Autism Unexpected: Autism on Television: How Real Is It?


When you are raising a child with autism, seeing television portrayals of families like your own and grown-up versions of what your child could be someday suddenly become very important.

There was a time when Tommy Westphall on “St. Elsewhere” was the only character with autism that you could find on television.

Times have changed, however, as recent years have brought many autistic characters to life on television, both scripted and reality. Turn on the television any week this season and you have the opportunity to see fictional Max on NBC’s “Parenthood” or real-life reality show contestants Zev Glassenberg on “The Amazing Race” and James Durbin on “American Idol.” There is even a character with Asperger’s on the children’s show “Arthur.”

Furthermore, there are many characters on television these days that the autism community awards armchair diagnoses: Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory,” Abed on “Community,” and Temperance Brennan on “Bones.”

There are also more and more guest spots and one- or two-time appearances of individuals with autism on various shows, plus there have been characters in shows that are no longer on the air (“Flash Forward”) or past seasons of current reality shows (“America’s Next Top Model”) that have featured individuals with autism.

With so much to choose from, and increasingly positive and more realistic portrayals, the reality of life as an individual with autism becomes more and more de-stigmatized every day. I am most thrilled to see actual individuals with autism on television, shown as smart, capable and talented people.

These reality show contestants are showing America that while their disabilities affect them (James Durbin clearly struggles with tics; Zev Glassenberg and his teammate had to leave “The Amazing Race” on their last season after losing their passports, something that most parents of a child with Asperger’s can relate to) they do not define them. These men have found ways to work with their Asperger’s to be successful.

Fictional characters on television present a more difficult situation. Whereas real people’s presentation of themselves is inherently real, fictional characters face a more difficult challenge. Creating a realistic, autistic character out of whole cloth and then finding an actor to play the role with sincerity and talent is a tough assignment.

To a person, current television characters are on the less severely affected end of the autism spectrum. Max on “Parenthood” is perhaps the most affected, and even his struggles tend to take place in short, easily remedied story arcs.

In fact, one of my greatest peeves with “Parenthood” is the way the series portrayed a friend of Max’s who was another youngster with autism. This child, clearly more severely affected, was portrayed as out of control and obnoxious. The storyline prompted us to roll our eyes at that child and his parents, who were not as photogenic or as adorably Aspergian as Max and his family.

Naturally, because autism is such a wide spectrum disorder, no one character or television show can adequately define autism for an entire community. However, I eagerly look forward to seeing realistic versions of many of the variety of ways that people can be autistic. With one in 110 children being diagnosed with a form of autism these days, it seems like this could be a natural turn for television to take.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the way autism is treated on television, other than its dismissal of more severe forms, is that television is intrinsically shallow; processes that take months in real life happen in days in TV land. Problems that last for weeks, months and years in real families dealing with autism, get tackled and solved almost immediately on television.

For instance, I’m still annoyed that Max’s family suspected Asperger’s, got a diagnosis and found the perfect school and behavioral specialist for him in about a week. In my experience, it takes two to six months to even get an initial appointment with any developmental pediatrician, let alone the area’s premier one, such as the Bravermans did.

As the parent of a child with autism, I get asked a lot if various portrayals on television are realistic. I am encouraged that parents of neurotypical children want to learn about life with autism and I am grateful for shows like “Parenthood,” which start this conversation. I am happy about shows like “The Big Bang Theory,” which raise questions about what it is like to be an adult with Asperger’s or other neurological differences and shows that it is possible to be successful even if quirky. I am thrilled to see the public embracing actual individuals with autism, such as James Durbin, who are showing us that being a cookie cutter person is not necessarily the best way to make an impression in the world.

Television has a long way to go, but it is making strides, and for that I am grateful. I hope that this trend of exploring autism in popular culture continues. I’ll be in a front row seat.

Listen to me discuss autism on television, as well as the many ways there are to be autistic, with Jason Black of the Washington Times Communities column Fade to Black. Find his podcast interview with me on the front page of the Communities section under “Audio Clips.”

Originally published at Autism Unexpected on March 18, 2011.