I think it's safe to say that the days of autism being a non-entity in pop culture are coming to an end. Since diagnoses have risen in the last twenty years, movies and television have slowly come to recognize and insert autistic people as characters. Various television shows like Girl Meets World, Sesame Street, Parenthood, and Community have featured characters explicitly stated or implied to be on the autism spectrum. The 2016 crime thriller "The Accountant", starring Ben Affleck as an autistic accountant was a unexpected box office hit and is green-lighted for a sequel. And this August, Netflix will premiere a dramedy about an autistic teenager looking for love called "Atypical":
I think the place to start in looking at how autism is portrayed. From Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man to Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, the most well-known autistic characters are white men or boys. Guys being diagnosed with autism is not exactly unrealistic - the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently estimates that autism is 4.5 times more common in boys than in girls. But growing research into that diagnostic gender and racial disparity is highlighting that we might need to rethink how prevalent autism actually is and how it affects different people.
Autism presents itself much differently in women and girls than boys and men. Numerous studies find that autistic women tend to be more socially adept than their male counterparts, masking their symptoms either as a chemical reaction in the brain or a response to societal pressure. Rates of co-occurring mental health issues are also high in autistic women from ADHD to anorexia to anxiety and depression, taking precedence over giving an autism diagnosis. As a result, autistic women tend to receive their diagnoses much later than boys and men or are misdiagnosed entirely. To watch autism continually be portrayed as almost exclusively a male phenomenon as an autistic woman is incredibly frustrating - being at least 1 in 5 autism cases does not make the one case non-existent.
Then there’s the case of these autistic characters overwhelmingly tending to be white. While rates of autism diagnosis tends to look the same across different racial and ethnic groups, white children are up to 50% more likely to receive autism diagnoses than their non-white counterparts. This disparity in diagnosis can arguably be traced back to the first cases of autism in the United States being primarily from white upper middle class families, who often had more resources to seek specialists and treatments. And when non-white autistic people receive their diagnosis, they tend to face significant delays in getting supports and unlikely to receive social understanding, especially by law enforcement. These discrepancies are a big deal, so I can only imagine how trying it is for my non-white autistic friends to continually see autism painted with a Caucasian brush.
Then there's the characterization of the autistic character in question. For a disorder that affects people in a wide variety of ways (the DSM calls autism a "spectrum" disorder for a reason), the depiction of autism in film and television seems to fall under one of two categories - the automaton savant or hyper-awkward nerd. In the aforementioned Baby-Sitters Club book, the autistic Susan is described as a piano prodigy who is otherwise non-verbal and robotic, thus falling into the automaton savant category. Rain Man's Raymond Babbitt is the most notable of the savant type of character. He even lends his name to the Rain Man trope - where a disabled character has some kind of extraordinary ability to "make up" for their disability. But more increasingly common in autism portrayal is the hyper-awkward nerd. The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper is the most well-known example of this trope - hyper intelligent and yet an exaggerated socially awkward penguin (and thus often the butt of jokes on the show). There's no nuance to either characterization and neither characterization fully encompasses the complexity autism presents in various people. There is a reason why the expression "if you meet an autistic person, you've met one autistic person" exists, but it's hard to get that message across when your media representation of autism is so limited.
That isn't to say that I automatically take issue with every autistic character that I come across in media. Abed in the television show Community is often postulated to be on the autism spectrum and while he is eerily similar to Sheldon Cooper in portrayal, the show does not treat him as a punchline. He gets to be a complex individual and is often the calm one amongst a cast of zany characters. Bob's Burgers' Tina Belcher is similarly thought to be autistic among fans. She is funny and relatable while exhibiting traits not uncommon in autistic people. I am also on record for liking the HBO Temple Grandin biopic. But these more rounded depictions tend to be few and far between, so whenever I hear of any film or show or story with or centered around an autistic character I tend to be initially skeptical of how they will be portrayed. Autistic people are people, not plot devices or punchlines.
On the whole, I'm glad to see mainstream media pick up on telling stories about autistic people - general exposure to autism does help society learn to be more accepting of autistic people. But I think we need to carefully consider what type of autism stories are currently being told and grow beyond those in current circulation. With every minority, what you see of them shapes how you perceive them as a whole and the more limited the narrative the easier it is to stereotype. I want to see more autism stories that go beyond the white male robotic nerd. I'd like to see stories of non-verbal autistic people who need live-in help. I'd like to see stories of highly social autistic people trying their best to appear "normal" to others. I'd like to see stories of autistic women and autistic people of color doing anything and everything. Autism is not a "one size fits all", and I think it's time the media caught on.