Autism and the Media

“When I tell people that my kid has autism, they immediately think of Rain Man.”

This was a common lament at the time my son was first diagnosed. The idea that autism was a spectrum had not yet entered the mainstream and, for most, Raymond Babbitt was the only media portrayal of a person with autism to which they had been exposed. Thus, after revealing the autism in conversation, the parent of a child with Asperger’s or PDD-NOS would hastily clarify the scope and severity of their child’s impairment.

In the eight years since then the particulars of ASD have become widely known; if you state that your child has “Asperger’s”, for instance, most folks know what you mean without requiring further details. (PDD-NOS, however, remains a mystery to most). Indeed, these days if you describe your child as autistic, many listeners first think of the many contemporary characters in media that are on the spectrum.

In 2009 I wrote Autistic Trekdom, arguing that the character of Spock in the new films, coupled with Star Trek’s underlying message of inclusion, was a veritable celebration of neurodiversity out there. Shortly thereafter I was a guest on my local NPR station, where I spoke of the raft of new portrayals of people with autism, including Abed from Community, one of the children on Parenthood, and Max Jerry Horowitz in Mary and Max.

To that list we can now add Gary Bell from the television show Alphas. While a rather generic superhero ensemble show, Alphas treats Gary with a lot of respect, and the character is actually one of the most complex and well-rounded on the program. All of the protagonists have struggles— with anger management, alcoholism, intimacy, and so forth — and those of Gary are not depicted as any more or less debilitating or noble. Better still, his colleagues often find him irritating and exasperating, just as they do each other. He is viewed as a unique member of the team, but also as just another co-worker.

Given all this, people no longer instinctively hearken back to Rain Manwhen told that a child has autism. But for those of us with children on the lower-end of the spectrum, the pendulum has swung the other way. Now, if you simply describe your kid as having ASD, people are less likely to think of Raymond Babbitt than of Sheldon Lee Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. As one friend confessed to me, he has now come to equate ASD with “quirky”.

This is why, as you may have noticed, I usually bill my son as having “classic autism” rather than ASD, and am quick to add that he’s non-verbal. Even then a lot of my friends and acquaintances don’t really grasp the degree to which he is impacted, unless they meet him in person. I love the numerous and nuanced portrayals of people with autism in the media these days, but sometimes think that describing my son’s disorder would be easier if Rain Man were still the starting point for the discussion.

Even as these contemporary characters with autism have become increasingly well-known, one element of Rain Man still lingers in the mind of many: savantism.  For the record, savant syndrome is rare, even among those with autism (1 in 10 is the estimate of this study). My son takes piano lessons, but has no special skill in music; he uses fingers and a calculator to help in math; and if he’s able to calculate the day of the week of any given date, that’s news to us. His favorite thing to do with the Go set I bought when he was about four was to drop the stones down the heating vent and listen to them ping their way down the duct.

Someday autism may be so well represented in the media that no particular character leaps to mind when it is mentioned, just as no one instinctively thinks of Blossom when someone mentions having a neurotypical daughter. Until then, Rain Man and Gary Bell will have to do.