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Hollywood and its False Depictions of Autistic People

World Autism Awareness Day is the perfect day to understand what Hollywood gets wrong about this complex and widespread disorder.

The reality of autism is very different from depictions on TV and film, where autistic people are almost always portrayed as awkward white male geniuses.

At its core, autism is a neuro-developmental disorder characterized by social or communication impairments, and patterns of repetitive or restrictive behavior. Autism is more than awkwardness, and savant skills are seldom seen in real life.

About 2.5 percent of children and adolescents have the disorder, more common than previously thought, according to a 2017 report from the National Center for Health Statistics.

To improve clinical diagnosis and individualize treatment, psychiatry embraced a spectrum-based approach, which evolve conceptualization coincidentally aligns with society’s increasing acceptance of gender and sexuality as non-binary.

Ignoring the modern psychiatric view of autism, film and TV repeatedly depict autism as a sort of disability “superpower.” Such representations do a disservice to autistic people by creating the new myth of the “model neuro-minority.”

The Hollywood production of the “model neuro-minority” elevates some while excluding others on the spectrum, and creates a mythical autistic superhero, who deceives the public by misrepresenting how disabling autism can be in this society. Furthermore, Hollywood depictions underscore the false belief that autistic people only have value if they have savant skills that can benefit non-autistic people, and offset their supposed societal burden.

For example, in The Good Doctor pilot, Dr. Murphy exists to enlighten his neurotypical peers. In an exchange with a skeptical hospital board, the president of San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital justifies hiring the autistic surgeon because of Dr. Murphy’s “genius-level skills” and because it will “feel good” — “We hire Shaun and we make this hospital better for it. We hire Shaun, and we are better people for it.”

While positive depictions can be beneficial in reducing stigma, inaccuracies — including idealization — leave many behind. Autistic people who don’t resemble the savants on TV, such as those who require 24-hour supervision in group homes or assistance from home health aides, encounter major barriers to self-advocacy and are erased from public life. Indeed, an autism spectrum diagnosis (ASD) is critical because it grants access to intensive resources and treatment options that they may otherwise not have.

Hollywood deals a double injustice when film's and television's autism depictions lead neurotypical people to associate autism with white men. While some characters like Julia, Sesame Street’s autistic Muppet, break the mold, autistic characters, who are also female or people of color are exceedingly rare.

Nixing the Hollywood model neurominority isn’t political correctness. Improved autism representation goes beyond creating a culture of inclusivity — the tangible benefits of more nuanced characters and varied storytelling are a win-win for everyone.

By transcending the awkward white male genius trope, Hollywood can begin to more accurately represent all autistic people, showing that’s there’s more than one end to the autism spectrum.

By Christy Duan, Vasilis K. Pozios and Praveen R. Kambam

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