Autism and Disability Representation On Screen- We Can Do Better
Last week I wrote an article which got published on the ABC’s Perth news website, the article was about the lack disability representation on screen in regard to Autism representation and how we as Autistics are portrayed on screen.
Here is the un-edited version of that article
Autism and Disability on TV – Beyond the Stereotype
As a society, it seems that we are afraid to tell stories about people with disabilities that show the truth and accept disability for 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 manifests in how society views people with a disability, which in my case is someone with Autism.
I feel that Atypical (A Netflix drama/comedy that focuses on the life of 18-year-old Sam Gardner who is on the Autism spectrum) is a great example of misrepresentation. The lead actor 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.
For myself and those within the disability community, we feel we are invisible. I can’t switch the TV on and see an Autistic person hosting a lifestyle show or a reality show, and I don’t see myself being represented in either a scripted drama or comedy program by real people living with a disability.
And that saddens me.
Whilst I am not questioning these non-disabled actor’s abilities to act, 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 and their stories have the potential to create powerful connections and the capacity to remove some of the stigma and limiting social attitudes towards people living with disability.
When TV shows have featured a character with a disability, 96% of the time they are played by an able-bodied actor rather than an actor with a disability. As someone with a disability, it can be easy to spot how artificial their on-screen presence within this character’s storyline feels when the actor portraying this fictitious character doesn’t have a disability in real life.
There is an authenticity and a lived experience that these non-disabled actors cannot bring to the role despite doing all the research or reaching out to those within the disabled community so that they can give an ‘accurate’ portrayal of that character.
Having diversity on screen not only benefits the overall authenticity of a production, but it also improves 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 in what we see on TV and we should feel proud to celebrate our uniqueness.
A great example of an inclusive drama is the UK soap opera, ‘Hollyoaks’. In 2018 ‘Hollyoaks’ placed an open casting call for an Autistic actress to play the role of a character named Brooke Hathaway. The role eventually went to a UK disabled actress called Talia Grant. The production company worked with the UK charity The National Autistic Society and the theatre company Access All Areas during the creation and casting processes, as well as Grant herself when developing the character.
To have characters with disabilities at the forefront of storylines rather than fading into the background is so important because its showcasing disability at its core and leading the way for other TV shows to realise that our stories are valuable and worth telling.
This UK soap has made diversity and inclusion a real 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 giving way for some inspiring role models within the disability community.
This process of collaboration with all parties involved gave for a real and honest depiction of someone living with Autism. They have managed to capture the true essence of what living with Autism is really like and all of its many different facets. As a viewer and as someone with a disability, it is refreshing to see.
But this hasn’t always been the case.
Rain Main (starring Dustin Hoffman) is probably the most notable movie to represent
Autism with Hoffman’s portrayal being the most famous of an Autistic character to date.
However, many within the Autism community believe that Rain Man was damaging to bringing about Autism Awareness. This was largely because the movie only showcased the “Autistic Savant” which is actually quite rare within the Autism spectrum and doesn’t truly reflect Autism for the majority of Autistic people.
Whilst representation of Autism is never going to satisfy everyone because it’s such a wide spectrum and the people within it are so enormously different to each other, the Autistic community is certainly much more than Raymond Babbitt.
Wouldn’t it be great if we started to see more Autistic actors cast in major roles, or more actors in wheelchairs?
People with disabilities can play an important role in educating the viewers at home about real life issues of living with a disability and the more we can integrate disability into mainstream television, the more hopefully society will view it as normal.
I know myself, if there had been more positive depictions of people with disability in the media when I was growing up and trying to navigate my way in this world living with Autism,
I believe I wouldn’t have struggled with my self-worth or confidence as much. I would have had better role models that I could relate to and even aspire to be.
What we now need to happen is that we have the opportunities to access the necessary platforms available so that we can begin to tell our stories. Stories that provide an insight
into our diverse disability community and that are educating, informing and enriching the viewer’s lives 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.
We need to have authenticity brought to these stories and to feel included in the process with both the building of these characters and their stories.
More importantly, there also needs to be a greater level of comfort and confidence around incorporating diversity and disability into scripts for TV shows and movies.
Diversity not only has the potential to generate connection and empathy it can also help shift perceptions of ‘otherness’ within the Australian disability community.
Television has 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 be a place that allows disabled people the chance to tell their stories and for our voices to be heard.
So a few weeks back the UK disabled actress and disability advocate Liz Carr tweeted out her disappointment that her character Clarissa Mullery on the hit BBC crime thriller ‘Silent Witness’ was missing from the show’s upcoming trailer as well as other disabled characters in the BBC’S 2020 trailer for their new shows.
She tweeted out
Liz Carr has a genetic condition called arthrogryposis multiplex congenita
Arthrogryposis multiplex congenita (AMC)
Refers to the development of multiple joint contractures affecting two or more areas of the body prior to birth. A contracture occurs when a joint becomes permanently fixed in a bent or straightened position, which can impact the function and range of motion of the joint.
For the BBC’S part in all of this they put out the following statement
A BBC Spokesperson said: “Unfortunately the wrong versions of the trails in question went out and were immediately rectified once the relevant teams were made aware. We want the BBC to lead the way in delivering even more diversity on-air and have already set out our plans to boost the representation of disability on and off screen this year.
“The BBC has long been committed to reflecting the diversity of our audience in our output and we have a number of high-profile disabled presenters, actors and contributors who feature regularly in our programming, but we want to go much further in permanently shifting the dial on what audiences can expect in terms of authentic and distinctive disabled representation on screen.”
The Trailer in Question
A positive statement from the BBC but I am a little cynical as putting out a statement is one thing but actually making those necessary changes is another.
I feel that the entertainment industry can change the way we’re treated in society and if people like Liz Carr can change the way this industry embraces people with disabilities then people won’t have to face the blocks she has faced.
I feel that their needs to be an end to a “‘them and us’ situation”, as it is “everyone’s responsibility” in order to affect change and Liz is making this happen.
Carry on the Conversation
Thank you for reading and I will see you next time for more thoughts from across the spectrum.