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How Film & TV Misrepresented Neurodiversity

Film and TV have long failed to depict neurodiverse characters with accuracy - often framing them as the “odd one out” or as autistic savants, like in Rain Man (1988). But lately, as our society learns more about neurodiversity, we have begun to see a change. Nuanced portrayals of neurodiverse characters aim to put us in their shoes and give us a window into how they experience the world differently. Audiences have rallied behind characters such as Abed (Danny Pudi) in Community, and Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) in Sherlock, reclaiming and celebrating them for providing authenticity to neurodiverse stories.

TRANSCRIPT

Film and TV have a long history of failing to portray neurodiverse characters with accuracy, nuance, and respect. But in recent years, as our society comes to understand a lot more about how neurodiversity manifests, onscreen portrayals are at last improving to more authentically represent and empower those in the neurodiverse community. Looking across a range of examples, we can observe some salient patterns in how neurodiversity tends to be featured on Film and TV: Neurodiverse characters are frequently driven. Research shows that those on the autism spectrum have increased capacity for extended focus, as well as hyperfocus, where they zero in on an interest and lose track of everything else going on around them. And neurodiverse characters often channel that focus and drive in order to be successful in highly competitive fields. They tend to see the world differently. They can use their unique perspective to solve complex problems and think outside the box, which gives them an advantage over neurotypical thinking. Still, film and TV sometimes overemphasize these traits to a degree which might lead audiences to falsely imagine that all neurodiverse people are autistic savants —characters who lack social skills but are geniuses in one specific area. Neurodiverse characters are often framed as the odd one out — presented as the single neurodivergent in a group of neurotypicals. On the one hand, this story structure can celebrate what makes them unique, but it can also be othering, putting the focus on how their neurodiversity impacts people around them instead of what their experience is. But nuanced portrayals of neurodiverse characters aim to put us in their shoes and give us a window into how they experience the world differently.

Greta Thunberg: “In some circumstances, it can definitely be an advantage… to be neurodiverse because that makes you different, that makes you think differently.” - CBS This Morning

Maybe the biggest factor in improving the portrayal of neurodiverse characters is the term “neurodiversity” itself, which refers to variation in the human brain regarding the way we learn, socialize, focus, and do other mental functions. Judy Singer, an autistic sociologist, coined it in the late ‘90s to challenge the idea that Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnoses are disabilities, or that they need to be cured.

Here’s our take on our evolving understanding of the neurodivergent character, and why film and TV must use their power to show us how thinking and behaving differently isn’t a problem that needs to be fixed.

Before Neurodivergence

Looking back at early representations of neurodivergent characters on screen can feel uncomfortable. Many of those portrayals can be patronizing, and represent a very narrow view of what neurodiversity is like. They frequently make neurodivergent characters non-verbal, to the extent that they can’t communicate any emotion at all — turning them into puzzles for a neurotypical character to solve, or depicting them as basically unaware of their surroundings. In the context of their times, some of these film’s representations could actually be groundbreaking. Talking about 1988’s Rain Man, one of the first films to center a neurodivergent protagonist and specifically name the condition as autism, Ali Vaux says that, “To even suggest that Raymond was a human with basic dignity was a really big deal.”

But by today’s standards, most past iconic films about neurodiverse characters contain elements that come off as cringeworthy or offensive — and the same goes for critical conversations around the films. Roger Ebert’s review of Rain Man, while positive and empathetic overall, opened by asking: “Is it possible to have a relationship with an autistic person? Is it possible to have a relationship with a cat?” Todd McCarthy’s 1994 review of Forrest Gump describes Gump as a “semi-imbecile” and a, “part Dustin Hoffman might once have killed for.” While Ed Potton’s 1980 review of Being There used the ignorant descriptor of “idiot savant.”

Forrest Gump: “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.” - Forrest Gump

Rain Man’s Raymond Babbitt is the most iconic example of the prevalent cinematic trend of overwhelmingly representing the neurodivergent character as a brilliant autistic savant. Raymond can count cards and solve complex math problems in his head but struggles with everyday elements of numeracy and social expectation. Before Raymond, The Boy Who Could Fly’s Eric also put forward this representation of autistic people as extraordinary — instead of being mathematical, Eric’s savant abilities are fantastical, in that he can actually fly. Yet the film still suggests that Eric’s autism is something we should look to cure.

Milly:Ms. Sherman, she used to teach those kind of kids. And she thinks that maybe being around normal people will help him.” - The Boy Who Could Fly

Autistic savants — who make up around 10% of all autistic people — are overrepresented

in pop culture. They’re treated almost as a white equivalent to the magical minority trope in depictions that other them while suggesting they can offer mystical insights that will revolutionize other people’s outlooks. Even when they’re the main character, the neurodivergent character in all these portrayals is there to help neurotypical people learn something. Raymond is there to help Charlie grow as a person, Eric uses his flying ability to help Milly realise the importance of faith, and Chance The Gardener in Being There (who was read as neurodivergent despite not being diagnosed within the film) inspires his entire nation after his words about gardening are misinterpreted by the President as nuanced political and economic advice.

Chauncey Gardiner: “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well in the garden.” - Being There

Neurodiverse characters are often there to share their understated wisdom with the audience as well. In Forrest Gump — whose protagonist is again never diagnosed beyond being evaluated for his IQ — Forrest’s simplicity allows him to find beauty in the world that the other characters can’t see, and his uncomplicated perspective on life is held up as something we should learn from. Even at their most compassionate these portrayals can present neurodivergence in an oversimplified one-dimensional way and risk making the neurodivergent character the punchline.

Because the focus on these stories is overwhelmingly on how the neurodiverse character impacts others, when they’re not being a magical helper the film might encourage a lot of audience sympathy for the neurotypical people who have to deal with these characters’ needs. In What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Arnie is loved by his family but he is still presented as a burden — and his narrative purpose is to create obstacles for Gilbert’s character arc.

There are some outliers in early representations of neurodivergent people that attempt to show them in a more complex, less tokenistic way. The 1989 documentary John’s Not Mad, following a young boy with Tourette’s syndrome, shows a number of different sides to Tourette’s and allows him to talk about the condition for himself. As illustrated by its title, John’s Not Mad attempted to break down the stigma around neurodivergence, and promote understanding, rather than pity.

John Davidson: “When I feel I’m going to say it I try and stop myself, but it just feels if I have to say it. It’s just like somebody’s forcing it out.” - John’s Not Mad

How Far Have We Come?

Contemporary depictions of neurodivergent characters can’t get away with the narrow portrayals of past films — in large part because there are more actual, high-profile people speaking publicly about their neurodiversity than ever before. Greta Thunberg has credited her rare drive and sense of purpose in climate activism to her different way of seeing things, Hannah Gadsby has used her diagnosis for comedic material, and Anthony Hopkins has credited his neurodivergence with helping his acting, saying: “I definitely look at people differently. I like to deconstruct, to pull a character apart, to work out what makes them tick and my view will not be the same as everyone else.”

Documentary filmmaking has led the charge in representation for neurodivergent characters on screen, doing much to counter the harmful stereotypes once widely perpetuated by fiction films. One outdated trope of neurodivergent characters is that they’re not interested in romantic relationships, but Aspie Seeks Love challenges that by focusing on author David Matthews’ trials in the world of online dating. Another outdated trope is that neurodivergent people don’t have a sense of humor, something that is expertly disproven in Asperger’s Are Us.

Noah Britton: “It’s true we’re the first comedy troupe composed of people on the autism spectrum.” Michael Ingemi: “So if we’re not funny, blame it on Ethan’s disability.” - Asperger’s Are Us

In fiction, neurodivergent protagonists have found a home in the detective genre, thanks to the legacy of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock’s powers of deduction and his photographic memory are both commonly thought of as autistic traits. Even his lack of social skills and empathy (also commonly linked to Autism Spectrum Disorders) become useful to his profession, as they give him the ability to focus on the task at hand. But while Sherlock is a beloved character whose stories arguably even glorify neurodivergent traits, he is still subtly othered — painted more like a magical superhero than a fleshed-out person with needs, and occasionally referred to as inhuman or robotic by the neurotypical people around him. In that sense, Sherlock represents a bridge between older and newer understandings of neurodivergence. He’s afforded more agency, independence, and dignity than many previous autistic or autistic coded characters, but still strays into the autistic savant trope. A less fantastical portrayal of an autistic detective can be seen in the Danish series The Bridge’s Saga Noren (who’s not diagnosed within the show, but in the words of actress Sofia Helen, “To me, she has Asperger’s.”) Whereas Sherlock’s coldness sometimes manifests as comedic and his intelligence as superhuman, Saga is more down to earth. She also disproves the assumption that autism only affects men.

Modern neurodivergent characters can still fall into outdated stereotypes, showing that our mainstream understanding still has some ways to go. Sia’s Music was heavily criticized for including scenes where its neurodivergent protagonist is restrained — a practice now considered to be abusive within the autism community — and for using a neurotypical actor to play a non-verbal, neurodivergent part. The lead actress also imitated stimming and facial expressions that were meant to make her look autistic, much like in outdated films from decades earlier. While there’s a long tradition of neurotypical actors being highly praised and winning top awards for their performances as neurodiverse people, we now understand that this practice is damaging and even some have termed it “cripface.” Claire Bennett writes that it, “suggests that disability is an identity that can be temporarily assumed for the purpose of entertaining people. In the best scenarios, it has mocking undertones. In the worst, it devalues disabled peoples’ very existence.”

Sam: “The reason prey animals hang around in a pack is for safety, so they don’t get eaten. And I was feeling like a prey animal with no pack.” Atypical, 2x3

Even Netflix’s Atypical, which began in 2017, was criticized for casting a neurotypical actor to play its protagonist, Sam, who’s on the autism spectrum. However, Atypical listened to the criticism, and in the second season did cast neurodiverse actors in the roles of Sam’s support group.

Kayla Cromer, who stars in Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, recently became the first actress with autism to portray a lead character with autism on American TV. These are significant steps toward widespread authentic representation, because even the most well-intended neurotypical actors will never truly know what it’s like to be neurodivergent.

Reclaiming Neurodivergence

The concept of a headcanon, born out of fan-fiction, has been adopted by the neurodivergent community to reclaim characters who present as neurodiverse, even when they don’t have an official diagnosis in the story. This exercise of identifying neurodivergence where it was previously overlooked also speaks to our growing understanding that it isn’t all non-verbal, challenging behavior, and is instead truly a broad spectrum.

Grey’s Anatomy’s Cristina Yang frequently gets diagnosed as neurodiverse, with neurodiverse author Holly Smale citing reasons like Cristina’s hyperfocus, her struggle to connect with anyone who isn’t Meredith, and the way she masks her true personality, or puts effort into presenting as neurotypical when she’s with Dr. Burke. The show briefly touches on the question but never formally diagnoses her. Yet it presents her neurodiverse traits as just one part of a complex person.

Tina Belcher in Bob’s Burgers is another character whose show questions whether she may be autistic. In the neurodiverse community, Tina’s frequent moans and groans have been identified as a kind of stimming, repetitive, self-stimulating behavior that neurodiverse people exhibit when bored, nervous, or tense.

Community’s Abed has also been read as on the autism spectrum thanks to his hyper-focused interest in and knowledge of TV and film, as well as his challenges with social cues. Abed has been embraced by so much of the neurodiverse community because his passions and style of self-expression are encouraged by and shared with his friends. Also, while he does display extraordinary powers of recall and knowledge of pop culture, he isn’t a superhuman success, so he doesn’t fall into pop culture’s reductive stereotype of the autistic savant.

Abed: “Is this a social cue?” - Community, 3x16

Brooklyn 99 has been credited not only for creating characters who read as neurodivergent but also making those characters people of color, who often go underrepresented in discussions of neurodivergence. Captain Holt’s strict sense of order, his flat-speaking delivery, and his sensory avoidance when it comes to food, are all signifiers of ASD, while Amy Santiago’s love of organizing and structure have also been read as neurodiverse traits. Both of these characters are celebrated for their differences and respected as mentors who have a lot to teach others in their workplace.

Looking back a little further, 2001’s Amelie is another character who’s been embraced by the autistic community for her hyperfocus, difficulty reading social cues, and hypersensitivity. We can see signs of neurodiversity in The Shawshank Redemption’s Andy Dufresne, who exhibits hyperfocus with his accountancy and his meticulous plan to escape prison, and struggles to connect with people. While Andy may not find it easy to immediately bond with others in a conventional way, his different way of viewing the world radically inspires the other men in the prison and improves their lives in lasting ways. To Kill a Mockingbird’s misunderstood recluse Boo Radley has recently been read as an undiagnosed neurodivergent person who’s treated poorly by his community due to his difference. And a study from the Canadian Medical Journal theorized that in the Winnie the Pooh stories, all the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood exhibit some form of neurodiversity, from Tigger’s ADHD, to Rabbit’s narcissistic personality disorder, to Piglet’s anxiety disorder. While some object to this kind of “armchair diagnosis” of fictional creations, if there is a character who a lot of neurodiverse people recognize themselves in, then maybe it doesn’t matter what the author’s intention was.

Andy Dufresne: “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” - The Shawshank Redemption

It’s ironic that in trying to create distinctive and lovable characters, writers often code them as neurodivergent without necessarily intending to. This shows that deep down, we know that differences are what make people unique, special, and interesting. On the other hand, when the writing doesn’t explicitly say that “different” characters are neurodiverse, and sets them apart mainly via their refined skills or intelligence, the narrative isn’t consciously pushing us to expand our perspective on what we consider acceptable differences. The success that can come with hyperfocus is already sought after in a lot of ways, and it’s important to also show the less romanticized aspects of neurodiversity in order to destigmatize them.

Moreover, if creatives can get away with simply implying that a character may be neurodiverse, then they do not need to be held accountable for the lack of neurodiverse writers and talent hired to create and portray that character. This situation can end up perpetuating misunderstandings about neurodivergence and continuing the one-dimensional representation or harmful stereotypes of the past. So as empowering as it can be to reclaim neurodiverse-presenting characters, it’s also important not to accept headcanon representation as enough and keep pushing for intentional representation.

Conclusion

While thoughtful neurodivergent visibility is still lacking in most mainstream media, important new representations are forming. Sesame Street’s introduction of an autistic character, Julia, will allow people to understand autism from a young age, while shows like Everything’s Going To Be Okay and films like Keep The Change are centering neurodiverse people in front of and behind the camera. The documentary The Reason I Jump, based on the book of the same name by Naoki Higashida, has also been heralded as breaking new ground in depictions of autism, as it attempts to evoke the lived experience of non-verbal autistic people through immersive sound,

and a specific cinematic language.

With more neurodiverse protagonists and a broader range of accurate portrayals of the neurodiverse community, people’s headcanons can become actual canon, and representation can grow beyond the stereotypes.

Sources Cited

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