The Autism Blog

Autism and the Media

February 22, 2012

With increasing awareness about autism, it is inevitable that it is being portrayed in the media more and more.

The classic example of autism that pops into many people’s minds is Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.” Certainly this is ONE representation, but most people would say, “that’s not my kid.” How can we expect autism to be portrayed to our liking when we think of the mantra “if you’ve seen one kid with autism, you’ve seen one kid with autism”?

I started watching NBC’s drama “Parenthood” on TV this Fall and appreciated that they at least take a stab at accurately representing the real life rollercoaster that is today’s “modern family” (that’s another great show, but not the topic of this blog).

In “Parenthood,” it’s Max who is an 11-year-old boy with Asperger Syndrome.

What I like about Parenthood isn’t whether Max’s meltdowns or stereotypic movements are accurately portrayed, but how other family members approach him. Max’s mom generally doesn’t like to shake things up, his sister doesn’t know what to do, and his dad likes to challenge his comfort zone. Of course, this parenting approach struggle makes for great TV, but it does seem to me that actual parents of children with autism are likely to relate to these struggles at least some of the time.

“Parenthood” tackles topics like what might happen when your child realizes they’re different, and in the show, Max definitely did not discover this in a positive way. It also addresses the struggles of fun, but non-routine, family activities like camping, the impact of repetitive behaviors on family life, the social stressors of being in school, and in a recent episode, the dangers of wandering and getting lost. Whether Max is an accurate portrayal of autism or not may be beside the point, as the show seems to do a fairly poignant job of just highlighting a day in the life of one family with autism.

What about media’s development of characters on the spectrum that AREN’T representations by actors? For that, I watched the 2010 Blockbuster Smash Hit, “Dear John.” While it did get a Rotten Tomato from critics, audience members appreciated it a little more.

Sure, it’s a Nicholas Sparks’ romance, but autism makes its way into the storyline. The character, Alan, has autism, but this time, the character is played by Braeden Reed, who ACTUALLY HAS AUTISM. Reportedly, he had no previous acting experience and he has a significant speech delay. As it turns out, he is an amazing actor – whether he was acting or not – that’s the beauty of it. I STRONGLY recommend that you watch the story on Braeden found in the Special Features – you’ll find out that he enriched the film for everyone involved in amazing ways.

What are some media portrayals of autism that you like? Don’t like?  What do you think the impact of portraying autism in the media is on the autism community? What do you think of the speculation that the characters of Abed from “Community” and Spock from “Star Trek” are on the spectrum???

Here is a list of 10 movies depicting autism, and considering the only one on that list that I’ve seen is “Rain Man”, my Netflix queue is now very full. Other movies that may be of interest include “Dear John”, “Temple Grandin”, “Today’s Man”, and “Autism: The Musical” (a documentary).