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What Popular TV Shows Get Right and Wrong About Autism

Representation is important. It’s important because when you’re part of a marginalized community, seeing yourself on screen helps you realize that there are more people out there like you. This is as true with autism as it is with any other group of people who are underrepresented.

There’s a popular saying that goes “if you‘ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” This makes saying whether one representation of autism on a TV show is accurate really hard because every child and adult has their own experience with the autism spectrum.

The best we can do is let the community itself tell us what they think is accurate and what they would have preferred not be done. Let’s look at three TV shows and see how they did with representation.

Atypical (Netflix)

gilchristimagecollectAtypical is about the daily life of an 18-year-old who has autism. The show follows Sam as he dates, deals with crowds at school, bullying, etc. The show is also about how his mother, Elsa, his father, Doug, and his sister, Casey deal with his autism and lead their own lives.

One thing that Atypical overdoes is constantly emphasizing that because of Sam’s autism, Casey barely gets any attention from her parents and feels abandoned, especially by her mother. While some parents might give their autistic child more attention that other children, it is a damaging stereotype to play on and it could make autistic people watching feel like they are burdens. What’s more, this is never resolved in the show, just brought up repeatedly.

What the show does get right is a lot of anxieties parents have regarding letting their autistic kids go, because they don’t think they are ready. Elsa is especially prone to this, and doesn’t want Sam to date because she can’t believe he’ll ever be ready.

The A Word

The A Word touches on something very real from the get-go. That no one can prepare you for raising your autistic kid. Allison, Joe’s mother, is constantly trying to find the right way, and compulsively manages everything about her son. While she has great love for him, it’s almost as if she wants him to be neurotypical eventually.

From policing his emotions—there’s a scene where she expresses that when he looks at pictures, she wants him to feel things—to being ashamed of his diagnosis, eventually even taking him out of school. The A Word really understands that some parents do the wrong thing by their children as a misguided form of love. They think they’re helping, but they’re actually hurting their kids because they are acting of their fear.

What is important is that we be skeptical of how bad of a mother Allison is. Like Atypical, where Elsa is painted as the bad parent, this seems to be the case in the A Word as well. Allison goes to the extent of chasing a speech therapist at one point, and is horrible to her daughter. The show also creates moments that seem like they would never happen in real life sometimes.

The Good Doctor

freddieThis show is decidedly different. It focuses on an autistic person who’s a little bit older, Shaun, who is a very talented surgeon. Shaun’s autism manifests in his obsession with human physiology, making him very good at his job.

Just the first episode constructs a situation where he saves a child’s life at an airport. This scene was especially unique because he did this using only common materials you would find there. And while this is quite far-fetched, it does a good job representing someone who is autistic and also a genius (Which less than 10 percent of autistic people are).

At the same time, representing autistic people as eccentric geniuses is a very old trope in TV, and erases all the autistic kids who are low-functioning. While this isn’t a problem by itself, if this kind of representation is the only one we get, it can misinform people about what autism can look like in all its forms.

If you’ve seen any of these shows and believe that either you or someone you know might have some kind of autism, Orange County for Autism Awareness can help you out. Contact us today.

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