Autism In Modern Media
Autism is a developmental disorder that 1 in 68 children are born with yearly and it’s becoming more common each and every year. Autism affects how a person interacts with others, and the world around them and there is a whole spectrum of Autism such as Asperger’s Syndrome, a high functioning Autism. For more than a decade Autism has become more aware in the general public and in that time Autism and it’s other forms have appeared more frequently in media. But how often does the media show Autism for what it really is? Are modern characters with Autism true representations or are they completely wrong?
Sheldon Cooper – The Big Bang Theory
The first candidate on this list is also one of the few who has not been diagnosed in the show. Though never confirmed, Sheldon Cooper displays numerous traits of Asperger’s Syndrome. One of the most apparent traits is Sheldon’s interest and intelligence in his favorite subjects such as science, history and his favorite pop culture. People with Aspeger’s are shown to work well with their favorite fields and topics, able to remember everything they’ve learned with ease. However, when it comes to topics or fields Sheldon isn’t comfortable with he finds himself being the one confused and unable to cope. This is evident in Sheldon’s lack of knowledge in modern pop culture and his inability to drive.
Another trait is Sheldon’s strict routines. In every episode Sheldon has some sort of routine or ritual that he must do, be it Saturday morning activities, or what foods must be eaten on certain days and in certain quantities. Any break from those routines and Sheldon becomes anxious and irritated. This leads into a another trait of Asperger’s: Fear of change. People with Asperger’s tend to hate change and often are completely terrified by it. In last year’s season finale Sheldon learns that his best friend is getting married, Sheldon would most likely have to move out of his apartment and change his field of study. The overabundance of change around him caused Sheldon to have something of a breakdown and to cope he decided he had to be alone for a while and to do so he partook in one of his favorite things: Riding trains. Something that was still familiar to him.
The last major trait of Asperger’s that Sheldon has is his mind blindness. Sheldon has had a difficult time knowing what people are thinking as he has no understanding of social ques. Throughout the first season Sheldon had no grasp of the concept of sarcasm and whenever one of his friends was sarcastic he took it literally. Even after he finally understood sarcasm he still had difficulty identifying when his friends were using it. Though never identified with Asperger’s it’s still clear with all of
the evident traits that Sheldon does have it, and this first case media does a fine job of showing what Asperger’s is.
Zen – Chocolate
One of the most flattering examples of characters with Autism is also a mostly false representation. In the 2008 Thai martial arts film Chocolate the main character, Zen, is a young woman with Autism who is also a Muay Thai savant. But how does she know Muay Thai so well? Has she had years of training from a patient master? No, she learns Muay Thai simply from watching Thai martial arts films and immediately memorizes what to do. While it is true that people with Autism tend to have good memory with certain subjects they cannot quickly mimic something complex they have just seen.
Despite this false representation there are still some aspects of Zen’s character that are true traits of Autism. The most evident is Zen’s sensitivity to certain sounds. People with Autism can have panic attacks triggered by specific sounds like bells, whistles and the sounds of appliances. In Chocolate, Zen hates the sound of flies buzzing around and when she hears this sound a panic attack is triggered. Another trait is Zen’s poor social interactions. Throughout the film Zen is shown to be mostly quiet and keeps to herself when around others. Even early in the film as her mother is being attacked she does nothing as she has no understanding of what it happening. So despite the over exaggerated idea of an unbelievably strong memory Zen still displays some true aspects of Autism. However, it still is nice to see a young Autistic woman beat up small army of thugs.
Adam – Adam
Adam follows the story of Adam Raiki, a man with Asperger’s falling in love and going through a committed relationship with a “normal” woman. The film is another fine example of living a life with Asperger’s, all the while showing the difficulty one with Asperger’s has when trying to find a significant other.
Adam displays all the characteristics of Asperger’s and the film goes into detail with each aspect such as Adam’s primary interest, mind blindness, intelligence and fear of change. Most of these come into play and description when he’s courting and in a relationship with his love interest Beth. Initially he’s afraid of going anywhere with her, held back by his routines and fear of the unknown. As their relationship develops Adam grows more comfortable with Beth and it’s evident that Beth is having an impact on Adam, causing him to come out of his shell more and more.
Of course there are difficulties with their relationship. Adam’s mind blindness, routine and fear of change cause some of friction between Beth and him and eventually the two break up. However, during the third act Adam has to take what he learned from his relationship with Beth and leap into the unknown to see her by leaving the home he’s never left in his whole life and use resources he’s been far too afraid to use. Adam not only gives a well detailed description of a man with Asperger’s and the difficulties one must face in everyday life but how the right person could help anyone with Asperger’s to be more comfortable with the unknown and try something new with their life.
Max Bergman – Hawaii Five-0
Like Sheldon Cooper, Chief Medical Examiner Max Bergman is never identified as having Asperger’s yet displays the characteristics. In his initial introduction Max is playing a piano, an activity that helps him relax, and cannot be interrupted in his ritual until he is finished with the piece he is playing. Throughout the series whenever Max is going over his findings in a case he will typically divert off the main topic onto a topic of interest of his, and ramble on about it for a moment before someone stops him and puts him back on track.
Another trait of Aspeger’s that Max possesses is passive anger. People with Asperger’s tend to have two different types of anger: aggressive anger and passive anger. Aggressive anger is loud and often time’s violent while passive anger is subtle and quiet. In one episode the main characters McGarret and Dan-O had offended Max and his passive response was to pretend they didn’t exist, as such he would not respond to their questions. Once more a show has represented a character with Asperger’s without identifying them as having it but even so media once more does well in its representation.
Ben – Ben X
A horrible ordeal that any person on the Autism spectrum must endure in their life is being bullied and the film Ben X gives an all too real example of what it’s like to be on the spectrum and be bullied. Ben is a teenager with Asperger’s whose main interest centers on a massive multiplayer online role playing game. In school Ben is endlessly tormented by two primary bullies Desmet and Bogaert who torment Ben any chance they get. Initially Ben deals with his tormentors by ignoring them or by delving into his imagination, an aspect that is immensely strong and limitless in people with Asperger’s, and picturing himself as a warrior in his game battling two evil monsters.
Over time, however, Ben’s options soon dry up as his tormentors begin to escalate their despicable games through public humiliation and physical violence and all Ben can do now is be pushed further and further to the breaking point. The true tragedy is the lack of help Ben receives as most of the school views him as a joke and an outsider and even the teachers themselves can’t do much to help, even the ones who truly care about Ben’s well being. It’s a great difficulty being bullied but to be on the spectrum is a nightmare and Ben X goes into heavy detail in the pain and desperation one on the spectrum must put up with and how most deal with it.
Luke and Zack – The Story of Luke
The last two characters to discuss are a mix of both identification and alluding. Luke is a young man with Autism and the film does well in his representation. Luke’s traits include his fear of being touched by others (in the beginning especially when he has a panic attack from two women placing their hands on his shoulders), having a routine and a good knowledge of a certain subject. This subject centers on cooking and Luke is a savant in it though doesn’t fair well in other subjects. The film has a rather humorous moment when a man assumes Luke is savant at math and has a photographic memory of which Luke is neither, one of the film’s subtle and humorous nods to Rain Man.
Luke also goes to great lengths to preserve what he knows. In the first act Luke’s grandmother has passed away and his grandfather was slipping into dementia. As such Luke had no choice but to move in with his aunt and uncle, an environment that Luke doesn’t understand. The only tie to the world he has known for so long are the final rational words his grandfather told him: “Get a job. Find a girl. Live your own life. Be a man!” Luke takes these words to heart and does everything he can to get a job, find a girlfriend and learn what it’s like to be a man.
In his journey Luke comes across Zack, an employee at the company where Luke finds training who clearly has Asperger’s though isn’t identified. A major constant with Zack is that he’s aggressively angry, constantly shouting at Luke and others and generally making Luke miserable. Zack also has to have his own personal space where he’s separated from the other employees and it’s in this environment that other aspects of his Aspeger’s show.
Zack refers to the other employees as “neural typicals” a phrase initially used in Adam. Zack sees his co-workers almost like a different race of being and watches and studies them from secret, learning facial recognition, typical body language and social cues, showing his mind blindness. He even developed a program to help him, and subsequently Luke, practice speaking to others.
In recent years movies and television have done an excellent job of representing characters with Autism and those who are on the spectrum. The characters shown are fine representations, showing what people who are on the spectrum are like and not only show the hardships they must face but the joys of everyday life. Overall media has done well representing Autism as well as help spread awareness of what it is as well as the great and unique things people can find with it.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
A very well written article, with a really interesting topic to discuss. Hollywood, for a while now, has seem to been showing more character with metal disabilities, and portraying them in a respectful manner.
Aaron very well said, I agree with your comment. Nice job on the article Hail.
An insightful article. I find it interesting that some of these characters are not directly identified as autistic. Perhaps this lack of identification enables the characters to be seen as human beings with numerous identities, rather than being seen as characters with the single identity of autism. Even if this identity is important, it is never the only identity.
I find it interesting that, although Sheldon certainly displays the traits of a person with Asperbger’s, it’s treated as somewhat of a punchline in the show. His daily rituals are always met with ridicule by his friends and he’s often made fun of for being crazy. Especially given that he’s never officially diagnosed (in fact, he says quite often “my mother had me tested”), could it be that the producers of this show aren’t treating autism with the care it deserves?
I’m not sure the “my mother had me tested” phrase covers autism, specifically. The phrase usually comes up as, “I’m not crazy; my mother had me tested.” Given Sheldon’s upbringing, I doubt that the nuance of the autism spectrum was a factor in this question — his mother would have asked a professional if he was “crazy” in the layman sense. The answer to that is no — he’s *not* crazy… but he could still be some version of autistic.
Interesting article. I think that while tv doesn’t always get it right (as a general statement, not just with autism) it is very encouraging to see different kinds of brains portrayed in multiple genres. Even though Sheldon (for example) is somewhat of a punch-line, his friends do a good job of adapting to his particular needs, which is encouraging to watch.
Given the wide spectrum of behaviors that fall under the “autism” umbrella, there’s as much good characterization that can come from showing a diversity of brain types as there as from portraying diversity in any other way. I hope this trend continues.
I was most powerfully introduced to the condition by a book, not a film: ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ by Mark Haddon.
Thanks so much for the article and comments about films and tv shows. It can be difficult to find films and books on the subject.
Can be really dismayed by the media portrayal of autism as being defined as having a freakish skill. It highlights a society’s preoccupation with only recognizing a person if they have an ability to entertain us for a few moments. It’s like what’s your party piece ? No party piece ? Then fuck off we aren’t interested.
As a parent of a girl on the autistic spectrum I’m always intrigued how people with ASD are portrayed. i’ve never seen anything fiction or real life who matches my daughters particular quirks, however I’m pleased with the breadth of teh spectrum that are now shown.
Not a film, but the TV show Parenthood does a fairly good job of portraying how parents cope with the diagnosis.
There is also an Irish film called Inside I’m Dancing, starring James McAvoy (one of the many excellent performances that make the film so worth watching)
I would recommend the Swedish film Simple Simon (Swedish title: I Rymden Finns Inga Känslor) to anyone.
Very few people with autism have the same symptoms as one another. Some may have absolutely no overlapping symptoms with others. It’s a complex and diverse range of “differences” that are hard to pinpoint.
Have you seen the Bafta-nominated Channel Five Extraordinary People film The Boy with the Incredible Brain (aka Brainman internationally) featuring the autistic savant Daniel Tammet? This must be one of the most widely screened films on autism anywhere.
You all should watch ‘Ben X’, great one, and great post.
My daughter is autistic, and there was a real shock of recognition watching Truffaut’s superb L’Enfant Sauvage. The behaviour Victor displays is exact – though the case notes the film is based on were made long before autism was identified and named.
I can’t bear Rain Man either. And I’m really sick of being asked what my daughter’s “special skill” is by people who assume the film is an accurate depication of people on the autistic spectrum.
I agree with you on Rain Man. It is overrated beyond belief with awful characters. Yet it is still used as a reference point for autism. It is very misleading.
This can’t be said enough!
As a teacher with many years experience of working with children who have autism I’d say Rain Man is the least realistic and most unhelpful (I’ve had parents assume that their son/daughter will have a ‘gift’ of some kind.)
I really enjoyed your article on autism. Having family with autism, it was nice to read where someone else can relate.
Interesting and well-put together article!
awesome! complex article!
Very interesting article and very well written. Glad to see that some shows in Hollywood can pretty accurately portray autism without explicitly stating that the character has autism.
the best film about autism I’ve ever seen is Maria and I, a Spanish film that came out last year.
The film “Mercury Rising” had Bruce Willis as a policeman protecting an autistic boy from the bad guys. Again, the autist-as-genius schtick, but apart from that I’d be interested to know how true the portrayal of the child’s autism (lack of communication, adherence to routines, etc) might be.
Awesome article, keep it up. It’s interesting contrasting pop-culture’s idea of certain diseases or disorders in relation to reality.
Nice article, keep it up. It’s always interesting seeing the contrast between pop-culture’s idea of certain disorders and conditions compared to reality.
I always loved “To Kill a Mockingbird” and recently when I saw it again it occurred to me that Boo Radley might well have diagnosed with ASC. I doubt whether Harper Lee knew the terms Autism or Asperger’s but I suspect that in those days the undiagnosed children with ASC often lived with their families in that way. Robert Duvall’s performance seems to me to be an enormously sensitive and powerful one considering he is only in two scenes.
I’ve never thought of Boo Radley that way but now that you mention it, I totally agree!
Very interesting article. Great job.
It always interests me how many autistic characters are on the high-functioning (Asperger’s Syndrome) end of the spectrum. My younger brother is autistic, however he is nothing like the characters in the works that you have examined; he is on the lower-functioning end of the spectrum. His language skills are much less developed and it is tremendously more difficult for him to communicate than it is for any of the autistic characters typically portrayed in media. Although I have seen quite a few autistic characters, I’ve never seen any like my brother.
As you’ve mentioned, currently more than 1 in 70 children are born with some form of autism. When my brother was diagnosed (he’s 19 now) the number was roughly 1 in 150. I wonder what the actual distribution is… i.e. what percentage of those diagnosed are actually on the higher-functioning end of the spectrum.
I would also be very interested to see some characters that are non-high-functioning. I feel that many people who have only experienced autism through film and television have a distorted view of the disorder and believe that it starts and ends with Asperger’s. Would love to see some work that dives deeper into the actual disorder, rather than exploiting certain aspects of Asperger’s to build quirky and amusing characters.
A great exposé. Well done!
Very informative article. I love The Big Bang Theory, and I see where Sheldon has autism.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? starring Leonardo diCaprio as an autistic teenager, is deeply moving and very convincing, both in terms of his individual performance and also the way his family deal with him.
All of the characteristics are very much related to Asperger’s syndrome. What a nice article. To add to Sheldon. It is his dire need to control things that is another characteristic of Asperger’s. I understood these characters. I hope I get a chance to watch some of these films. Wonderful article.
Nice Article. I’m interested to see what you would think about characters that don’t distinctly have autism, but rather similar characteristics of it, such as Sherlock Holmes, Shawn Spencer from Psych, or the like. Do you think these characters are building up awareness of these conditions or exploiting them for popularity. It’s interesting because I tend to find the craziest characters most interesting. Some of my favorites in recent films I’ve seen are: Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, and, Si from One Hour Photo. While not specifically autistic, they all exhibit some ‘crazy’ qualities that are worth studying for a character perspective. Your article got me thinking!
Informative article – I haven’t seen many of these so will definitely check them out!
This was a good topic to write about because Autism awareness is important today. You could have written a whole article about Sheldon himself! Nice work 🙂
I personally find Sheldon’s characterization callous. The fact that the writers never acknowledge Sheldon’s condition is worth noting. Several jokes backed with with endless audience laughter are made at the expense of Sheldon’s habits. It reads as cruel to me and I don’t know that they would be able to write the show as they do had they ever acknowledged that they (perhaps unknowingly) wrote an autistic character. Does the audience love Sheldon or love to laugh at Sheldon and is this affecting how watchers of the show react to cases of Aspergers in real life?
This topic is ingenious and current, and it’s obvious that you have done plenty of research, but I think you could even go so far as to discuss just characters with canonical autism and determine how well they were portrayed or characters that appear to have autistic characteristics and perhaps why that wasn’t canonically revealed. I would love to see a more in depth discussion on this topic with more pinpointed subject matter.
This article made me realize there is a dearth, perhaps complete lack, of female autistics in the media. That could be because autism is much harder to diagnose in women and girls, but I think the lack of representation is worthy of conversation.