Autism spectrum disorders in the media

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Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) or autism spectrum conditions (ASCs) describe a range of conditions classified as neurodevelopmental disorders in the DSM-5, used by the American Psychiatric Association.[1] As with many neurodivergent people and conditions, the popular image of autistic people and autism itself is often based on inaccurate media representations.[2]

Since the 1970s, fictional portrayals of people with autism, Asperger syndrome, and other ASCs have become more frequent.[3] Public perception of autism is often based on these fictional portrayals in novels, biographies, movies, and TV series. These depictions of autism in media today are often made in a way that brings pity to the public and their concern of the topic, because their viewpoint is never actually shown, leaving the public without knowledge of autism and its diagnosis.[4][5] Portrayals in the media of characters with atypical abilities (for example, the ability to multiply large numbers without a calculator) may be misinterpreted by viewers as accurate portrayals of all autistic people and of autism itself.[6] James McGrath writes that the stereotype of autistic individuals as successful in math and science, along with disliking fiction, is widely overrepresented in literature.[7]


Since the 1970s, characters have appeared in film, television, and print that could be qualified as "on the [autism] spectrum."[3] Characters have been presented as being described as openly autistic in canon, or have been designed with one of many ASCs in mind.[8]


  • Children of the Stars (2007) is an award-winning documentary about children with autism in China. The film examines hardships experienced by parents of children with autism and the lack of international resources for these families.[9]
  • Autism: The Musical (2007) is a documentary about the lives of autistic children and their families, while the children write and rehearse a stage production. The film won several awards, including two Emmy Awards.[10][11] The film centers around The Miracle Project, a nonprofit organization focusing on providing a creative outlet for autistic children.[12]
  • The Horse Boy (2009) is a book and documentary (both released the same year), which follows the Isaacson family on their journey to Mongolia to help their autistic son.
  • Temple Grandin (2010) is a biographical dramatization of the well known autism advocate Temple Grandin.
  • X+Y (2014) is a film whose protagonist Nathan Ellis is based on mathematical genius Daniel Lightwing who has Asperger syndrome.
  • The Big Short (2015) is film about the 2008 recession which focuses heavily on the hedge fund manager, Michael Burry, who is played by English actor Christian Bale in a leading role. Burry himself believes himself to be on the autistic spectrum with Asperger syndrome. During the course of the film this is never revealed but rather it is greatly implied.[13]
  • Chicos de otro planeta (2013) is a documentary about young adults with Aspergers in Chile. The film is narrated by Chilean actor Grex.
  • The Autistic Gardener (2015) is a Channel 4 series.[14]
  • Girls with Autism[15] is a documentary following three girls at Limpsfield Grange,[16] a specialized school in the UK.
  • The Autistic Buddha (2017) is a non-fiction novel about an autistic individual's journey to Germany and China and, also about what he learned from the experience.[17]
  • The Autistic Brothers (2018) is a non-fiction novel written by a high-functioning autistic individual, which is about his relationship with his low-functioning autistic brother. This book challenges several myths about autism.[18][19]
  • Aspe-chan is a series of strips created by a Japanese twitter handler @akagikuro, that involves a character with this condition and how to understand what the condition is.

MMR vaccine theory[edit]

The MMR vaccine was the subject of controversy resulting from publication of a (now retracted) 1998 paper by Andrew Wakefield et al.[20] In 2010, Wakefield's research was found by the General Medical Council to have been "dishonest";[21] the research was declared fraudulent in 2011 by the BMJ.[22]

A March 2007 article in BMC Public Health postulated that media reports on Wakefield's study had "created the misleading impression that the evidence for the link with autism was as substantial as the evidence against".[23] Earlier papers in Communication in Medicine and British Medical Journal concluded that media reports provided a misleading picture of the level of support for Wakefield's theory.[24][25][26]

PRWeek noted that after Wakefield was removed from the general medical register for misconduct in May 2010, 62% of respondents to a poll regarding the MMR controversy stated they did not feel that the media conducted responsible reporting on health issues.[27]

A New England Journal of Medicine article examining the history of antivaccinationists said that opposition to vaccines has existed since the 19th century, but "now the antivaccinationists' media of choice are typically television and the Internet, including its social media outlets, which are used to sway public opinion and distract attention from scientific evidence".[28]

The role of the media in the sensationalization of the MMR vaccination issue was discussed by the BMJ:

The original paper has received so much media attention, with such potential to damage public health, that it is hard to find a parallel in the history of medical science. Many other medical frauds have been exposed, but usually more quickly after publication and on less important health issues.[29]

Concerns were also raised about the role of journalists reporting on scientific theories that they "are hardly in a position to question and comprehend.[30][31] Neil Cameron, a historian who specializes in the history of science, writing for The Montreal Gazette labeled the controversy a "failure of journalism" that resulted in unnecessary deaths, saying that 1) The Lancet should not have published a study based on "statistically meaningless results" from only 12 cases; 2) the anti-vaccination crusade was continued by the satirical Private Eye magazine; and 3) a grapevine of worried parents and "nincompoop" celebrities fueled the widespread fears.[32] The Gazette also reported that

There is no guarantee that debunking the original study is going to sway all parents. Medical experts are going to have to work hard to try to undo the damage inflicted by what is apparently a rogue medical researcher whose work was inadequately vetted by a top-ranked international journal.[33]

Notable individuals[edit]

Some notable figures such as Temple Grandin, a food animal handling systems designer and author,[34] and Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and author[35][36] are autistic. Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg, who in August 2018 started the "School strike for climate" movement, has explained how the "gift" of living with Asperger syndrome helps her "see things from outside the box" when it comes to climate change.[37] In an interview with presenter Nick Robinson on BBC Radio 4's Today, the 16-year-old activist said that autism helps her see things in "black and white". She went on to say:

It makes me different, and being different is a gift, I would say. It also makes me see things from outside the box. I don't easily fall for lies, I can see through things. I don't think I would be interested in the climate at all, if I had been like everyone else. Many people say that it doesn't matter, you can cheat sometimes. But I can't do that. You can't be a little bit sustainable. Either you're sustainable, or not sustainable. For way too long the politicians and people in power have got away with not doing anything at all to fight the climate crisis and ecological crisis, but we will make sure that they will not get away with it any longer.[38]

Additionally, media speculation of contemporary figures as being on the autism spectrum has become popular in recent times. New York magazine reported some examples, which included that Time magazine suggested that Bill Gates is autistic, and that a biographer of Warren Buffett wrote that his prodigious memory and "fascination with numbers" give him "a vaguely autistic aura." The magazine also reported that on Celebrity Rehab, Dr. Drew Pinsky deemed basketball player Dennis Rodman a candidate for an Asperger's diagnosis, and the UCLA specialist consulted "seemed to concur". Nora Ephron criticized these conclusions, writing that popular speculative diagnoses suggest autism is "an epidemic, or else a wildly over-diagnosed thing that there used to be other words for."[39] Thomas Sowell has criticized Time's diagnosis of Bill Gates, saying that the people diagnosing him have not seen him personally.[40] Paul Steinberg has also criticized the literary portrayals of Warren Buffett and Tim Page as autistic, writing these men are able to compensate more completely than a truly autistic child or adult whose language deficiencies and cognitive deficits can often put them at a level of functioning in the mentally retarded range.[41]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Autism spectrum disorder fact sheet" (PDF). American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013. Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 October 2013. Retrieved 13 October 2013.
  2. ^ Sarrett, J C (June 2011). "Trapped children: popular images of children with autism in the 1960s and 2000s". Journal of Medical Humanities. 32 (2): 141–53. doi:10.1007/s10912-010-9135-z. PMID 21225325.
  3. ^ a b Murray S (2006). "Autism and the contemporary sentimental: fiction and the narrative fascination of the present". Lit Med. 25 (1): 24–45. doi:10.1353/lm.2006.0025. PMID 17040083.
  4. ^ Holton, Avery; Farrell, Laura; Fudge, Julie (2014). "A threatening Space?: Stigmatization and the framing of Autism in the News". Communication Studies. 65 (2): 189. doi:10.1080/10510974.2013.855642.
  5. ^ Draaisma D (May 2009). "Stereotypes of autism". Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B Biol. Sci. 364 (1522): 1475–80. doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0324. PMC 2677582. PMID 19528033.
  6. ^ Bethune, Brian (3 July 2009). "Autistic licence: suddenly, Asperger's is the new 'it' disorder on screen and in fiction". Retrieved 18 April 2012.
  7. ^ McGrath, James. "Not all autistic people are good at maths and science – despite the stereotypes". The Conversation. Retrieved 2 May 2019.
  8. ^ Poulson S (2009). "Autism, through a social lens". Contexts. 8 (2): 40–5. doi:10.1525/ctx.2009.8.2.40.
  9. ^ Library Journal. (15 April 2009). Video Archived 4 December 2011 at the Wayback Machine (Reviews). Accessed 9 September 2010.
  10. ^ [full citation needed]
  11. ^ [full citation needed] The Hollywood Reporter
  12. ^ Hector Gonzalez. "Autism One 2009 :: The Miracle Project". Retrieved 11 April 2012.
  13. ^ Mallenbaum, Carly (20 December 2015). "'Big Short': 5 things to know about Christian Bale's real-life character". USA Today. McLean, Virginia. Retrieved 4 April 2017.
  14. ^ Wednesday’s best TV The Guardian 8 July 2015.
  15. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 9 September 2015. Retrieved 2015-10-18.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  16. ^
  17. ^ Singer, Angela. "Thomas plots his journey through life in new book". Dunmow Broadcast. Retrieved 10 January 2019.
  18. ^ Singer, Angela. "Why you should not ask: Is Jack's autism better now?". Dunmow Broadcast. Retrieved 10 January 2019.
  19. ^ Barkley, Cat (26 December 2018). "Chronicles of brotherly love". Bishop’s Stortford Independent. Retrieved 10 January 2019.
  20. ^ Wakefield A, Murch S, Anthony A, et al. (1998). "Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children". Lancet. 351 (9103): 637–41. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(97)11096-0. PMID 9500320. Retrieved 5 September 2007. (Retracted, see PMID 20137807)
  21. ^ Boseley, Sarah (28 January 2012). "Andrew Wakefield found 'irresponsible' by GMC over MMR vaccine scare". The Guardian (London).
  22. ^ Godlee F, Smith J, Marcovitch H (2011). "Wakefield's article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent". BMJ. 342: c7452. doi:10.1136/bmj.c7452. PMID 21209060.
  23. ^ Hilton S, Petticrew M, Hunt K (2007). "Parents' champions vs. vested interests: who do parents believe about MMR? A qualitative study". BMC Public Health. 7: 42. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-7-42. PMC 1851707. PMID 17391507.
  24. ^ Speers T, Lewis J (2004). "Journalists and jabs: media coverage of the MMR vaccine". Commun Med. 1 (2): 171–81. doi:10.1515/come.2004.1.2.171. PMID 16808699.
  25. ^ Jackson, Trevor, "MMR: more scrutiny, please." British Medical Journal, 326.7401 (7 June 2003): p1272(1).
  26. ^ Dobson Roger (May 2003). "Media misled the public over the MMR vaccine, study says". BMJ. 326 (7399): 1107. doi:10.1136/bmj.326.7399.1107-a. PMC 1150987. PMID 12763972.
  27. ^ "Reputation Survey: MMR panic subsides." PR Week, 2 June 2010: 24.
  28. ^ Poland GA, Jacobson RM (13 January 2011). "The Age-Old Struggle against the Antivaccinationists". N Engl J Med. 364 (2): 97–9. doi:10.1056/NEJMp1010594. PMID 21226573.
  29. ^ Goldee, F (January 2011). "The fraud behind the MMR scare". British Medical Journal. 342: d22. doi:10.1136/bmj.d22.
  30. ^ "Link between MMR Vaccines and Autism conclusively broken". IB Times. 7 January 2011. Retrieved 8 January 2011.
  31. ^ Broyd, Nicky (6 January 2011). "BMJ Declares Vaccine-Autism Study 'an Elaborate Fraud', 1998 Lancet Study Not Bad Science but Deliberate Fraud, Claims Journal". WebMD Health News. Retrieved 8 January 2011.
  32. ^ Cameron, Neil (12 January 2011). "Autism 'study' represents a failure of journalism". The Montreal Gazette.
  33. ^ "False autism study has done untold harm". The Montreal Gazette. 10 January 2011.
  34. ^ Zwerdling, Daniel (April 2002). "Kill Them With Kindness". American RadioWorks. Archived from the original on 10 November 2011. Retrieved 8 November 2007.
  35. ^ Page, Tim (20 August 2007). "Parallel Play: A lifetime of restless isolation explained". The New Yorker. Archived from the original on 30 October 2007. Retrieved 8 November 2007.
  36. ^ "Pulitzer-Winner on Living with Asperger's: All Things Considered". NPR. 13 August 2007. Archived from the original on 25 August 2007. Retrieved 8 November 2007.
  37. ^ Ian Birrell (23 April 2019). "Greta Thunberg teaches us about autism as much as climate change". Guardian. Retrieved 25 June 2019.
  38. ^ O'Malley, Katie (23 April 2019). "Greta Thunberg says 'gift' of Asperger's Syndrome helps her see through 'lies'". The Independent. Retrieved 27 April 2019.
  39. ^ Wallace, Benjamin. "Autism Spectrum: Are You On It?". Retrieved 3 May 2016.
  40. ^ Sowell, Thomas (2001). The Einstein Syndrome : bright children who talk late. New York: Basic Books. pp. 142, 189. ISBN 9780465081417. Retrieved 3 May 2016.
  41. ^ Steinberg, Paul (31 January 2012). "Asperger's History of Overdiagnosis". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 May 2016.

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