Why is pop culture still so behind on representing Autism properly? The answer may be simple — a lack of input from those on the spectrum.
Autism Spectrum Disorder has become a major discussion in the last few years, with diagnoses becoming more accessible. I was diagnosed in my early teens, but recently, it’s frequent enough to be found in one in 54 children. Because of this, it has become more common in pop culture, but a lack of input from autistic individuals can be of detriment to any story written about us.
An example of what input fixes is “Atypical,” Netflix’s comedy-drama series focusing on Sam (Keir Gilchrist), an autistic teenager struggling with the social complications of family, high school and relationships. To some, season one’s depiction of Sam was seen as stereotypical and sometimes even inaccurate. The cast and crew of the show at the time was also entirely neurotypical, meaning nobody in the cast or crew had ASD.
When the show’s team heard backlash, they used this as an opportunity for growth. They hired David Finch, a best-selling author with ASD, to be a consultant for the personal experience of autism, and cast actors on the spectrum as members of Sam’s autism support group. The show still has its flaws, but many noticed a marked improvement in the quality of representation from season two on.
However, not everyone is receptive to backlash. “Music,” a 2021 film by the pop musician Sia, is a garish example of what happens when you don’t see autistic people as valuable in portraying ASD. Instead of being understanding when criticized, Sia resulted to childish insults when asked by someone on the spectrum why there were no autistic people included in any step of the production. On her since-deleted Twitter, Sia replied, “Maybe you're just a bad actor.”
The titular character, Music (played by neurotypical actress Maddie Ziegler) is a portrayal of autism that would be laughable if it weren’t so insulting. Ziegler is unable to produce even three facial expressions as Music, and the depiction isn’t just bad, it’s dangerous. The film depicted the use of a type of restraint that has killed autistic children as an act of love, and Sia claiming future releases would cut the scene doesn’t excuse implementing it in the first place.
The sad thing is, even good representation can be corrupted by bad influence. I was thrilled when “Sesame Street” added Julia, an autistic muppet, to its cast. This excitement wasn’t personal, but because I have a cousin my age on the spectrum who enjoys “Sesame Street.” That kind of representation isn’t just important for him, but numerous other children and families. She was developed in partnership with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, one of the most prominent organizations made by and for autistic individuals.
That’s why it was saddening to find out that Sesame Street had since broken their partnership with ASAN and used Julia to promote Autism Speaks. The organization is a controversial yet well known one that uses performative inclusivity to hide a negative view on autistic individuals, encouraging a rhetoric of grieving a living autistic child, implying diagnosis is comparable to death.
These examples don’t mean representation is impossible to do well. The 2018 reboot of animated action-adventure “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” is known for its diversity, including a great example of autism representation. Entrapta, voiced by Christine Woods, is the princess of Dryl, a talented inventor who’s a valued member of the cast despite having different ways of approaching things than her peers. Her development was influenced by a crew member on the spectrum, Sam Szymanski, whose input was vital in her authenticity, and her characterization was praised by fans and critics alike.
Basically, when it comes to depicting ASD on the screen, there’s a good phrase used by ASAN to summarize my point: “Nothing can be about us, without us."