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What Some Popular Movies and TV Shows get Wrong About Autism

By Pam Dewey • autism in media, autism portrayals, autism on TV, autism in movies, TV characters with autism, autistic TV characters, autistic movie characters, autism in film, autism stereotypes, depicting autism on TV, TV shows with characters with ASD, TV shows with characters with autism, negative portrayals of autism • March 23, 2023

More people are now aware of autism. That means more parents recognize signs of autism, and more teachers and healthcare providers know how to support people with autism. It also means more businesses and organizations are working to become sensory-friendly to support people on the autism spectrum.

As autism awareness has increased, so have actor depictions of people with autism in TV and film. While many of these are well done and thoughtful, others portray stereotypes of autism with harmful “treatment” practices and one-dimensional characters. 

Here are 4 movies and TV shows that get much about the autism experience wrong.

“Rain Man”

In this critically acclaimed film, Dustin Hoffman plays Tom Cruise’s long-lost brother with autism. Hoffman has been institutionalized most of his life. He is also a savant with a fantastic memory, gifted at math and can quickly count things. The character is also depicted as mostly lacking emotion and being very set in his routines. Cruise hatches a plan to take his brother to Vegas and help him count cards.

Before this movie, most people had never heard of autism or had no idea what it was. “Rain Man” was a very successful movie, and it brought autism to the mainstream, which increased awareness. While some portrayals of autism seem based solely on stereotypes, this movie was based on a real person with autism.

Outtake magazine quotes journalist Jay McCarthy, “Hoffman estimates 90% of his dialogue came from Princeton football star Kevin Guthrie and his autistic brother Peter, from whom he drew many of Raymond’s mannerisms.” Outtake also states, “The crew also enlisted the help of psychiatrist Dr. Darold Treffet, an expert on autism and savant syndrome.” In addition to drawing on an autistic person’s experience, they consulted with an expert in the field for this movie.  

The downside was that because the movie was so popular, many people believed that all autistic people had savant-like abilities or were without emotion. However, being a savant is very rare. According to the SSM Health Treffert Center, “Savant syndrome is a rare condition in which persons with various developmental disorders, including autistic disorder, have an amazing ability and talent.” While people with autism are likelier than neurotypicals to have savant abilities, it’s still a small part of the population. The SSM Health Treffert Center states, “Approximately one in 10 persons with autistic disorder has some savant skills.”

Today, we understand there is a wide spectrum, and if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. We also know that people with autism don’t lack empathy. According to the National Autistic Society, “Simply put, the theory of the double empathy problem suggests that when people with very different experiences of the world interact with one another, they will struggle to empathize with each other.” So it may be less that people with autism lack empathy or can’t understand social cues, and more to do with them struggling to understand the way neurotypical people communicate.”

“The Big Bang Theory”

“The Big Bang Theory” is a popular TV show about two roommates who live across the hall from a beautiful woman. The roommates and their friends are nerdy scientists who are socially awkward. Their beautiful neighbor tries to teach them about social conventions. 

The show’s depiction of scientists is stereotypical — nerdy gamers who enjoy Dungeons and Dragons and have no idea how to talk to women. Three of these main characters are sympathetic and likable, but the fourth, Sheldon, is much less so, and he appears to be autistic. His character is depicted as a stereotype of autism: self-absorbed, uncaring and rigid. However, the show may have something in its favor.

On, “The Big Bang Theory” actress Mayim Bialik says, “All of our characters are in theory on the neuropsychiatric spectrum, I would say. Sheldon often gets talked about in terms of Asperger's or OCD. He has a thing with germs, he has a thing with numbers, he's got a lot of that precision that we see in OCD. There's a lot of interesting features to all of our characters that make them technically unconventional socially. I think what's interesting and kind of sweet and what should not be lost on people is we don't pathologize our characters. We don't talk about medicating them or even really changing them.” Bialik doesn’t clarify whether Sheldon is or isn’t austistic. What she highlights is his behavior — though it might be a stereotype — is accepted without attempts to change it.  

“The Good Doctor”

“The Good Doctor is a TV show about Dr. Shaun Murphy, who is recruited to become a surgeon at a prestigious hospital. Shaun is depicted as autistic and a savant with a photographic memory, who can intuit what’s wrong with his patients.

Again, it portrays the stereotype of an autistic man being a savant, even though only about 10% of people with autism are savants. It’s also not likely that a savant would be a doctor; a savant would be much more likely to be an artist or a composer., writer and autistic Jay Tee Rattray states, “[A] medical savant is not a thing, that’s not how savant syndrome works. Savant skills are usually found in one or more of five major areas: art, memory, musical abilities, arithmetic or spatial skills.” SSM Health Treffert Center also names “musical talent, artistic talent, calendar calculating” and other skills like “multilingual acquisition ability and outstanding knowledge in specific fields such as neurophysiology, statistics, history or navigation.” So, while the spectrum is wide, the show has chosen to focus on the tiniest possible microcosm of what could (possibly) be the autistic experience. 

Another problem with the show is Shaun’s depiction as “special.” Writer and autistic Jay Tee Rattray states, “The whole trailer emphasizes how special, how extraordinary Shaun is and that these extraordinary abilities are the reason Shaun should be given a chance to practice medicine. It’s the supercrip trope, a disabled person must be extraordinary to be treated like a non-disabled person. At no point does anyone suggest that Shaun actually be treated well because he’s a person, it’s all because he’s special.” In other words, Shaun only has value because he has these incredible, savant skills, but if he were just a doctor with autism, he wouldn’t be near as “valuable.” It also pushes the idea that a person’s value is only tied to their ability to make money. 

“MUSIC” (the movie)

MUSIC is the musician SIA’s directorial debut feature-length movie. The movie depicts a young woman, Music, who is autistic and is placed in the care of her half-sister, Kazu "Zu" Gamble, after her grandmother’s death. For many, the casting of Music was the beginning of the problem. Instead of casting an autistic actor, Sia cast a neurotypical actor. On, autistic writer Matthew Rozsa states, “For one thing, as I've explained in other articles, it is problematic for a neurotypical (non-autistic) actor to be cast as someone on the spectrum, both because there are plenty of autistic actors who could be cast in those roles and because those performances can easily slip into a kind of ableist minstrelsy. Such is unfortunately the case with Ziegler, who juts out her jaw, makes bug-eyes, emits guttural sounds and wildly mugs for the camera.”

Music’s character also seems to be more of a plot prop, rather than a full-fledged character. Rozsa writes, “Music has no character arc to speak of and, aside from some pretentious interpretive song-and-dance numbers meant to put us ‘in her mind,’ we never get a sense of her personality or perspective. She is opaque from start to finish.” 

Music also depicts the use of restraints on people with autism. In a press release, three nonprofit groups that support people with autism — CommunicationFIRST, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint — denounced this portrayal of using restraints.

In the release, Tauna Szymanski, Executive Director of CommunicationFIRST states, “MUSIC’s restraint scenes will undoubtedly cause harm to autistic people. Because many autistic people have experienced restraint, some will be traumatized by watching the film. The movie also irresponsibly suggests that people experiencing meltdowns should be restrained, which could not be further from the truth.” Using restraints, like tying a person’s hands, or restraining them, like pinning them to the floor, is dangerous and potentially fatal.

The good news is that, as accurate information about autism spreads, there is a growing body of positive portrayals of autism. Here are a few:

  • “Loop” – Two kids at canoe camp find themselves adrift on a lake, unable to move forward until they find a new way to connect and see the world through each other’s eyes. This film breaks new ground by featuring Pixar’s first character with autism, who is a nonvocal communicator. The character is voiced by an actress with autism who is nonvocal.
  • “Everything's Gonna Be Okay” –  After their father’s untimely death, Nicholas and his two half-sisters must cope with a devastating loss and the realization Nicholas will have to rise to the occasion and hold it all together. One of the half-sisters, Matilda, is played by Kayla Cromer, an actress on the autism spectrum, which is a disability she shares with the character she portrays on the TV show.
  • “Life, Animated” – This is a documentary about Owen Suskind’s life on the autism spectrum. Owen didn’t communicate vocally after the age of 3, until he found new ways to communicate through the Disney movies that he loved.
  • “Autism In Love” –This is a documentary about four adults on the autism spectrum, as they search for and manage romantic relationships.

Movies and TV shows that incorporate autistic voices into their productions result in the best, and most accurate, representation of autism. You can find more examples of accurate portrayals of autism by finding shows that cast autistic actors to play autistic characters. You can also seek out groups that address the topic of autism acceptance and advocacy such as the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) and the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network (AWN).