Right now, a lot of people have been talking about representation – and why it is important to have a range of representation on screen. (It influences how we see each other, as well as our perception of others. And that’s just at a very basic level.)
As an Autistic person, I have often struggled with the portrayal of Autism on-screen. After my diagnosis, I was recommended particular programmes to watch – only to find the character to be a world away from my experience. It also made me feel awful about my diagnosed disability (as defined under the Equality Act.) Is that how people really see me?
Invisible Disabilities Week is coming up soon, and, as an Autistic person, it seemed like the right time to share a list of Autistic characters who are actually liked by (at least some of) the Autistic community. Representation matters – and there is still a lot of work to be done.
Raymond Babbitt from Rain Man (1988)
Everyone knows Rain Man, don’t they?
Tom Cruise plays the part of a selfish man, who is something of a Casanova, a playboy type. His father dies – yet the estate that is worth millions is given to a brother he doesn’t know he has. Raymond is – for all intents and purposes – someone who is also on the Autistic spectrum, who also has almost mythical abilities far outside the conventional realm. And it all develops from there…
What should be considered, when watching the film, is that Autism is a spectrum – and is not something that is simply linear. Although Kim Peek, the inspiration for Rainman, was previously diagnosed as being on the spectrum, it’s actually thought that he had FG syndrome instead. His obituary from the Guardian also stated he was not on the spectrum.
Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory (2007 – 2017)
One of the recurring cast members from the long-running programme played by Jim Parsons, Sheldon Cooper has sometimes been criticised by some Autistic people. While it is never stated, the character is thought to have Aspergers Syndrome.
The character may be lauded as a ‘genius’ for his scientific ability, yet is often derided. Sheldon Cooper may not understand social nuances, but he does end up married – and even manages (sarcasm intended) to enjoy a healthy sex life. Other cast characters often make fun of him – for being the last to understand a joke, for instance.
That being said, Aspergers Syndrome is not an excuse for being rude, it’s a label for challenges – and I feel that this been blurred in the writing of the character.
Saga Noren from The Bridge (2011 – 2018)
Love crime? You will like The Bridge, especially for its dark, nordic themes.
The understanding of Autism has started to become more nuanced recently – and this was reflected somewhat in The Bridge. Spoiler alert: women can be Autistic, too! It sounds simple, yet stereotypes and bias in diagnostic criteria often stops us being diagnosed or means we are diagnosed in later life.
While it is never stated, Saga Noren is sometimes viewed as having Aspergers Syndrome. Unemotional (although this is a stereotype), she may miss social cues – yet makes a brilliant investigator. It’s also good to see, as she’s not the sort to immediately ‘give in’ to any advance from a potential romantic partner.
Dylan Keogh from Casualty, 2011
Twitter can be a weird and wonderful place; when looking for examples of characters for this piece, Dylan Keogh was an unexpected response.
Autism is something only for the person who has the condition; it is not for a parent to be pitied, to be lauded for ostensibly being a saint.
The character took on ableism while seeing a patient – and it may have otherwise been missed.
Sam Gardiner from Atypical (2017 – 2021)
Atypical is a Netflix series. Protagonist Sam Gardiner has ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), though this is sometimes referred to as ASC. (Substitute disorder for the condition.) Sam is starting to grow his wings, and is thinking about leaving for college; he is set to leave the family home. But before this, he wishes to start dating girls – and the plot thickens. Oh, and Gardiner also has a special interest, in all things Antarctica.
Sam’s family seem to start to fall apart, once he starts to spread his wings. Casey, his sister, wins a scholarship to a prestigious school – and worries about her brother almost constantly. (Let’s just put it out there: a sibling should not be a caregiver.) Sam’s parents also have what could amount almost to a marital tussle. All the while, Sam is in the middle.
While Atypical has sometimes been criticised for having lacked Autistic actors in season one, it did add more afterwards. There were some stereotypes deployed in the plot-line, too – enough so that my neurotypical sister, when watching one scene, that it was almost like the Autistic characteristics had been exaggerated for the sake of a joke. That being said, if you’re looking for something easy to watch, this is the way to go.
Matilda from Everything’s Gonna Be Okay ( 2020 – present)
At last, we have a woman in the mix!
A father of two girls has a terminal illness and wants the Australian cousin of his two children to become their guardian after he dies. One of his children, Matilda, is on the Autistic spectrum – and a sizeable portion of the unfolding drama is centred around her, as well as how her sister adapts to the new guardian.
This programme has won a lot of praise; it’s nuanced, it presents a female perspective, and is played by someone who is actually autistic! Everything’s Gonna Be Okay also does not shy away from being very frank, as well as covering relatively modern-day topics – such as catfishing. It also does not depict Autistic people as a community to be pitied – a tired, ableist trope belonging to another era. If you have a relative who has just been diagnosed, please make sure they watch this.
Invisible Disabilities Week is from 18th – 24th October 2020.
Have we forgotten anyone on this list?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.