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 is often shown 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]


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.[7]


  • Mark Haddon's 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, examines the world of its teenage autistic narrator, Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old boy who has memorized every prime number through 7,057.
  • Trueman Bradley, by Alexei Maxim Russell, published in 2011, was the first work of fiction to portray an openly Autistic private detective and the first work of literature which sought to portray Asperger Syndrome as a different way of thinking, with certain benefits over neurotypical thinking, and therefore not necessarily a disability.
  • Simple Simon, a novel by Ryne Douglas Pearson, features an autistic protagonist who has the mathematical ability to crack NASA security codes.[6]
  • The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon, explores the possibility of a cure for autism and its effect on autistic people.[8]
  • Margaret Atwood's novel Oryx and Crake has a university labeled Asperger's U, where almost every student appears to have Asperger's syndrome or autism; people in the university refer to non-autists as neurotypicals and seem to view them as something altogether different to themselves.[9] The novel features an autistic character who uses his atypical reasoning to topple society.[6]


  • The film Rain Man (1988) was among the first films to feature an autistic protagonist.[10] Since then, Hollywood has drawn both praise and criticism for its depictions of autistic characters.[11] While Raymond Babbitt, a middle-aged savant portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, is based on Kim Peek, an adult male with savant syndrome, he is recognized as autistic by the general population.[12]
  • The 1998 film Mercury Rising is about an undercover FBI agent who protects a nine-year-old boy who has autism from government assassins after the boy cracks a secret government code.
  • Molly (1999), a romantic comedy, is the story of an autistic woman whose guardianship is assumed by her high strung older brother after the institution she's lived in closes.
  • Annie Wheaton, a teenager with autism, is one of the main characters of the 2002 miniseries Rose Red.
  • The movie Dark Floors (2008) features a girl with autism and a latent supernatural gift.
  • Adam (2009), an American romantic drama film, is a story of a shy young man with Asperger's syndrome who falls in love with the next door neighbor. Arguably it is the most realistic and sympathetic portrayal of Asperger's put on film to date.[13]
  • My Name Is Khan (2010), is a Bollywood film which depicts the lead character played by Shahrukh Khan as having Asperger syndrome. The movie garnered critical acclaim.[14]
  • Snow Cake (2006), is a film is about Linda (Sigourney Weaver), an autistic woman, following the death of her daughter Vivienne. She requires everything to be clean and orderly, loves snow, and her trampoline. No one is allowed in her kitchen. She often stims with a silver snowflake.
  • Ocean Heaven (2010) is a film about father with a terminal illness preparing his autistic son, Dafu, to take care of himself after his passing. Deeply emotional, Dafu is portrayed beautifully and the film provides a good representation of the struggles as well as his abilities.
  • Mozart and the Whale (2005) is a love story about two autistic adults who meet in a support group. Based on the true story of Jerry and Mary Newport.
  • Fly Away follows Mandy, an autistic teenager, and her mother Jeanne through the transition to a specialized school after being expelled due to frequent meltdowns.
  • Mary and Max is about Max Horowitz, an autistic man in New York City, who begins a friendship with Mary in Australia after she finds him in the phone book and sends him a letter.
  • Temple Grandin is a biographical dramatization of the well known autism advocate Temple Grandin.
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011) is an American drama film adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, directed by Stephen Daldry and written by Eric Roth. It stars Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, and Zoe Caldwell.
  • The Big Short (2015) is film about the 2008 Recession which focuses heavily on the hedge fund manager, Michael Burry who plays a leading role. Burry himself is on the autistic spectrum with Asperger's Syndrome. During the course of the film this is never revealed but rather it is greatly implied.


Television programs featuring characters with ASCs or characteristics stereotypical of autism spectrum disorders have become commonplace, most notably in sitcoms.[citation needed]

  • The SyFy series Alphas features an autistic character, Gary Bell, portrayed by Ryan Cartwright as one of its main characters.
  • Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds shows behaviors which imply he has minor Asperger's Syndrome, a fact which was commented on in season 8 of the series. Actor Matthew Gray Gubler, who has portrayed the character since 2005, stated in an interview in 2006: "Reid is 24 years old with three Ph.D.s and one can not usually achieve that without some form of autism."[15]
  • Community has received critical acclaim for its depiction of Asperger's in the character Abed Nadir.[citation needed], with Matthew Rozsa, a journalist diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, saying that:

So much about Abed Nadir's alleged (heavily implied but never confirmed) Asperger's rings true that one is left to simply marvel at Danny Pudi's performance. The obsessively detailed expertise in specialized subjects (in his case, popular culture), the flat emotional affect, the awkward physical gestures and tendency to either make too little eye contact or too much. All of those quirks are fantastic, but the moment that best captures the Asperger experience occurred in the very first episode. After series protagonist Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) admits to the rest of his study group that he is too lazy to pass an upcoming Spanish exam, the rest of the members use facial expressions and body language to subtly communicate to each other (and not Jeff, who is feeling sensitive) that they intend to help him out. Then Abed, uncomprehending, blows the moment by bluntly asking, "What's going on?" That's Asperger's in a nutshell.[16]

  • In television series Arthur, Carl has asperger syndrome when he is missing a piece of jigsaw puzzle, or when he is scared of a wooden girrafe dummy.
  • In the BBC2 television miniseries The Politician's Husband (2013), the impact of Noah Hoynes' Aspergers on the boy's behavior and on his family, and steps Noah's loved ones take to accommodate and address it, are prominent plot points in all three episodes.
  • In Season 5 of Grey's Anatomy, the recurring character, Virginia Dixon, is a visiting doctor who has Asperger's syndrome.
  • Max Braverman, on Parenthood, is at first a child and then teenager with Asperger's.
  • In the FOX show Touch, the main character, Jake Bohm, is autistic.
  • The parallel universe version of Astrid Farnsworth on Fringe has Asperger's syndrome.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock shows qualities which would imply the character has Asperger's syndrome, but this is not confirmed or denied.[16]
  • The Boston Legal semi-regular character, Jerry Espensen, was a middle-aged autistic, nicknamed "hands" due to his lack of hand gestures and habit of frequently resting them on his body as he walked.
  • Sugar Motta from Glee is regarded as a highly offensive stereotype; one commentator said: "the dismissive humor with which Glee treats Asperger's and its symptoms is worthy of rage. The character's deliberately obnoxious behavior and lack of personal accountability feed into the prejudices people with Asperger's face every day."[16] One episode in particular, where the character says, "I have self-diagnosed Aspergers, I can do whatever I want," caused an uproar in the autistic community, as many believed the show had crossed the line—especially in light of the fact Glee has been progressive on many other issues, such as LGBT rights.
  • Bob Melnikov (Dmitry Chepovetsky) from ReGenesis is stated to have Asperger's Syndrome.
  • Rebecca Blithely of Strange Empire is autistic. Described as having a brain too large for her head, she is extremely talented in the medical field and makes very accurate diagrams of the human body.[17]
  • The Israeli drama series Yellow Peppers and its British derivative The A Word deal with a young boy who is on the autism spectrum and how their respective families cope with this diagnosis.
  • Det. Sonya Cross of The Bridge has Asperger Syndrome. While it's not openly stated in the show, Sonya's Aspergers diagnosis is specifically acknowledged by the show's producers, and the production team included a specialist on AS as a consultant, Alex Plank, who has AS himself.[citation needed]

Video games[edit]

River Wyles of To the Moon is diagnosed in game with a Pervasive Developmental Disorder and much of the game's story revolves around her husband Johnny and her peers adapting to it.[18]


Film, television, and print[edit]

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.[19]

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.[20][21] The film centers around The Miracle Project, a nonprofit organization focusing on providing a creative outlet for autistic children.[22]

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.

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.[23]

Girls with Autism[24] is a documentary following three girls at Limpsfield Grange,[25] a specialized school in the UK.

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.[26] In 2010, Wakefield's research was found by the General Medical Council to have been "dishonest";[27] the research was declared fraudulent in 2011 by the BMJ.[28]

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".[29] 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.[30][31][32]

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.[33]

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".[34]

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.[35]

Concerns were also raised about the role of journalists reporting on scientific theories that they "are hardly in a position to question and comprehend.[36][37] 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.[38] 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.[39]

Autism diagnoses in notable individuals[edit]

Media speculation of historical figures on the autism spectrum is based on reported behavior and anecdotal evidence rather than any clinical observation of the individual. Fred Volkmar of the Yale Child Study Center has remarked that "there is unfortunately a sort of cottage industry of finding that everyone has Asperger's".[40] Professor Michael Fitzgerald's research, which portrays many historical figures are autistic, has been heavily criticised, and described by some as "fudged pseudoscience"[41] and "frankly absurd".[42]

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 the intensely awkward Bill Gates is autistic, and that a biographer of Warren Buffett wrote that the Oracle of Omaha, with his prodigious memory and "fascination with numbers," has "a vaguely autistic aura." New York magazine also reported that on Celebrity Rehab, Dr. Drew Pinsky deemed Dennis Rodman (selectively hyperfocused, socially obtuse) a candidate for an Aspergers diagnosis, and the UCLA specialist brought in to make it official "seemed to concur". Nora Ephron has criticized media diagnoses by portraying them as “a wildly over-diagnosed thing that there used to be other words for.”[43] Thomas Sowell has criticized Time's diagnosis of Bill Gates as autistic, saying that the people diagnosing him have not seen him personally.[44] 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 him at a level of functioning in the mentally retarded range.[45]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Autism spectrum disorder fact sheet" (PDF). American Psychiatric Publishing. 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. 
  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 2677582free to read. PMID 19528033. 
  6. ^ a b c 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. ^ Poulson S (2009). "Autism, through a social lens". Contexts. 8 (2): 40–5. doi:10.1525/ctx.2009.8.2.40. 
  8. ^ Grant, J. "The Speed of the Dark by Elizabeth Moon (review)". Retrieved 18 April 2012. 
  9. ^ Smith, Joan (11 May 2003). "And pigs might fly...". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 April 2012. 
  10. ^ Felperin, Leslie (4 April 2001). "Autism on film: can cinema get it right?". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 April 2012. 
  11. ^ Caryn J (29 April 2007). "Hollywood finds its disorder du jour". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 March 2012. 
  12. ^ Weber, Bruce (26 December 2009). "Kim Peek, Inspiration for 'Rain Man,' Dies at 58". New York Times. Retrieved 15 April 2012. 
  13. ^ Simon A. "Hollywood and Asperger's". The Huffington Post. 
  14. ^ Saltz R. "A Hero Begins His Quest, and Then the Trouble Starts". The New York Times. 
  15. ^ Thomas, Rachel. "An Interview with Matthew Gray Gubler (Dr. Spencer Reid, Criminal Minds)". Retrieved 26 September 2010. 
  16. ^ a b c Rosza, Matthew. "These Are The TV Characters Getting Asperger's Wrong, From Someone Who Has It". Retrieved 24 December 2014. 
  17. ^
  18. ^ Freebird Games. To the Moon. Freebird Software. 
  19. ^ Library Journal. (15 April 2009). Video (Reviews). Accessed 9 September 2010.
  20. ^ [full citation needed]
  21. ^ [full citation needed] The Hollywood Reporter
  22. ^ Hector Gonzalez. "Autism One 2009 :: The Miracle Project". Retrieved 11 April 2012. 
  23. ^ Wednesday’s best TV The Guardian 8 July 2015
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ 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)
  27. ^ Boseley, Sarah (28 January 2012). "Andrew Wakefield found 'irresponsible' by GMC over MMR vaccine scare". The Guardian (London). 
  28. ^ 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. 
  29. ^ 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 1851707free to read. PMID 17391507. 
  30. ^ 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. 
  31. ^ Jackson, Trevor, "MMR: more scrutiny, please." British Medical Journal, 326.7401 (7 June 2003): p1272(1).
  32. ^ 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 1150987free to read. PMID 12763972. 
  33. ^ "Reputation Survey: MMR panic subsides." PR Week, 2 June 2010: 24.
  34. ^ 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. 
  35. ^ Goldee, F (January 2011). "The fraud behind the MMR scare". British Medical Journal. doi:10.1136/bmj.d22. 
  36. ^ "Link between MMR Vaccines and Autism conclusively broken". IB Times. 7 January 2011. Retrieved 8 January 2011. 
  37. ^ 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. 
  38. ^ Cameron, Neil (12 January 2011). "Autism 'study' represents a failure of journalism". The Montreal Gazette. 
  39. ^ "False autism study has done untold harm". The Montreal Gazette. 10 January 2011. 
  40. ^ Goode, Erica (9 October 2001). "CASES; A Disorder Far Beyond Eccentricity". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-11-26. 
  41. ^ Dosani, Sabina. "Autism and Creativity: Is There a Link between Autism in Men and Exceptional Ability?". BJPsych. Retrieved 2011-08-04. 
  42. ^ Osteen, Mark (2007). "Autism and Representation: A Comprehensive Introduction". Autism and Representation. New York: Routledge. p. 12. ISBN 0415956447. 
  43. ^ Wallace, Benjamin. "Autism Spectrum: Are You On It?". Retrieved 3 May 2016. 
  44. ^ Sowell, Thomas (2001). The Einstein Syndrome : bright children who talk late. New York: Basic Books. pp. 142, 189. ISBN 9780465081417. Retrieved 3 May 2016. 
  45. ^ Steinberg, Paul (31 January 2012). "Asperger's History of Overdiagnosis". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 May 2016. 

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