Kathy Bates and Amy H. Frechette
"We’ve become aware of how hard it is for disabled actors to get parts in movies because they don’t read for parts that aren’t disabled, so when the character is disabled, it should go to a disabled actor.”

- Bobby Farrelly, Director of the film Champions

April was autism awareness month. My friend and colleague Amy Frechette who works at the Institute on Disability has Aspergers Syndrome. We decided to share our thoughts about how autism spectrum disorder is represented on screen.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disability that creates difficulties with social interaction and communication. There is a wide range of abilities among people with autism. Some have a career, drive a car, and live independently, while others require more support with daily tasks. Some autistic people can speak, while others communicate using methods such as gestures, pictures, or iPads. Like any disability, it does not look the same from person to person even though some share similar characteristics. This is why autism is referred to as a “spectrum disorder.”

During a visit with Amy and Judah, her service dog, we talked about disability representation on TV and in the movies. Amy was telling me about a Korean television show on Netflix called Extraordinary Attorney Woo. The young autistic attorney, starring Park Eun-bin, wins seemingly unwinnable cases because she has memorized law books since childhood. She is a savant, which refers to someone with a developmental disability who has an extraordinary ability usually focused on one area such as math, music, memory recall, or other subjects. This is an extremely rare syndrome. Rain Man starring Dustin Hoffman and The Good Doctor starring Freddie Highmore are two more examples of how characters with autism are also portrayed as savants.

I was wondering how Amy felt about everyone being represented in this way. She agreed that it did not seem realistic at all. While I found these shows entertaining, I did not think that it was an accurate representation of people with autism. People are individuals, none of us have the same traits even if we have the same disability. If every character with autism is a savant, then the public does not get a true picture of what it is like to live with autism.

I feel there are some better on-screen representations of what life is like with autism. One such example would be the Netflix reality series Love on the Spectrum because all the cast members have autism.  Since communication is difficult (especially in social situations) many of them meet with a relationship coach to practice skills such as taking turns during a conversation. They also practice how to respond to questions and learn dating etiquette. It is an insightful series that teaches us that romantic relationships are important to people with autism despite their daily challenges.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of participating in a Zoom presentation featuring Temple Grandin, PhD. The use of Zoom during the pandemic had its disadvantages but having the opportunity to talk with her in such an intimate setting was an advantage. She was so easy to talk with and the experience was fantastic. She talked about the film Temple Grandin played by Clair Danes, based on her life story as a woman with autism who became an animal behaviorist.  Grandin is also an inventor and many of the original drawings of her inventions were used in the film. She said the movie is a very accurate depiction of her life experiences because she was consulted frequently during the filming of it. Behind the camera or in front of it, disability representation is critical to ensure the accuracy of film projects.

From where Amy stands…

While April has been chosen to recognize ASD both nationally and internationally, for those who have ASD it’s an everyday matter. In the 21st century, there has been an influx of representation and recognition of minorities and people with disabilities within many different areas, such as the arts as mentioned above. People have lived on the Earth for millions of years. The truth is there are still millions of people who call Earth home and many of them have ASD. The modern world is not designed for us, therefore, fitting in is always a challenge. Hollywood is moving towards more representation of those who have a disability, specifically ASD. There still needs more work to be done in this direction, people with ASD have incredible talents and gifts to offer the world. It’s time to show the world how special and unique we are.

From where I sit . . .

Lauren Appelbaum, vice president of the nonprofit organization RespectAbility, states that the Nielsen study found that, “Though the number of disabled characters on screen has increased, approximately 95 percent of those roles were still portrayed by non-disabled actors”.

Television and movies influence how we think and have the power to break down the many stereotypes that surround disability. Simply showing characters with disabilities dealing with typical problems while leading productive lives allows audiences to relate more positively to them. If people with disabilities see themselves accurately represented on screen, then they can imagine themselves in that role. The possibilities are there to explore and they can reach for the stars.