How (or How Not) to Represent the Autistic Community in TV and Film

Freddie Highmore and Antonia Thomas in The Good Doctor (2017)
The Good Doctor (2017–). ABC.

“I have a neurological condition, I will always have it.”

The Good Doctor, Season 2

I want to clarify, first off, that I was flattered when an old college friend tagged me in a casting notice for a BBC production of a new ‘Fleabag-esque’ show. The show in question was about a twenty-something woman who had yet to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and was navigating the world around her. At first, I thought it was perfect, my chance to set the record straight and rubbish the stereotypes that come with being autistic. I figured nothing ventured, nothing gained, I started to wonder if I was prepared to play a role that I was already living and to watch it play it out on screen. Long story short, as you can probably guess, I didn’t send off the email because I simply didn’t want the responsibility of taking on a role that echoes the lives of so many people and women, and the niggling thought in the back of mind was always not ‘what if I get wrong’ but ‘how would I get it right?

I was no longer thinking about me but the wider picture and asking how difficult it is for the TV and film industries to represent people on the autistic spectrum when the spectrum is so diverse. No two autistic people are the same, so how can you portray it correctly on a screen? The short answer is you can’t. Every story about autism is unique. 

Freddie Highmore as Dr Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor. Murphy is measuring an injection to administer to a child on the bed behind him.
The Good Doctor (2017–). ABC.

As I was growing up, I watched autism portrayed in the media stereotypically – they were obsessed with a certain subject, they were fantastic at maths and science, asked all the big questions, were stubborn, frigid in their routine, overly sensitive to light, sound and change, some even cried and screamed a lot – and it’s only because these traits create drama. 

Maybe if the casting notice hadn’t been so open about the autism, I would have been a little more likely to send off the email. But why did the autism have to be the first and most important thing, when in reality when you meet an autistic person, their autism is not something you notice straight away? It isn’t as obvious as a broken leg. Whilst the majority of the time, the characters with the stereotypes on screen are easy to connect with (e.g. Dr Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor), sometimes it would be nice to have a character who is autistic but it isn’t the main point. Rather, these traits go alongside our character’s personality, like with Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Dr Charles Abrams in Chicago Med. But sadly, however, most TV shows are still drawn to playing up to the stereotypes, for example BBC One’s The A Word and soaps like EastEnders, which have three autistic characters and whom all carry the stereotypes, still repeating the same moniker that ‘autism is a super power.’ Again, this isn’t for identification purposes, but for the drama. Autistic people, who like to sit in silence, read a book and walk through a park, in the eyes of TV and film executives aren’t dramatic enough to catch people’s attention. 

Ibrahim Ismail as Ramesh, Max Vento as Joe, and Harrison Newell-Parker as Bill in The A Word. The three boys are sitting on the sofa together.
The A Word (2016–). BBC.

But it isn’t just about the portrayal of the autistic person and how they are written but who plays the role. While yes, we live in an age where representation is extremely important when it comes to disabilities, wouldn’t it be better that the role be played by someone who doesn’t have the condition? Freddie Highmore, who plays Dr Shaun Murphy, isn’t autistic and has been praised by critics time after time. 

My point is this, to any casting director who seeks an autistic actor to play autistic role: please don’t announce it so obviously. Casting us as the supporting character, the best friend is a good way to start, because while we aren’t in focus, we can connect with our audience easier. Yes, we do deserve better in the industry that so many autistic people go into so that we can mask ourselves but we also ask that you cast us as we present ourselves to you. Don’t go looking for our condition to make something out of it that isn’t there, if we don’t raise it then neither should you. All we ask is that you represent us with kindness and sensitivity.

So, if the BBC production team would like a writer to help them with their new show, then sure I’m all ears, but I’ll be bringing the whole community with me too.

by Megs Turner

Megs Turner is a very small writer from the Isle of Wight, who likes to drink a venti Starbucks Hot Chocolate and listen to Phoebe Bridgers while reading books other people would rather not. Hoping to study Literature at Bristol, Megs is also a fighter for social justice and representation in the arts industry. She’d also like you to know she’s autistic, but that doesn’t really matter. 

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