Archived: The Portrayal of Autistic Individuals on TV

The volume of exposure autism spectrum disorder, or autism, has gained in the years since Dustin Hoffman introduced it to mainstream America in his 1988 depiction of Raymond Babbitt in “Rain Man” has multiplied exponentially. But activists for this disorder, which affects more than 3.5 million Americans, are still waiting for network television to properly depict this underrepresented population.

Recently, ABC premiered “The Good Doctor” and Netflix unveiled “Atypical,” which both center around main characters who fall on the autism spectrum.

To properly educate the public on what life is like for those living with autism, the producers of both shows dove into research on autism, from reading books and blogs to hiring consultants to read through every script. What they have found is it truly is a spectrum with a wide range of varying levels.

David Shore, the creator of “The Good Doctor,” explained to the Hollywood Reporter that not all levels of autism are debilitating. “I think it’s important that autism is part of it, and I think we can enlighten people and do something quite positive. But it’s a show about a man who has autism. And he is very specific.”

To ensure they give the disorder a fair portrayal in these two shows, both crews have brought in consultants, such as organizations like Autism Speaks. In addition, due to the prevalence of the disorder, many of the crew members leaned on the experience of people in their own lives who are living with autism. Most notably, one crewmember for “Atypical,” who has a son on the spectrum, quit her day job to provide input on the show’s portrayal of people with autism.

“The Good Doctor” received a full-season order following consistently positive ratings.

“We are thrilled to announce that we are giving our viewers additional episodes of ‘The Good Doctor,'” said Channing Dungey, president of ABC Entertainment, in a statement on Oct. 3. “We have an amazing team in front of and behind the camera, led by Freddie Highmore’s incredibly nuanced performance as Dr. Shaun Murphy, and we’re confident the show will continue to captivate our audience.”

The show follows Dr. Shaun Murphy, a pediatric surgeon. It is based off of a series from South Korea with the same name.

Daniel Kim, one of the show’s executive producers, explained why “The Good Doctor” is so different from other dramas on television today.

“The primary thing that made me really want to pursue this show and bring it to American audiences is the fact that the character of Shaun is someone who was born with a set of obstacles — the obstacles were not put in his own way by his own choices. And in so many dramas that we see today, we see people getting in their own way. But Shaun is not one of those people,” he said during a panel over the summer, before the show first aired. “Shaun is trying to overcome his challenges in a way that I wholeheartedly root for. And that is a really positive message that I think is particularly resonant given these political times.”

“Atypical” also follows a main character with autism but in an entirely different setting. Eighteen-year-old Sam Gardner is a high school student navigating the typical ins and outs of young adulthood — with the added layer of being on the autism spectrum.

“There are all these young people now who are on the spectrum, who know … they’re on the spectrum,” Robia Rashid, the show’s creator, told NPR. “And [they] are interested in things that every young person is interested in … independence and finding connections and finding love.”

“Atypical” has been met with some negative reviews, though. Critics of the show point out that some of the show’s humor inadvertently comes at Sam’s expense.

“The show is obviously filled with compassion for Sam and tries hard to give the audience some sense of what his everyday experiences are like — demonstrating how clothes with too many zippers and textures overwhelm his senses by distorting sounds and visuals for viewers. But it also relies on him as a punchline, only to turn around and assail other characters who do the exact same thing,” The Atlantic noted in August.

In an op-ed for The Huffington Post, Haley Moss, an advocate for autism who also falls on the spectrum, gave the show a mixed review. Among her negative opinions is that Sam appears to be a cookie cutter example of a person with autism.

“Sam is totally the stereotypical higher functioning autistic character, except he isn’t obsessed with trains. Otherwise, he’s a perfect stereotype. Nobody is a perfect stereotype in real life,” Moss wrote.

Another longtime favorite show has recently brought the topic of autism to a completely different audience. The writers of “Sesame Street,” which currently airs on PBS Kids and HBO, are introducing toddlers to the world of autism through their newest Muppet, Julia. Big Bird, Elmo and the other characters guide their young audience to show them that Julia has differences in the way she sees things. In her debut episode, it is revealed that she has unique talents, like being a very gifted artist. Hopefully this is a sign of a new normal for network television.

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