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How Autism is Portrayed in Media
Autism Media

Portrayal in the media is a hot topic for a variety of identities. The historically marginalized and disenfranchised minorities of the world seek respectful and accurate representations of themselves in the media they consume. Unfortunately, many people of these identities still have yet to see truly accurate portrayals of themselves in popular media. People with disabilities and people on the autism spectrum in particular have only recently seen more portrayals in tv shows and movies. In this post, we’ll discuss how autism is portrayed in the media.

When it comes to accurate portrayals, it can be difficult to find the “perfect” character with autism on tv or the big screen. Writers and producers face the challenge of autism being a spectrum of disorders, which comes with an even more diverse range of symptoms. As such, portrayals of characters on the spectrum can vary as widely as their real life counterparts. Some of the more famous tv portrayals include: 


“Atypical” is a modern family-friendly sitcom on Netflix that follows the life of Sam, a young man on the autism spectrum. Sam’s autism is a main theme of the show, and through its comedic episodes it dives into the nuances of living on the spectrum as a young adult. It also focuses a lot on Sam’s family and how they all are impacted and manage Sam’s symptoms as he learns to be independent and builds his own relationships. Atypical’s portrayal of autism has drawn a mixed reaction from the community. Many see Sam and his family as an overtly positive take on autism’s impact on family life. Others feel it’s the most respectful and “down to earth” portrayal in a long time.

The Good Doctor

In “The Good Doctor,” Shaun is a brilliant medical professional who consistently pushes the bar for doctors around him. He has a strong moral compass and is a compelling character in his own right. However, he is nowhere near representative of a large group of adults on the spectrum whose symptoms make traditional schooling and employment an impossibility. Much like “Atypical” the portrayal is certainly respectful, but some say it misses the mark.

Big Bang Theory

Perhaps the most iconic character of this popular sitcom, Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory” displays much of the symptoms associated with Asperger’s and other autism spectrum and autism-adjacent diagnoses. Unlike the other two portrayals Sheldon’s behavior and/or symptoms isn’t necessarily what drives the plot forward. Yet, many point to his character as a semi-accurate portrayal of asperger’s and autism’s more anti-social characteristics.

Common Criticisms

All three of the portrayals listed above have their fair share of supporters and critics. Much of the criticisms facing the three characters share a common thread: which part of the vast population on the autism spectrum is being represented? Many advocates and adults on the spectrum appreciate the move toward more representation while also seeking more portrayals of those with more severe symptoms.

Specifically, most characters with autism on tv or elsewhere are fully verbal, incredibly independent and don’t show the more difficult sides of dealing with an autism diagnosis. Many of these roles aren’t always portrayed by an actual actor on the spectrum either.  As more people are educated and accepting of those on the spectrum, we can hopefully look forward to more representation and accurate portrayals of every part of the spectrum.
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March 17, 2020

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