There’s a saying in the autistic community that if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. Autism spectrum disorder is just that: a spectrum. It manifests in drastically different ways in different people. This can present real challenges for writers, actors and directors looking to tell stories about autism on screen. If the autism spectrum is so broad, how could any fictional representation come close to capturing the autistic experience? What would an accurate depiction of autism even look like?
The good thing about television is that there’s no other form of entertainment that allows an audience to spend as much time with characters as they develop, to encounter those characters in a variety of emotional states and situations and to come away with a nuanced understanding of who those characters are. The small screen seems like the best-suited medium for creating complex, layered portrayals of autism, and a recent wave of shows with autistic characters suggests audiences might start seeing these more often.
Last week, “The Good Doctor,” a medical drama about a surgical resident with autism and savant syndrome, ended its first season on ABC as the most-watched drama on network television. Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore, “Bates Motel”) is a brilliant surgeon whose mind works in fascinating ways. In each episode, we see visual representations of his brain as he pieces together anatomical diagrams and snippets from medical school textbooks to arrive at unconventional diagnoses. It’s a sweet, if mawkish, celebration of difference, but there’s something troubling about the way Shaun’s autism is framed throughout.
In the pilot, the hospital’s board of directors convenes to discuss their concerns about Shaun’s hiring. Empathy and communication, they say, are crucial for doctors to have — doesn’t Shaun’s autism make these impossible? The hospital president Dr. Glassman (Richard Schiff, “The West Wing”) quickly emerges as Shaun’s sole defender, delivering an impassioned plea on his behalf — the first of many. “Yes, he has autism,” Glassman cries. “But he also has savant syndrome — genius-level skills in several areas!”
The pop culture fascination with the autistic savant isn’t new, and it carries with it the uncomfortable implication that autism is some sort of flaw to be compensated for. Are people on the spectrum without savant capabilities less worthy or valuable? On “The Good Doctor,” the constant sentimentality can make these stirring speeches seem compassionate. Beneath the surface, though, they feel capitalistic — insensitive conceptions of human worth as a function of productivity.
“Atypical,” a Netflix comedy which aired its first season in August 2017, is decidedly less schmaltzy, but falls into a few unsettling tendencies of its own. The show centers around Sam (Keir Gilchrist, “United States of Tara”), an autistic high school senior who decides to foray into the world of dating. It’s a family show, with all of the usual trappings of the genre — high-strung mom, dopey dad, neglected sibling — but to its credit, it isn’t the sensational or glamorized version of autism “The Good Doctor” is. “Atypical” is quite honest about what it means to be Sam, and what it means to be a part of his family.
Where the show really stumbles is its humor. Too often it feels as if we’re meant to be laughing at Sam, as if pieces of his personality are punchlines. It raises some interesting questions about how comedies should go about handling autism. Character-driven comedies have long used their characters’ idiosyncrasies and quirks as fodder for jokes. But what happens when those behavioral idiosyncrasies are symptoms? How should writers navigate that balance in a way that isn’t needlessly cruel or judgmental?
On “The A Word,” a lovely drama on the BBC, the jokes are plenty, but they’re never at the expense of Joe (Max Vento, “Cotton Wool”), a five-year-old in Northern England recently diagnosed with autism. The show is a smart, tender, fabulously soundtracked portrait of the joys and frustrations of raising a child with autism. At times, “The A Word” could focus a bit more on Joe and a bit less on the sordid personal lives of his relatives, but the show is often at its most engaging when it uses a wider lens to examine the way communities respond to disability and interrogate their own prejudices. It’s all done with such a light touch that “The A Word” never feels like a PSA or a “Very Special Episode.” The nuance brings to mind the underappreciated “Parenthood,” which offered audiences its own measured, groundbreaking portrayal of Asperger’s — one that still remains a favorite of the autistic community.
For all the strides made in autism representation recently, there’s still so much room for improvement. The prevalence of “autism headcanons,” fan interpretations of undiagnosed TV characters as autistic — Brennan on “Bones,” Sheldon Cooper on “The Big Bang Theory,” Abed Nadir on “Community” and Benedict Cumberbatch’s “Sherlock” are just a few — speaks to the real desire for a broader range of identities and experiences on screen. Television characters with autism have been, for the most part, high-functioning, straight, able-bodied, white and male. Stories about autism should aim to be as diverse as the real autistic community. One way to achieve that? Start including people with autism in the making of these shows. Not just as interview subjects or informal consultants, but in the writers’ room and in front of the camera. Our TV will be far better for it.