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. As with many neurodivergent people and conditions, the popular image of autistic people and autism itself is often based on inaccurate media representations. Additionally, media about autism may promote pseudoscience such as vaccine denial or facilitated communication.
Since the 1970s, fictional portrayals of people with autism, Asperger syndrome, and other ASCs have become more frequent. Public perception of autism is often based on these fictional portrayals in novels, biographies, movies, and television 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. 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. James McGrath writes that the stereotype of autistic individuals as successful in math and science, along with disliking fiction, is widely overrepresented in literature.
Since the 1960s, characters have appeared in film, television, and print that could be qualified as "on the autism spectrum". Characters have been presented as being described as openly autistic in canon, or have been designed with one of many ASCs in mind.
- Children of the Stars (2007) is a 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.
- 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. The film centers around The Miracle Project, a nonprofit organization focusing on providing a creative outlet for autistic children.
- 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 a 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 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 strongly implied.
- Chicos de otro planeta (2013) is a documentary about young adults with Aspergers in Chile. The film is narrated by Chilean actor Grex.
- Autism in Love (2015) is an American documentary film.
- The Autistic Gardener (2015) is a Channel 4 documentary series in which a team of autistic people redesign people's gardens.
- Girls with Autism (2015) is a documentary following three girls at Limpsfield Grange, a specialized school in the United Kingdom.
- 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.
- The Autistic Brothers (2018) is a non-fiction novel written by a high-functioning autistic individual about his relationship with his low-functioning autistic brother. This book challenges several myths about autism.
- Love on the Spectrum (2019–2021) an Australian reality television show that follows people on the autism spectrum as they explore the dating world.
- Journal of Best Practices (2012) is a memoir written by autistic engineer David Finch about his marriage to his neurotypical wife.
Autism in popular culture from 2010
The 2010s and 2020s have seen numerous publications of popular books related to autism as well as autism-related TV-series and movies, contributing to increased awareness and understanding of autism in popular culture:
- American feature documentary Loving Lampposts was released in May 2010.
- Ocean Heaven is a June 2010 Chinese dramatic feature film about a single father trying to teach his adult son with autism how to survive without him.
- The book A History of Autism: Conversations with the Pioneers was published by British autism writer Adam Feinstein in June 2010.
- The first edition of Revista Autismo (Autism Magazine) was published in Brazil in September 2010.
- Israeli TV drama Yellow Peppers first aired in December 2010. It featured a family caring for an autistic child. It won Israel's best TV drama award. A British version, The A Word, first aired in 2016. Greek and Dutch versions have also been made. An American version is currently in production.
- American TV series Touch first went on air in January 2012. It is a drama centring on a single father with an autistic son.
- The 2012 British children's documentary My Autism and Me aired as part of Newsround, and featured autistic girl Rosie King. It won the International Emmy Kids Award for Best Factual in Cannes that year.
- In 2013, the American feature documentaries Citizen Autistic and Neurotypical (July) were released.
- The American feature documentary Autism in Love was released in cinemas in April 2015, and later aired in the US on PBS in 2016.
- The TV series Good Doctor, featuring an autistic doctor, began on South Korean TV in August 2013. (An American version would first air in 2017, and a Japanese one in 2018).
- The popular book Population One: Autism, Adversity, and the Will to Succeed was released by 17 year old American author Tyler McNamer in August 2013.
- In the UK, April 2014 saw the BBC broadcast an episode of Horizon entitled "Living with Autism", featuring Uta Frith.
- The French novel La Surface de reparation was released in 2015. It was made into a comedy-drama movie called Monsieur je-sais-tout in 2018.
- Bestselling book NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity was published by American writer Steve Silberman in August 2015. It did much to spread the concept of neurodiversity, and explain the history of autism.
- Speech therapist Barry Prizant (one of the SCERTS authors), also released a popular book in August 2015 - Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism. The book explains autism from a neurodiversity perspective. A new edition was published in 2022, with the help of writer Tom Fields-Meyer.
- French romantic comedy movie Le Goût des merveilles was released in December 2015. It featured a young man with Asperger's syndrome.
- The book In a Different Key: The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker was released in January 2016. The authors found and interviewed the patient Leo Kanner first recognised as having autism, Donald Triplett. It was nominated for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.
- The Accountant was an October 2016 American feature film, starring Ben Affleck as an autistic accountant.
- Two substantive autistic characters featured on American television from 2017. The title character of new program The Good Doctor was a young man with autism. Also, a four-year-old autistic girl Muppet named Julia joined the main Sesame Street show, with the assistance of ASAN. These programs subsequently circulated elsewhere.
- American TV series Atypical, which centres on a teenage boy on the autism spectrum, was first released in August 2017.
- Quiet Girl in a Noisy World: An Introvert's Story was a popular book released by British cartoonist Debbie Tung in November 2017. It details a few years of the author's life as she learns she is introverted, and how she found her place in the world.
- Australian factual TV series You Can't Ask That about different groups of unusual people began in 2016, and as of 2023 was subsequently remade in 11 other territories. The Israeli version broadcast an episode about people on the autistic spectrum in 2018. The Canadian version followed in 2019, and the Australian one did likewise in 2020. An American version of the series is currently in production.
- Singer's 1998 thesis Odd People In: The Birth of Community Amongst People on the Autistic Spectrum, wherein she had first coined the term neurodiversity, was republished as Neurodiversity: The Birth of an Idea in September 2017.
- Pablo is a British pre-school children's TV program about an autistic boy. It was first aired in October 2017. A number of books have subsequently been adapted from the series.
- Israeli comedy-drama On the Spectrum first aired in May 2018. It won Israel's best drama award. An American version, As We See It, was first released in 2022.
- A play about an autistic child, All in a Row was first performed in the UK in February 2019. It generated controversy, including for its use of a puppet to portray its lead character, while the others were portrayed by humans.
- Sorry I'm Late, I Didn't Want to Come: An Introvert's Year of Living Dangerously was a popular book written by American psychologist and journalist Jessica Pan, and released in May 2019. It describes how the author spent a year fighting her introversion and succeeding.
- Horsnormes (The Specials) was a French drama film released in May 2019.
- Australian documentary TV series Love on the Spectrum first aired in November 2019. An American version, which featured Jennifer Cook, was launched in 2022.
- The book Our autistic lives: personal accounts from autistic adults aged 20 to 70+ was compiled by British autism writer Alex Ratcliffe, and was released in January 2020.
- The January 2020 Pixar short film Loop by Erica Milsom, featured a non-verbal autistic teenage girl.
- A Kind of Spark was a book for children about an autistic girl, released by British author Elle McNicoll in 2020. In 2023, the BBC released a TV series based on it.
- In the UK, the BBC broadcast the documentary Paddy And Christine McGuinness: Our Family And Autism in December 2021.
- Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity was a popular book written by American psychologist Devon Price, and published in April 2022.
- Extraordinary Attorney Woo is a South Korean TV series about an autistic woman that first aired in June 2022.
MMR vaccine theory
The MMR vaccine was the subject of controversy resulting from publication of a (now retracted) 1998 paper by Andrew Wakefield et al. In 2010, Wakefield's research was found by the General Medical Council to have been "dishonest"; the research was declared fraudulent in 2011 by The BMJ.
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". 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.
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.
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".
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.
Concerns were also raised about the role of journalists reporting on scientific theories that they "are hardly in a position to question and comprehend. 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. 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.
Facilitated communication and rapid prompting
Some notable figures such as American animal handling systems designer and author Temple Grandin, American Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic and author Tim Page, and Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg are autistic. 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. In an interview with presenter Nick Robinson on BBC Radio 4's Today, the then-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.
Billionaire Elon Musk announced on Saturday Night Live in May 2021 that he has been diagnosed with Asperger's. Other websites (for example) have lists of famous persons identified as autistic, though not all have been formally diagnosed. 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". Thomas Sowell has criticized Time's diagnosis of Gates, saying that the people diagnosing him have not seen him personally.
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