Autism in Pop Culture

By Emma Eisenberg

When it comes to telling the stories of people on the autism spectrum, the portrayals in popular television shows and Hollywood films have long been downright bad. Often these characters show the most extreme symptoms or reinforce stereotypes of all neuro-atypical people as dysfunctional recluses or visionary savants, with rarely any possibilities in between. Or worse–characters on the spectrum are simply left out of mainstream media.

But these days, a sea change is underway. Three major television shows for children and teens–Sesame Street, the Power Rangers, and Thomas the Tank Engine–have all introduced characters with autism in 2017. And these characters are not your typical autism stereotype–the new characters are funny, interesting, and complex. In short, they show a broad range of realistic possibilities for people living with autism, and they do it with grace, humor, and powerful storytelling.

This past April, Julia, a four year-old girl with autism, joined Sesame Street as the newest muppet. She is shy and isn’t comfortable shaking hands, but instead of reacting to her as strange or defective, the show uses Julia’s behavior as a way to teach viewers about behavioral and neurological differences.

“Our goal was to try to help destigmatize autism and increase awareness, understanding and empathy,” Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop’s executive vice president of global social impact and philanthropy, told PBS.

Billy, the Blue Power Ranger, debuted in the newest Rangers movie this past April. Similar to Julia, he is a fully-realized character with his own story who also exhibits more moderate autism, by expressing anxiety and shouting instead of whispering.

Finally, this summer will bring us new blockbuster Thomas & Friends: Journey Beyond Sodor, which features a new engine named Theo. He has an “unusual experimental drive system that doesn’t always run very smoothly and he makes sudden jolts forward or back when his rods or cogs jam,” but he is also “genuinely kind and caring” as well as smart and a deep thinker.

These characters represent a real effort on the part of children’s media creators to offer fully-realized portrayals of what it’s like to live as a person on the autism spectrum. But a new movie for adults is taking this idea one step farther: instead of featuring a spectrum character as part of an ensemble cast, a new romantic comedy called “Keep the Change” is putting two neuro-atypical characters, both also played by actors who are also neuro-atypical, at the center. The film follows David and Sarah through the small moments of life–from online dating to shopping to making friends in a support group–and exposes the real challenges and joys of their experience. This is a marked difference from other films like “Rain Man” which tell the stories of autism-spectrum characters from the outside, by making a typically functioning character the hero, and the atypically functioning character an ancillary figure or plot device.

Taken together, this is in an exciting change to watch–and an important one to be a part of, as consumers and educators. Only when diverse stories are told with nuance and from the inside are we doing justice to this complex experience.

In addition to her work for ONEder, Emma writes essays for a variety of publications, including VICE, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and Slate.

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