Cinema still has a problem with autistic representation

The recent furore over Sia's 'Music', starring neurotypical actor Maddie Ziegler, has revealed a deeply embedded culture of media ableism.

by Marianne Eloise
07 December 2020, 11:04am

Recently, I was watching the late-00s David Duchovny show Californication and picked up on the fact that a character’s child was aged two-and-a-half and hadn’t yet said a word. It was later mentioned in passing that he was going to a speech therapist, and I smiled, thinking this was maybe a snippet of much-needed representation, as delayed speech is common in autistic people. No such luck. The storyline is dropped, and yet the show continues to use phrases like “on the spectrum” and “retarded”, frequently in fact, to describe characters who are a bit weird or inappropriate. This isn’t uncommon: as an autistic person, I regularly consume books, TV shows and movies that casually misrepresent autism spectrum disorder or use it as an insult.

When Sia was at the centre of a recent controversy for writing and directing a movie about an autistic teenager starring non-autistic collaborator Maddie Ziegler, I was not surprised. After all, I often see neurotypical people wanting to tell our stories without including us directly. There were some, however, who were surprised by the negative reaction: not letting neurotypical people play autistic characters is the death of creativity itself! What will make these autistics happy? While I was personally more upset by the tired inspiration-porn storyline and Sia’s behaviour in response to criticism than the casting itself, I am pleased that the conversation has opened up the floor for a more nuanced one about representation.

When you’re part of an underrepresented community or identity, your ears and eyes are finely attuned to the ways you’re portrayed. In the case of autism spectrum disorder, it’s still used as a kind of onscreen shorthand for actors to channel cold, robotic, weird, asexual or awkward characterisation. Autistic characters, on the rare occasion they’re seen, are portrayed either as burdens to their carers or so-called savants, mystically skilled at something à la Rain Man. As I navigate the world, I am constantly confronted by these representations, whether it’s an autistic janitor in an episode of The X-Files or the debut novel by an author I quite like talking about how terrible it would be to have an autistic child. Often, it’s used as a code for other behaviours rather than legitimately represented. 

Why do we care if films and TV shows that are ostensibly well-meaning don’t centre us? While things are improving, the majority of disabled characters are still portrayed by abled actors, meaning that disabled and neurodivergent actors get less opportunities. Not only that, but film and TV impact how we understand the world, and a dominating, stereotypical representation of autism has a tangible impact on autistic people’s lives.

Zoe, 21, is a musician who only recently found out she was autistic, and a lack of representation delayed her diagnosis. While she’s open about other things, like her nonbinary identity, she has avoided telling her friends and followers that she’s autistic. “Coming out as queer was one thing, but coming out as autistic is a whole new challenge for me,” she says, adding that stigma means there’s a lack of people to look up to in the public eye. “I consider myself to be a closeted autistic person partly due to this lack of representation. With no points of reference within the industry, it is hard to tell people about a condition that is so heavily stigmatised. It is important for neurotypicals to recognise that autism and creativity are far from mutually exclusive.”

Beyoncé, 19, was diagnosed with ASD at 13. Despite having some issues with communication, she’s found ways to express herself through music and art. “I’ve never really seen myself on TV, despite there being autistic characters. They’ve never been relatable,” says Beyoncé. She often feels on the outside of the creative community: “I am really open about being autistic, which I think scares some people off. It can often feel like I am being mocked, and I am aware that a lot of people infantilise me,” she adds. Beyoncé connects that infantilisation to how the idea of an autistic person is presented through the medium of fictional characters (which are often, inevitably, incorrect to the point of offence). “Many non-autistic people have certain ideas about autistic people due to the stereotypes and fearmongering that has been pushed for so many years through mainstream media,” she says, noting that the issue is much deeper than Sia. “I think people are too used to talking about us and romanticising us for their own benefit and when it suits them, rather than listening to us,” she says.

Chloé Hayden is an actor, TikTok creator and autistic advocate. She recently appeared in a short comedy film called Jeremy the Dud, set in a world in which abled people are treated with the same stigma and condescension that disabled people are in our society. Like Beyoncé, Chloé is frustrated with how poorly autistic people are represented on screen, and how readily neurotypical people accept those representations as accurate. “When we see a disabled character in the media, it’s without a doubt always stigmatised and stereotyped into what the neurotypical world sees us as, or wants to see us as, rather than who we really are — this in turn, just like photoshopped photos of models, makes people believe in a reality that doesn’t actually exist.” Chloe adds that false representation adds to the stigmas we’re trying to avoid.

I asked several autistic creatives what their dream vision for representation would look like. Many stated that they don’t necessarily want to be the centre of inspirational narratives, but that they just want to be there, a part of friendship groups and stories, just like we are in the world. Ross, 30, is a writer who’s experienced ableism in the creative industries. He describes his “autistic representation wishlist” as a woman or non-binary character who isn’t asexual. “The whole ‘asexual autistic robot’ trope is tired as all hell,” he says. “Also, let us be funny. Let them have comedy ranging from a goofy love of dad jokes to just deadpan wit. We’re just as funny when we’re in on the joke as we are when we’re the subject of it.” Most importantly, Ross says, he wants to see autistic actors playing characters who are warm: “We don’t just exist on some quasi-transactional basis.”

For Zoë, there isn’t a single idea of what ideal representation would look like, but a more general desire to see any: “It would be reassuring to see people like myself succeeding in the creative industry. Firstly, autism wouldn’t be such a taboo topic if we had role models to aspire to be like. Secondly, people would be able to see the broad spectrum of autism reflected in the media and celebrity culture.” Zoë is right: while there are autistic creatives, like Courtney Love or Anthony Hopkins, their autism is often rarely discussed in media. For many, it simply becomes an inconvenient facet of their persona, sidelined and forgotten in magazine profiles and Wikipedia write-ups.

“To create autistic characters that are a better representation of us, it would be great if the creators of these shows and movies would hire autistic writers or at least work with autistic people to understand what we are really like. They could also use autistic actors to make the acting more authentic,” says Beyoncé, adding that autistic characters played by neurotypical people often come across as cheesy. “I’m sure neurotypical people think that we are being picky “snowflakes,” but the way we are presented in the media is more harmful than you might think. When I tell people I’m autistic, they’ll often make a reference to a character, expecting me to be like them,” she says. Beyoncé simply wants writers and casting directors to put thought into how they present autistic people: “I hope that TV and movie creators aren’t put off by our reaction to the Sia movie, as we would really love to see more autistic characters and we want more storylines, we just want them done right.”

Every autistic person is different, and what they’re OK with will vary. My personal favourite autistic-coded character is Community’s Abed, because while his difference is often played up for laughs and his friends do make fun of him, they include him, and ultimately, both he and his special interests are absolutely integral to the plot. While actor Danny Pudi isn’t autistic, he plays Abed with love, and nothing about his character feels cruel – instead, he highlights his friends’ cruelties. But we are past that being good enough: we need overtly autistic characters played by autistic people, with neurodiverse people behind the camera, too. 

“The only way for disability to be correctly portrayed in the media in any form is to consult disabled people in all parts of the process. Nothing about us without us. Our voices have been silenced long enough, and the last thing we need is neurotypicals trying to act heroic by creating content about us but refusing to include us in the process,” Chloe says, adding that, while disabled roles need to be played by disabled characters, it extends beyond casting: “Autistic people are actors, and directors, and videographers, and producers…there is no need to exclude us, especially in projects which are entirely about us.” She adds, “how cool would it be to turn on your favourite television show, and there’s a disabled character - but the character isn’t there to be the ‘token disabled character’, they’re there to simply be another part of the script, and the disability isn’t a part of it, it’s simply a part of them, just as it is in real life.”

Representing and including autistic people is so easy: we make up at least 1% of the population, and we’re often smart, inquisitive, creative people who are keen to tell our own stories. We are out there.