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There's no such thing as 'looking autistic' in film, TV

Vicky Hristova
Published March 30, 2023last updated April 2, 2024

More autistic characters are starting to be featured on-screen. But stereotypes about people on the autism spectrum seem to persist across TV and film.

3d Rendering Gehirn Modell Neonfarben
Autism is a spectrum condition and affects people in a variety of waysImage: Roman Budnikov/Zoonar/picture alliance

Our image of what it's like to be autistic is mostly shaped by popular media, according to Cian O'Clery, director and co-creator of "Love on the Spectrum", an Australian reality TV series about what dating can look like for adults with autism.

"People might have seen Rain Man and they might think everybody on the spectrum can count cards, or people might have seen The Big Bang Theory and think that everyone on the [autism] spectrum is like Sheldon," says Cian to DW. 

Autistic people are not all the same

There are many different signs of autism, and people don’t necessarily experience them the same. For some, social communication can be overwhelming and challenging, while others have difficulties with learning or have hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli.

"There's still this misconception that autism has 'a look' to it. I've had a consultant at a hospital telling me that I didn't look autistic. What were they hoping to see?," says Emily, a UK-based illustrator and the host behind the 21andsensory podcast. Emily was diagnosed with autism in 2019.

The definition for autism has been ever-changing since it was first described eighty years ago. In fact, even current international diagnostic criteria for autism could be excluding some people on the spectrum. At the very least, they introduce ambiguity in what it means to be autistic.

The autistic 'superhuman' idea is dated and inaccurate

Dustin Hoffman's character in "Rain Man" can memorize numbers in a telephone book in a matter of seconds, calculate complex equations and easily win at blackjack by counting cards.

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

RAIN MAN Filmstill 1988
The 1988 film "Rain Man" was one of the first on-screen depictions of autismImage: Ronald Grant/IMAGO

"A big misconception is that we're intellectually superior. There is this expectation that I'd be good with numbers, when I'm actually dyslexic and have dyscalculia and I am terrible at math," says Emily. 

Research shows that around 10% of autistic people exhibit exceptional cognitive abilities, with some studies reducing this number to less than 1%.

So why does the Hollywood cliche of the "autistic savant" still persist?

According to Dr. Theodoto Ressa, an assistant professor of special education at Wayne State University, people on the spectrum are rarely the intended audience for popular shows and films featuring autistic characters.

"For the media to capture the interest of the neurotypical viewers, it must make some of the films palatable to them. There is now this overemphasis on savants and a focus on 'superhuman qualities'. That's where the danger comes in," says Theodoto to DW.

A study of 23 Hollywood films showed that autistic characters on-screen are often used as an entertainment tool with little consideration for accurately depicting people on the spectrum.

"Being realistic and being holistic in the representation is so critical — it avoids perpetuating one notion about people with autism," says Theodoto.

Autistic experiences are best told by autistic people

The best way to accurately portray lived autistic experiences is by casting autistic actors, says Emily.

"The number of casting calls that overlook autistic people is frustrating. Actually, autistic people are more qualified to play the role, because we've been masking our entire lives. Essentially, acting is putting on a mask, and that's something we do every day. I think we should be paid for it," she says.

‘Masking’ is a strategy that autistic adults use to "fit in" and cope in social situations with non-autistic people. Spending more time masking can have a detrimental effect on mental health, including an increase in anxiety and depression.

"Love on the Spectrum" director Cian O'Clery believes that people on the spectrum should be able to tell their own stories on screen. "When it comes to fiction, people are writing a character. With our show we say 'here's this person and here's their story, that's who they are'".

Netflix Still "Love On The Spectrum"
In "Love on the Spectrum" autistic people explore dating and romantic relationshipsImage: Courtesy of Netflix

"Love on the Spectrum" has also faced criticism. Some autistic viewers have found the show to infantilize autistic people and force neurotypical social norms for dating to 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 Cian.

New series break the mold

More than thirty years after the release of "Rain Man", portrayals of autism on-screen do seem to be getting more diverse.

"I think representation is getting better. I've really enjoyed watching Heartbreak High with Chloé Hayden. I love Chloé's energy and her portrayal of Quinni, she's kind of high on life and I love it. It's very nice to see someone who's female and autistic," says Emily.

"Heartbreak High" is the Netflix reboot of an Australian comedy drama series featuring Chloé Hayden, an autistic actress starring as queer, autistic teenager Quinni.

On screen, Quinni reveals some of the everyday sensory struggles of people on the spectrum. The teenager self-soothes through stimming, struggles with noise overstimulation, masks her autistic traits to avoid being judged, and heavily relies on planning and visual schedules.

Netflix Still "Heartbreak High"
Quinni, the main character of "Heartbreak High", is autisticImage: Lisa Tomasetti/Netflix

"Heartbreak High" steers away from the male, heterosexual representation of autism, which has so far dominated TV and film. People on the spectrum are now known to be more likely to identify as LGBTQ.

"It's nice to just see different people from different walks of life talking about being autistic. I think women and non-binary people are potentially just really good at masking and go under the radar," says Emily.

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

We can do even better

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

Accurate representation would not only benefit an autistic audience to feel included, but also help people understand the challenges people with autism often face.

"It would be good for people to be able to put themselves in autistic people's shoes and realize how overwhelming even a place like a classroom could be," says Emily.

Edited by: Fred Schwaller