Autism on TV

Autism awareness campaigns operate under the premise that few people in the world have accurate information about what autism really is. And while acceptance campaigns are fundamentally a better idea, there is a distinct lack of awareness among certain sectors of the population over what autistic people are really like and the different ways autistic people can appear. These awareness campaigns, however, rarely present an accurate picture of the diversity of autistic people and our behaviour.

In 2017, there were a fair few TV shows focusing on an autistic person, all of which had their positives and negatives, although some more one than the other. I’d like to focus on four: Netflix’s Atypical, the BBC’s The A Word, the bio-documentary about Chris Packham Aspergers & Me, and the 10-minute clip from Sesame Street, Meet Julia. I want to talk about what parts of these I identified with and what I thought was good, but also what harmful stereotypes they continued to push, and all the negatives that come with that.


Netflix’s Atypical was met with a negative response from the autistic community right from the trailer. It seemed to depict a horrifically stereotypical white male obsessed with having sex. This analysis was sadly quite accurate. The main plot of the show is the main character Sam’s quest to find a girlfriend.

Sam’s mother is the stereotypical Autism Mom, complete with parent groups, Autism Speaks fundraising, and autism being a “huge part” of her identity. I study mathematics and my mum doesn’t go around talking about how being a maths student is a huge part of her identity – because she’s not a maths student. Autism is a part of the autistic individual, NOT their parent.

The parent group shown in Atypical is exactly what you would expect – they lecture the dad on person-first language, frequently use functioning labels and there is one scene where they are icing cupcakes in the Autism Speaks colours. One of the parents also wears a puzzle piece necklace. The mother arranges “Autism Walks” for fundraising every year, presumably for Autism Speaks due to the colours but never explicitly stated. And as I said on twitter, the only person who seems to need reminding that autistic people are people is the mother herself.

The mother is not the only thing wrong with this show. During the show, Sam acquires a girlfriend, Paige. Paige seems ok with being locked in a cupboard by Sam, and also has a “card system” whereby Sam has three cards and when he mentions his special interest – Antarctica – has to give her one and can only mention it three times a day. That’s not a sign of a healthy relationship. Also, his best friend at work takes him to a strip club which again is wholly inappropriate.

Aside from all the autism stereotypes, this show is also terrible when it comes to gender stereotyping and heteronormativity. The mother at one point judges Sam’s sister Casey’s sweatshirt, telling her she should “flaunt [her] cute figure”. Sam also behaves in an abusive manner to women throughout which is never dealt with and seems to be accepted.

The show was not wholly without it’s relatable moments however. At one point, Sam paces around his bed because he’s stressed, which is very similar to the way I pace around the dining room table in my parents’ house, or the coffee table in my own living room. The actual meltdown was also quite similar to how some of mine were a few years ago, and the show does admit that autistic people can feel empathy. Sam also wears noise cancelling headphones, which is very relatable.

While there are of course a few relatable aspects to Atypical, overall it is not a good depiction of autism and not something I would recommend watching, especially if you’re not heterosexual.

Atypical – 3/10

The A Word

The second season of The A Word was broadcast on the BBC in Nov/Dec. I would say this particular autism-themed show is somewhat false advertising – most of the show focuses on the relationships of adults who happen to be related to an autistic child. I wouldn’t say autism is the main theme of this at all. The show focuses on the family of Joe, a five-year-old autistic boy.

This show is not about autism – it is a family drama which seems to use Joe’s autism as a catalyst for people having family arguments and separations. The most harmful aspect of this show is its continuation of the autistic kid causes parents to split up stereotype. Autism as the cause of separation is all too prevalent in fiction and we don’t need more of this. Parents don’t split up because of their kid – they split up because they are having problems with each other. Not all relationships last, that’s fine – but to blame it on their kid? No, that’s so harmful when the child grows up and faces that.

Joe’s special interest is music, and he frequently listens to it. When he’s asked a question, he will name a song and unless someone names the artist and year he won’t answer the question. He’s also depicted stimming and making repetitive movements. This all seems fine to me, it’s accurate enough as a depiction of autism.

It’s the attitudes of adults in this that is problematic. The parents seem to despise the word “autism” and use any euphemisms they can find. They frequently use phrases like “something wrong with him” to talk about Joe, and they seem visibly ashamed of having an autistic child. The sister also talks about how she has to stay at home because she is Joe’s sister and how she’ll be the only one there for Joe when he’s older – like autistic people can’t develop relationships outwith blood relatives.

Overall the show isn’t that great but it does have many more positives than Atypical, and provides a decent depiction of autism, albeit surrounded by unhelpful stereotypes from the adults in the show.

The A Word – 6/10

Aspergers And Me

As a documentary, this of course is spared the invented stereotypes that often plague fiction. I really loved this. I thought it was a fantastic documentary, really relatable in a lot of places and showed ABA to be the horrific thing it is.

I’m relatively unfamiliar with Chris Packham’s work, animals are not one of my special interests though clearly are his. He’s so knowledgeable about it and shows how autistic people can make a career out of their special interests that they actually enjoy which made me very happy. He also lives way out in the woods away from other people which I often wish I could.

In it, Chris Packham, visits the US to view what is considered autism “therapy” there. There’s some electromagnetic radiation “cure” therapy that seems like a potentially harmful scam, and then he visits an ABA school. It looks so bright and noisy like it’s designed to be as painful to autistic people as possible. The documentary also talks about the origins of ABA and deals with it in a way that shows that ABA is in fact harmful. I was so pleased to see this viewpoint broadcast.

It’s not perfect, he’s described as like an “alien” by his partner which we could really do without and there is an awful lot of talk about a hypothetical cure but overall this is a fantastic documentary and I would recommend.

Aspergers And Me – 9/10

Sesame Street

Even as a kid, I’ve never been a big muppet fan, so all I’ve seen of the much-discussed Julia is a 10-minute clip I watched on YouTube a few days ago. But it’s good. It presents autism in a positive way that’s accessible to kids, showing Julia to be just a bit different, and also acknowledging that every individual is different regardless of neurology.

The episode also demonstrates the sensitivity to noise many autistic people have by showing Julia being upset by sirens that she finds too loud – a common occurrence in my own life. It shows a meltdown in a considerate way and demonstrates that giving her time and space to calm down is the best approach.

Julia also stims happily in the episode, which is very validating to see, as stimming is often seen as negative in the neurotypical community, so to see positive happy stimming represented on TV is brilliant. The others also accept her the way she is which is refreshing to see (although sadly probably unlikely in real life).

Overall, it’s a wonderful episode and a fantastic depiction of autism in the media that I hope will change the attitudes children of an age to be watching it have to their autistic peers. It also shows an autistic girl which is fantastic as autistic women are often very underrepresented due to years of underdiagnosis.

Sesame Street’s Meet Julia – 10/10

Of course, what is being presented on screen is only one side of autism representation – there is a behind-the-scenes question of how many autistic people are involved in making these things. However, that is a question for another day.

The representation of autism on television in 2017 ranged from the terrible to the brilliant, but I am optimistic that we are making progress and the on-screen depiction of autism in 2018 will show more Julias and less Autism Moms.

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