Breaking the Mould – Autism Representation in the Media

(Content note: One mention of each of the following to exemplify a point around halfway through this post – bullying, meltdowns and autistic burnout)

Hi all,

I’m sure you’ve all heard about the internet series Atypical from Netflix, which claims to be a “coming-of-age” story about an 18-year old autistic white male looking to get a girlfriend. I was hoping to watch the show but I haven’t been able to without resorting to piracy or giving Netflix any revenue, which I don’t want to do. So this post will not be a review of Atypical like I originally intended, but instead focus more on the untapped potential autism has when it comes to representation in the media.

Autism has huge potential to help aid character development in various media products, but it currently isn’t being utilised. There is the potential for deep exploration on these differences, such as school life, the workplace and relationships (as Atypical attempted to do). The mainstream media representation of autism is currently very shallow and tends to consist of the following:

  • A white male
  • Young
  • Straight/cis
  • Panders to stereotypes and pre-existing beliefs by NTs of those on the spectrum including that they have lack of empathy, are antisocial and alloromatic
  • The ASD character is often portrayed as somebody to be laughed at, not with
  • The show is designed so that the ASD character is something that should be pitied and how they are a burden on the other NT characters (especially parents!)

I’m sure there are more, but this is a good starting point. This narrow-minded viewpoint would by nature omit the chance to elaborate on the additional struggles faced by autistic people outside this representation (including to but not limited to POC, LGBTQ+ and actual alloromantic autistic people) on top of their ASD which by default makes these more difficult to negotiate (as well as other factors like lack of information etc.). Often they are compared to other stereotypical characters like Rain Man as well as Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory.

In terms of potential plots that break the stereotypical mould outlined above, I have a few examples of plots that could work as a starting point below:

  • A story between an NT/ASD couple in a committed relationship that are having difficulties in communication due to the different neurotypes. This story would explore how they both come to a common understanding and find different ways and techniques of helping each other understand their neurotypes and how it affects them and their relationship.
  • A live action drama about an autistic child’s school days where they suffer from loneliness and bullying from both students and teachers, eventually having to be pulled out and homeschooled. This is despite them wanting to make friends and can strongly emphasise when somebody is hurt. The second half of the drama would focus on the child’s recovery from this before deciding once and for all whether to be placed back in a different mainstream school or continue homeschooling.
  • A visual novel about an ethnic minority family in America (whom have autistic family members) and how this affects their treatment from the police and wider society as they try to rise up the social ladder. This one is a bit vague as I don’t really know much about this, but you get the point.

You can have all these ideas on me. These stereotype-breaking ideas can set a foundation for media products that can be really interesting and memorable experiences if they are done right. That means avoiding the stereotypes while having authentic character development and of course telling a good story. It is so much better than “an antisocial white male tries to get friends but is treated as a laughing stock by the writers” that has been done several times already.

Of course, any media involving autism also need to be made by autistic people (or at least the vast majority of those that have creative control in the project). The best people whom are qualified to produce media about autism are autistic people themselves. This applies to any form of media product that focuses on a perspective from somebody that is outside of the stereotypical media representation. However this is especially the case with autism. This is because NTs whom try to do it on our behalf often do it poorly, usually adhering to the stereotype as was outlined above.

The reason for this is simple – they are not autistic. They cannot truly understand an autistic person’s experience as their brain is wired differently. The need or desire to stim to express feelings. Not understanding jokes/innuendos. The feeling that comes when you know you have a react in a particular way to a social situation, but said reaction doesn’t come easily if it even comes at all (for various reasons). There is also being sensually overwhelmed which can lead to autistic meltdowns and burnout. This is often caused by other people and/or the ways in which wider society disables us. So how does that make NTs qualified to write about us, yet alone describe our experiences in ways that reflect reality and painted in a positive/empowering light? It dosen’t. So NTs – don’t try to do it for us. Nothing about us without us.

(Note: I know there are overlapping conditions like ADHD, SPD and social anxiety where some of these experiences are shared. However, autism would affect these as well making an autistic person’s experience different from an NT’s with the same condition).

We all need characters/people in the media we can relate to. And right now, it is definitely lacking in the ASD department. The best advice I can give to media outlets is to go out there and make original content that involves autistic people (ie. original series). Have autistic people write the scenario. Have autistic actor/script writers. Consult with autism charities that actually support autistic people (which means no Autism $peaks or any other organisation that paints autistic people in a negative light).

For autistic people, if the institution/industry you want to work with/in is autism unfriendly you could try to go indie and do it yourself. It is easier than ever to do this. For books, you can self-publish yourself over services like Lulu including printing physical copies and digital distribution on other sites including Amazon. And with services like Steam you can upload video and gaming content on there for a very low price. Thanks to the internet, it is possible for individuals to get noticed when it would have been much harder before.

That said – while more diversity is a good thing, if the products themselves fall flat in another department (such as bad writing, voice acting etc.) then it lets the side down for the product as a whole. Those that aren’t too bothered about diversity representation will arguably take more note over the technical aspects of a product rather than how it handles its themes, and that may be what they ultimately take away from the product. Rather than “Oh hey, I didn’t realise this was what a [person representing a marginalised group] actually is like/lives/feels” it would be “This story has serious plotholes and the acting was flawed in places.” This is an important potential pitfall worth noting. It is worth working to each individual in your development team’s strengths as well in order to produce the best quality product.

To conclude, autistic people are unique. Wonderful. Talented. Passionate. Empathetic. We deserve to have our fair share of the spotlight and representation in the media, as well as in wider society. Because we are human too and have the potential to tell wonderful stories that can stand on par with those produced by NTs. That’s all for today.

Best wishes,

Subtle (@subtle_writes)