When you watch TV, do you see anyone like you?
For children with autism and their families, the chance of seeing a well-rounded character who is on the spectrum have long been slim, with small-screen portrayals typically focused more on stereotypes than reality.
“A lot of times, what we get is the most extreme portrait, like the kids who can’t talk, or it’s always about overcoming a disability, instead of the disability just being a part of them,” says Allison Harthcock, Associate Professor of Critical Communication and Media Studies at Butler University.
That’s why autism advocates have consistently pushed for not simply more examples of those on the spectrum in the media, but for in depth characters who depict a variety of realities. The industry has responded, albeit slowly, by incorporating more characters into story lines where their autism diagnosis is actually confirmed or is inferred.
“It’s about the quality of representation and the variety of the representation,” Harthcock stresses. “It’s important that we show that it’s not all happy and smiley, and it’s important for parents to see representations of special needs parents, too.”
Here are a few TV shows that feature some of the better portrayals of individuals on the spectrum:
This NBC drama, which ended last year, is heralded as one of the best researched and most realistic examples of the life of a special needs family. Over six seasons, the sprawling Braverman clan rallies around Max (played by Max Burkholder), a 9-year-old with the autism spectrum disorder Asperger’s syndrome, as he navigates life at school and home. The developer of the show has a son with Asperger’s and said he was committed to creating a realistic, accurate portrayal.
Where to watch: DVD, Netflix, Amazon Video
Other dramas with characters possibly on the spectrum:
Detective Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger), “The Bridge” on FX
Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan (Emily Deschanel), “Bones” on Fox
Abed Nadir (played by Danny Pudi) is the emotional center of this offbeat comedy, which spent five seasons on NBC before moving to the now-defunct Yahoo! Screen for its sixth, and likely final, season last year. While Abed’s diagnosis was never confirmed, creator and showrunner Dan Harmon actually discovered that he has a form of Asperger’s while researching the disorder for Abed’s development. The well-rounded character sometimes has difficulty interacting with others, but he does form meaningful relationships, and his encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture make for some of the show’s best moments.
Where to watch: DVD, Hulu, Amazon Video, film adaptation in development
Recently renewed for an eighth season, this ABC sitcom set in Indiana follows the daily struggles and unintentional hilarity of the Heck family, whose youngest member, Brick (played by Atticus Shaffer), isn’t specified as having autism, but struggles with social interaction and often repeats words to himself in a whisper. Brick’s quirks and unusual interests are often used to highlight the universal ways in which parents and children don’t understand each other, which provides plenty of laughs.
Where to watch: ABC this fall, ABC.com, DVD, Hulu, Amazon Video
Other sitcoms with characters possibly on the spectrum:
Dr. Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS
“Arthur” and “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”
These PBS Kids shows both explore the autism spectrum through beloved animated animals. On “Arthur,” Carl, a rabbit, has Asperger’s, leading to issues with social interactions and making friends. On “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” O the Owl has sensory sensitivities and often prefers to read about things rather than experience them. The shows handle the characters’ challenges as only PBS can, through education, compassion and the celebration of differences.
Where to watch: PBS, PBSKids.org, Hulu, Amazon Video
Hopefully, honest and varied portrayals of individuals on the spectrum will show up more and more on the small screen. As this continues, it will truly reflect back the society in which we live and provide those with autism a chance to see themselves represented on television – just like everyone else.