Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) isn’t always easy to understand for anyone who hasn’t been immediately exposed to it. Like other phenomena, many people become familiar with ASD through the way the disorder is depicted in television and movies.
Of course, not all TV shows or movies are created equal. There are good and bad portrayals of both people with ASD and with the effects the disorder has on their families and lives. The bad portrayals verge on caricature and plant wildly misleading perspectives in people’s heads… the good ones improve understanding and spread empathy for both those with ASD and the caregivers and family members who deal with the disorder.
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It’s a particular challenge for actors and actresses asked to play characters with ASD but in recent years many of them have been able to rise to the occasion with remarkable skill. It’s all the more impressive when considering that most of these roles are depicting kids, and younger actors are the ones forced to step up to the plate and create genuine and moving performances with characters who are both non-traditional and wildly foreign to the audience’s experience.
Here are seven films or TV shows with the most honest depictions of characters with autism spectrum disorders.
- Rain Man
Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in 1988’s “Rain Man,” starring opposite Tom Cruise, was the performance that really kicked off the search for authenticity in depicting characters with ASD. Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Actor and the film won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Writing, and Best Director as well as a slew of other film industry awards.
To reach that level of accuracy, both Hoffman and screenplay author Barry Morrow spent time with the man that Babbitt was based on: real life autistic savant Kim Peek. Many of Babbitt’s apparently extraordinary skills were taken from genuine talents that Peek exhibited. Hoffman also mimicked Peek’s somewhat unusual gait and a number of his mannerisms in order to provide an accurate portrayal of the character.
Although its depiction was true to life for Peek, the movie was so popular that it did have some unwanted side effects for the ASD community: many viewers came to believe that all people with autism were also savants, which is far from the case!
Nonetheless, the film helped humanize people with ASD and its commercial and critical success paved the way for further films with autistic characters.
- What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
A young Leonardo DiCaprio received his first Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a developmentally disabled younger brother to Johnny Depp’s Gilbert Grape in this family drama. To prepare for the role, DiCaprio visited an assisted living facility and observed a number of teenagers with ASD and other developmental disabilities. He developed his performance from those observations, incorporating tics and tendencies that were familiar to many families of children with ASD.
The movie also won plaudits for its depiction of the challenges for families of kids with ASD. The frustration and anger shown by Depp’s character, thrust into the unwelcome position of caring for a brother who should be old enough to take care of himself, are also familiar to many families in the autism community. Depp’s depiction of Gilbert as feeling trapped in his role as caretaker is one that many parents and siblings of kids with ASD can sympathize with.
- Fly Away
After filmmaker Janet Grillo finished her documentary “Autism: The Musical” about five kids with autism attending a theatrical workshop and producing a play, she found that she still hadn’t explored everything she wanted to explore around ASD. As mother to a child with ASD, Grillo had plenty of experience to go off of, and it bled into her next project, “Fly Away.”
“Fly Away” tells the story of a family disrupted by the experiences of dealing with an autistic daughter, played by Ashley Rickards. Her parents are divorced and her mother, played by Beth Broderick, is desperately trying to cope with the challenges of being a single parent to a child with ASD. Her work, personal life, and relationships all suffer, but the film avoids a maudlin, predictable ending… but no spoilers here.
Rickards received rave reviews for her convincing depiction of a child with ASD.
- Jack of the Red Hearts
It shouldn’t be any surprise that Grillo has two entries on this list, as she also wrote, produced, and directed the more tightly-focused and autism-centered “Fly Away.” “Jack of the Red Hearts” still deals with ASD, but takes the plot in a more dramatic direction.
A fictional drama about a tough runaway who talks herself into a job as a therapist for an 11-year-old girl with autism, the movie itself is fairly predictable, with the usual tale of redemption and heartwarming acceptance. But the role of Glory, played by Taylor Richardson, is unusually authentically portrayed, with some scenes shot from her character’s point of view.
“Atypical” is one of several new TV shows that focus on a character with autism, and like most of those shows, it has been criticized for a sometimes insensitive or inept portrayal of that character. Yet “Atypical” goes to a place that many fictional depictions of autism don’t by addressing the difficulties of being a hormone-laden teenager and dealing with the problems of growing up and dating while being on the spectrum.
Although the show’s star, Sam, played by Keir Gilchrist, is written with some overly ludicrous behaviors that have many folks with ASD rolling their eyes, the situations he and his family find themselves in are often more familiar and more subtle. The way that Sam’s obsessions play into his love life are at once accurate and uncomfortable… just like real life.
- Temple Grandin
Claire Danes brings authenticity and accuracy to her portrayal of real-life Doctor Temple Grandin, a noted professor of animal science who helped revolutionize practices in the human handling of livestock on cattle ranches and in slaughterhouses.
Danes won an Emmy as lead actress for the role, and a new generation of viewers learned how Grandin beat the odds to both become a respected professional in her field and a respected autism rights advocate.
- The Bridge
“The Bridge” is another one of those dark, depressing Scandinavian murder mysteries that has caught fire around the world and been re-made for other countries like the United States and Russia.
In each of its iterations, the show depicts a joint investigation of crimes committed at a national boundary line, necessitating the cooperation of two investigators from different countries. And in each of its iterations, the female lead is played as a person with high-functioning autism.
But unlike almost any other show with a main character with ASD, the condition is not only not made the focus of the plot, but is left unstated: the disorder is shown through the character’s traits and actions, informing how they behave around other and analyze the case. It’s a show where the character happens to have ASD rather than having a collection of quirks and tics that are simply explained by ASD.