How Hollywood’s Autism Fantasies Undermine Autism Employment

NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 27: Larry David attends the ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ season 9 premiere at SVA Theater on September 27, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Pont/FilmMagic)

In a recent Curb Your Enthusiasm episode (Season 9, “Namaste”) Larry David pretends to be on the autism spectrum to win sympathy from an African-American mechanic he has insulted. Of course, as widely noted in the autism blogosphere, this is insensitive and inappropriate. But there is more honesty (and humor) in this one scene than in all of the fantasy that Hollywood continues to put out on autism this fall–including through such high-profile shows as The Good Doctor and Atypical.  Here’s why we should take notice.

For the past decade, autism has exploded in popular culture, so that it is simply impossible to turn on the television or go to the movies without an autism reference or character on the autism spectrum. When I started in the autism community in 1991, Rain Man, was the main and near sole autism reference in popular culture. In just the past five years, more than twenty movies and television shows have appeared with characters on the autism spectrum—to say nothing of tens of memoirs, novels, and young adult fiction.     An adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon’s popular 2003 book featuring a teen on the autism spectrum, is winning applause on Broadway.

This multiplicity of material is to be welcomed. There is no one autism story. As is often said, persons on the autism spectrum differ widely in skills, interests, behavioral traits, activities–“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” and so on.

Yet, among Hollywood’s main shows, the dominant autism narrative is a narrow one. It is primarily of autism as the quirky savant: the brilliant or near-brilliant person, whose autism is mainly difficulties in social communication. On The Good Doctor, Shaun Murphy, the character on the autism spectrum, is able to diagnose medical conditions that confuse and confound other doctors, including doctors many years his senior. On Atypical, 18-year-old Sam Gardener, who is on the spectrum, possesses an encyclopedic  knowledge of penguins, rare fish and Antarctica.

Yes, there are persons in the autism community like this—though savant skills are most often accompanied by more severe social dysfunctions than shown on these television shows. However, these savants and near-savants constitute a small range of persons on the autism spectrum—estimated at well less than 10%. For most, autism is more than the somewhat-endearing behaviors that the television characters demonstrate as defining autism: failure to make eye contact, or filter statements, or understand social cues.

The Good Doctor, on network television, is watched by a stunning 17.8 million viewers per week. The producers and writers understand the elements of successful medical dramas (as far back as Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare of the 1960s), and skillfully incorporate these elements. Autism is not the drawing card. Yet, the show in its success significantly shapes how many Americans are being introduced to autism. So often today when autism comes up in a non-autism community audience, The Good Doctor and Atypical will be mentioned. (Netflix does not release viewership numbers, but Atypical has been popular enough to be renewed for a second season.)

Among autism family members, practitioners and advocates, the views of these shows are not all negative. Some see the heightened profile of autism, and its generation of autism discussion, to be a big positive. “What’s the saying, any publicity is good publicity” notes Jan Johnston-Tyler, a Silicon Valley advocate and well-known autism job expert—who nonetheless cringes at some of the surface understandings of autism.

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