Fictional characters with autism-like traits have been around for quite a while. Some of the more prominent examples include Ray Babbitt (RainMan, 1988), Tommy Westphall (St.Elsewhere, 1983-1988), and Christopher Boone (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, 2003).
But recently, not only have these kinds of characters become more commonplace, they’ve also begun to explicitly identify themselves as being on the autism spectrum. One of the first was Max Braverman (Parenthood, 2010-2015). He was followed, just within the past year alone, by Christian Wolff (The Accountant), the latest incarnation of Billy Cranston aka the Blue Ranger (PowerRangers), Julia (Sesame Street), Theo (Thomas the Tank Engine), Sam Gardner (Atypical), and Shaun Murphy (The Good Doctor).
Personally, I think that this trend is terrific. “Representation” is kind of a buzzword these days, but that doesn’t make it any less important. People – kids, especially – need to see reflections of themselves portrayed in a positive, respectful, and accurate manner in the media they consume. It helps encourage self-acceptance, self-esteem, and a belief that they, too, can become the heroes of their own stories.
It also encourages acceptance from others. When people see fictional characters with autism, or from any group of society that is underrepresented in popular culture, it becomes more “normal” to see them in real life, especially when those characters are three-dimensional and not just there as a token or plot device. Life influences art, but it works the other way too.
The fact that these characters are actually identified as autistic is important as well. The aforementioned examples of those who were not - along with others like Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory), Spencer Reid (Criminal Minds), and Gil Grissom (CSI) - were good starts, but letting the audience know that your character is on the spectrum (without beating them over the head with it) helps to get the message across in an even stronger fashion. For those who haven’t had any prior connection to the autism community, they can now make the mental associations that, hopefully, will lead to an increase in understanding and acceptance. And for those who are themselves on the spectrum, they can take a little more pride in knowing - rather than guessing - that yes, this character may share similar characteristics with them.
Now, are these portrayals perfect? Of course not. I’ve seen a lot of divided opinions in the autism community about these shows and movies, with some lauding the inclusion and praising the performances while others take exception to what they feel are unrealistic stereotypes, e.g., the characters’ savant-like natures or their robotic mannerisms. In general, a lot of the positive reactions seem to come from those who aren’t on the spectrum themselves, while those that are on the spectrum appear to be a bit more critical. This is certainly a cause for concern.
There also remains a disproportionate amount of female characters on the spectrum, with only Julia – a Muppet – as the prime example (there was Sonya Cross from The Bridge, but, like with the example of Sheldon Cooper, the show never explicitly stated that she had autism). Books have a few more characters, like Caitlin Smith (Mockingbird) and Ginny Selvaggio (The Kitchen Daughter), but there is still a way to go. I’ve read that the male-to-female ratio of people diagnosed with autism is somewhere around 3-to-1 or 4-to-1, so we really should be seeing more autistic female characters.
Improvement can also be made with regards to casting actors who are on the spectrum in real life in roles that are specifically written as autistic. I understand the challenges inherent in finding the right people for the right parts as well as the pressure to make sure your movie or television show is profitable (Paddy Considine, an English actor on the spectrum, would probably have made a terrific Christian Wolff in The Accountant, but, as of this writing, Ben Affleck is the bigger box office name). Still, though, it would be nice to see some more advancement made on this front. Autistic actor Mickey Rowe was cast as Christopher Boone in the stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, so that’s a good step.
Despite all of these issues, I feel that, overall, things are definitely moving in the right direction. It’s hard – impossible, even - to please everyone, but the fact that we are even having these discussions in the first place is what leads to progress. My hope is that writers and creators will learn from the feedback they receive and use that to make improvements going forward.