus on this particular subset of autism, the effects are certainly debilitating. Not only does this create an unrealistic portrayal of autism, it also implies that people with more severe forms of autism are undeserving of mainstream media representation and are not considered “normal”. The media needs to do a better job of capturing a holistic portrayal of autism so that all ranges of the spectrum are included. 

Similarly, almost every representation of people with autism is played by a male character. This perpetuates the common misconception that the female population is not affected by autism. The impact of this actually results in females being diagnosed with autism much later in life or a gross misdiagnosis of symptoms of autism. Part of the reason why females are diagnosed later in life is that many women feel as though they should be masking their symptoms. This is a direct result of the way that women are socialized and the lack of support women with autism receive. Mainstream media needs to do a better job of making sure that females with autism receive the representation that they deserve. 

Media portrayal has and always been directly linked to public mindset and perception. In regards to the autism spectrum, the gradual increase in representation of people with autism has allowed for greater recognition of the community. But recognition and baseline understanding are not enough. Mainstream media has unfortunately also perpetuated common misconceptions about ASD. Two of the most impactful myths that have been perpetuated are that women with autism do not exist and that every person with autism is a savant. This is simply untrue. ASD is a spectrum that encompasses a wide range of individuals. Mainstream media needs to do better at accurately representing the entire autism spectrum and not just certain niche populations. So, what can we do? The first step is to increase education on ASD and increase awareness of the limited perception the media displays. The next step is to call mainstream media out and make them understand that the entire spectrum needs representation. Change can start with you for better autism representation in the media.