Autism in the Media

image representing neurodiversity

Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC)* is a developmental condition comprising deficits in social interaction, social communication, and rigid and repetitive behaviours – coined as “The Triad of Impairments” (Cashin et al.,  2009), alongside impairments in executive function (Sandson & Albert, 1984), and sensory  processing (Tomcheck & Dunn, 2007). ASC is also associated with improved local processing (Mottron et al., 2006), and increased capacity for perceptual information processing (Remington et al., 2012). According to the CDC, approximately one in 54 children have ASC (“Data and Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder | CDC”, 2021), yet it is consistently misrepresented in the media, and is poorly understood by the general population (Fombonne, 2003). This blog article analyses the media’s presentation of ASC and the general public’s understanding of the condition, with reference to some well- and lesser- known shows and movies, as well as news. Finally, this article will discuss how the media can improve public perceptions of ASC.

*For the purposes of this article, the DSM-5’s Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) is labelled Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) following calls from autistic people for ASC to no longer be considered a disorder. Medically, this is still referred to as ASD. Scientifically, it is referred to as ASD, ASC, Autism and Asperger’s. In the past, it was also referred to as Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified, and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder.

TV and movies

When we think of ASC on TV and in the movies, we think of characters such as Sheldon Cooper (from The Big Band Theory), Sam Gardner (from Atypical), Raymond (from Rainman), Sherlock Holmes (from Sherlock), Dr Shawn Murphy (from The Good Doctor) and Dr Spencer Reid (from Criminal Minds). What do these characters have in common? They are all white males with extraordinary, savant-like talents.

From Sheldon’s excellence in theoretical physics to Reid’s eidetic memory, we see the display of immense skill. One might think that this presents a positive spin on a condition so frequently portrayed in a negative light. However, I argue that the opposite is actually true. The first issue to tackle here is that the majority of these characters are never explicitly stated to have ASC, leaving only Sam Gardner, Dr Shawn Murphy, and Raymond as our famous Autistic characters. The audience’s assumption that the other characters have ASC stems from a Hollywood trope termed by Lena Potts (2014) as “The Autism Game”. This phenomenon sees famous characters being given certain traits of ASC (typically above threshold for diagnosis) to add to the intrigue of the character, while playing with harmful stereotypes about the condition and putting little to no effort into highlighting the reality of ASC.
The second issue is, as briefly stated above, the continued use of the harmful stereotype that ASC is a male condition, resulting in impressive skills. Neither of these stereotypes is true. In 2017, the gender ratio of ASC was measured as 3:1 male:female (Loomes et al., 2017). While this number is still predominantly male, there is a significant body of evidence describing a gender bias to ASC diagnosis and research, leaving females under- and mis- diagnosed, indicating that this proportion is likely more equal than we can currently see (Haney, 2015). The facilitation of this gender bias by the media has real and damaging consequences, as this stereotype reduces the likelihood of females with ASC being diagnosed as their peers are less likely to believe they have it (Estrin et al., 2020; Hull et al., 2020). Finally here, the exceptional talents demonstrated by these characters are typically indicative of Savant Syndrome, whereby individuals present remarkable skills in a specific field or task. While this often occurs alongside developmental conditions such as ASC, it is not a component of the condition itself, and a minority of Autistic individuals actually experience Savant Syndrome (Treffert, 2008). This is harmful as it can place an unrealistic burden of expected excellence upon those with ASC, and contributes to the misrepresentation of the condition.

The News

The news has played a large role in the facilitation of the above-mentioned stereotypes (Huws & Jones, 2010). This is particularly damaging since ASC lies within the five most frequently mentioned conditions or diseases mentioned in the news in the US (Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2008). Yu & Farrell (2020) conducted a content analysis of US newspaper articles released about ASC between January 1998 and December 2013. Their data demonstrated that 42.9% of articles included labelling cues (defined as negative and stigmatising nouns and adjectives to describe ASC). Examples noted by the authors included “agonizing”, “crazy”, and “victim”. In 2000, the percentage of relevant articles including labelling cues reached 72.1%. The authors also found that aberrant behaviour cues (defined as negative responses by Autistic individuals to stimuli) occurred in 41.5% of the articles they reviewed. Examples noted by the authors included “eating inedible objects”, “self-injury”, and “screaming unexpectedly”. The authors further cited work by John et al. (2018), which described these cues as facilitating the misinformed belief that Autistic individuals pose a danger to others and themselves.

Finally, they found that 5.5% of these articles referred to the physical appearance of ASC. Despite this proportion being relatively low, this last figure is particularly worrying as ASC does not impact physical appearance (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), meaning that any mention of a physical appearance difference in ASC perpetuates the spreading of mis-information surrounding the condition.

It should also be noted that news articles about ASC typically refer to children. Stevenson, Harp & Gernsbacher (2011) analysed the role of popular media in the infantilization of ASC, and found that Autistic children were four times more likely to be featured than Autistic adults. Furthermore, 90% of book characters, and 68% of film and TV characters with ASC were also children. As a developmental condition, ASC is typically identified during childhood (Mandell et al., 2005). However, Autistic individuals remain Autistic throughout their lives (CDC, 2019), and accurate media representation is required to reduce stigma, and improve societal accessibility for individuals with ASC, as will be discussed in the following sections.



The Consequences

Durand-Zaleski et al. (2012) demonstrated an association between perception of ASC by the general public (and their resultant behaviour) and media presentations of the condition. Given the use of harmful stereotypes by Hollywood when utilising the above-mentioned “Autism Game”, and the high proportions of stigmatised descriptions of ASC in the news, it is not so surprising that misinformation and stigma about ASC are found in the general public. Underhill et al. (2018) used a stigma communication model (Smith, 2007) to analyse perceptions of Autistic students in a communications class. They found that, despite the positive attitudes of classmates, there was a significant prevalence of stigmatised beliefs. 

Furthermore, neurotypical classmates expressed a desire to distance themselves from Autistic classmates. This finding of social rejection and isolation of those with ASC has also been demonstrated by Sasson et al. (2017), and can result in reduced mental health, and increased risk of suicidal behaviour (Botha & Frost, 2018). Beyond the isolation, general stigma surrounding ASC leads to the discrimination and ableism against those with the condition (Botha & Frost, 2018).

What can be done?

Now this situation appears pretty dire, so what can be done? Perhaps the most intuitive solution is to improve the accuracy of media portrayals of ASC. Tharian et al. (2019) described the potential for popular media to inform the public about ASC. Furthermore, Clement et al. (2013) assessed the impact of mass media interventions for reducing mental health stigma. Their data indicated that these interventions successfully reduced prejudice. Moreover, Yu & Farrell (2020) indicated a need for improved accuracy of journalistic reporting surrounding ASC in order to reduce the spread of misinformation, and harmful stereotypes. Finally, in the interest of reducing the male stereotype of ASC, Tharian et al. (2019) expressed a need for more female representation of ASC in the media. At present, there are fewer representations of females with ASC in the media than males, and even these representations still perpetuate harmful stereotypes. One example of good female representation is the character Entrapta from “She-Ra and the Pricesses of Power" (see image): a female cartoon character, whom the writer confirmed to have ASC. Hopefully, future media will continue to break the stereotypes and reduce the stigma and misinformation surrounding ASC.


Featured image by autistic artist MissLunaRose12, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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