Autism and Disability On TV – Beyond The Stereotype
Australian society seems to be afraid of telling stories about people with disabilities that show the truth of what it really is: difficult, challenging, exhausting and sometimes painful.
Authentic representation matters and when creators, writers and the TV networks get these stories wrong, it distorts how society views people with a disability.
The Netflix series Atypical, which focuses on the life of 18-year-old Sam Gardner who is on the Autism spectrum, is in my mind a clear example of misrepresentation. The lead actor Keir Gilchrist isn’t Autistic, he’s merely pretending to be Autistic for the purposes of the show.
But they’ve got it wrong; Autistic people don’t talk like that, they don’t think like that and they don’t behave like that.
I know this because I have autism. And like countless times before this TV show, I’m being confronted by an autistic story without an Autistic person in sight.
Why does it matter? For people not living with a disability or who don’t have a close connection with someone who is, the consequences may be hard to see. But for me and those within the disability community, it leaves us feeling we are invisible.
I am not questioning this actor’s ability to act, but I am questioning the reasons behind the decisions not to hire disabled actors to play these parts.
If a disabled actor is cast, they are often relegated to supporting roles, yet these characters have the potential to create powerful stories that can remove some of the stigma around people living with a disability.
The Benefits of Authenticity
When TV shows feature a character with a disability played by an able-bodied actor rather than an actor with a disability we can tell the difference, just as it jars when you see an American actor struggling to carry off an Australian accent.
There is an authenticity and a lived experience that non-disabled actors cannot bring to the role, no matter how much research they undertake to give an “accurate” portrayal of their character.
According to data compiled by Screen Australia, while we make up 18 per cent of the Australian population, we make up just 4 per cent of characters in TV dramas.
Having diversity on screen benefits the authenticity of a production and the chances of a positive response from audiences. We are not a one-size-fits-all society, we are all different and diverse, and that should be represented and celebrated in what we see on screen.
A great example of an inclusive drama is the UK soap opera Hollyoaks, which in 2018 placed an open casting call for an Autistic actress to play the role of a character named Brooke Hathaway. The role went to a British disabled actress named Talia Grant.
The production company worked with UK charity The National Autistic Society and theatre company Access All Areas during the creation and casting processes, as well as Grant herself when developing the character.
This show has made diversity and inclusion a priority, including a blend of disabilities within the framework of their show and featuring strong, confident and powerful characters at the centre of some excellent stories. It has created some inspiring role models within the disability community.
This collaborative process created a real and honest depiction of someone living with autism and all its different facets. As a viewer and as someone with a disability, it was refreshing to see.
But this hasn’t always been the case.
The damaging legacy of Rain Man
Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man is probably the most famous representation of an Autistic character on screen, winning Hoffman an Academy Award for the role.
But many within the Autism community believed Rain Man actually damaged efforts to make people more aware of autism.
The movie focused on only one manifestation of autism — the Autistic savant — a form of Autism that is quite rare and doesn’t truly reflect autism for the majority of people.
People like me want these issues acknowledged and addressed, but there are no easy answers. Every representation of Autism is never going to satisfy everyone. The Autism spectrum is very wide and the people within it are so enormously different to each other.
The more we can integrate disability into mainstream movies and television, the more society will understand and view it as normal.
‘We all have a story to tell’
I know what a difference that would have made to me growing up and trying to navigate my way in this world living with Autism if there had been more positive depictions of people with disability in the media. I wouldn’t have struggled so much with my self-worth or confidence, and would have had a range of visible role models to whom I could relate and even aspire to be.
We all have a story to tell. What people with disabilities need now is the opportunity to tell them. We need access to the necessary platforms to provide insights into our diverse disability community, educating, informing and enriching the audience with our different experiences.
We need greater opportunities for disabled writers to share their personal experience of living with a disability and the many challenges that they face in today’s society. And we need these stories to be authentic by having disabled people tell them.
From the executives, there needs to be a greater level of comfort and confidence around incorporating diversity and disability into scripts for TV shows and movies.
Diversity has the potential to generate connection and empathy, and can also help shift perceptions of “otherness’ ” within the Australian disability community.
Movies and television content all have the capacity to create emotional connections, educate and highlight important views and opinions. It reflects our sense of who we are as a society and who we might be. We now need it to become a place which allows disabled people the chance to tell their stories and for our voices to be heard.
Nick McAllister is a writer who set up the website autisticnick.com to help educate people on what life is really like living with Autism.