What is the issue with autistic representation in the media? In this blog we discuss the issue with autistic representation through a few different lenses and discuss how we can begin to improve this by creating better portrayals of autism in the media and giving autistic people a higher level of creative control.
What is wrong with autistic representation in the media?
We live in a society that values diversity. Yet, when it comes to autistic representation in the media, we seem to be lacking. There are a few examples of this, but one in particular that stands out is the show ‘Love on the Spectrum’. This show portrays people with autism as an infantilised caricature version of themselves . However, this is far from the truth. Many autistic people struggle with mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. Some have trouble communicating their emotions to others. Additionally, individuals with autism have higher rates of unemployment and live in more poverty than the general population.
On the flip side there are many Autistic creators in all aspects of the arts and plenty of incredibly successful people such as film makers, entrepreneurs and CEOs; both aspects being equally important. The fact that we are only now beginning to see this aspect of autism portrayed in mainstream media is incredibly frustrating.
An Autistic creators view
One autistic creator on TikTok (@jeremyandrewdavis) spoke about ‘Love on the Spectrum’. They made a point by saying ‘who would you say is the coolest, most iconic character of all time?’. They gave the answer of James Bond and took audio from ‘Love on the Spectrum’ and matched it up with James Bond. Jeremy Andrew Davis pointed out the music made James Bond look awkward and almost silly. The narrator’s tone of voice (which has often been compared to a children’s TV presenter) made him sound worse too. They point out that the participants of the show are in no way the issue and it is in fact the framing of the show itself.
Jeremy Andrew Davis has been a professional video editor since 1999. They claim it is ‘glaringly obvious’ that the dates on the show are ‘heavily edited to make them look more awkward than they actually are in person’. A common technique used on the show is cutting back and forth between peoples reactions to make pauses seem way longer than they were. Davis says ‘as an autistic person would you want your interactions with people to be edited so that they are made to seem more socially awkward than they are?’.
Davis says they hope the show goes on to have many more seasons. However we need to have conversations about equitable representation in all of disability, because many allistic people come away from the show with an infantilising and pitying view of autistic people. Love on the Spectrum constantly reinforces ableism, using a few autistic consultants isn’t enough, there has to be people in key positions, like a head writer, producer, people involved in the shooting of the show. We can’t produce autistic voices through an allistic lens. Davis then goes on to say the phrase “Nothing about us without us” Which I found very poignant in this topic.
How can we begin to fix this problem?
One proposed solution is creating more realistic portrayals of autism in the media through positive representation of autistic people. For example, HBO’s critically acclaimed show “The Deuce” features a young woman with autism who is working in New York City during the 1970s. This has undoubtedly increased awareness of the reality of life for people on the spectrum during that time period. It also provides an example of a woman living an independent and fulfilling life with autism. In order to make these kinds of representations more common, we need to expose more people to content featuring characters who are living with mental illness or disabilities. Ideally, such exposure will encourage others to create stories about people similar to themselves.
Another way to improve media autistic representation is to offer more opportunities for direct input into the creation of content about autistic people. An example is the movie “Wonder Wheel”, which features an autistic child as its main character. The creators of the film, consulted with autistic people in order to make sure that they understood how autism affects people’s lives and how they would best portray the character in the film. While none of these solutions are perfect, I believe that they are a step in the right direction.
Simply having consultants on a show isn’t enough, autistic people need a high level of creative control over these types of shows. Autistic people have been largely shut out of the industry because they often struggle in pitch meetings and interviews. In my opinion the solution to this issue is to make these areas more accessible in the first place.
Destigmatizing portrayals of autism
Another way that we can improve autistic representation in the media is through destigmatizing portrayals of people with autism. By creating more realistic representations of people we can help to promote understanding and reduce the stigma surrounding autism. By making autistic people more visible in our society, we can reduce the likelihood that they will be stereotyped and treated unfairly.
Things like the Pixar short ‘Loop’ about a non-verbal autistic child called Renee or the film ‘The Reason I Jump’ written by an autistic person about their own experiences- good and bad. These depictions allow us to view an authentic and well-rounded depiction of autism instead of the relayed perception of others. These accurate fleshed-out representations allows allistic people to view every aspect of autism and dispel their ableism. Which I believe is a trait everyone holds that we have to unlearn as society. More importantly, it allows autistic people of different backgrounds to see themselves on screen. It helps people feel heard, perhaps even help others to get diagnosed.
Media representation is not the most important thing when it comes to conversations about ableism. We still have a very long way to go in this regard. However, I believe it still holds a very important place. The arts are so important, so many people watch films and listen to music or scroll through social media. We as society build our personalities and opinions on the basis of the art we consume. Art needs to depict everyone fairly and everyone deserves to have an opportunity to create the art that reflects them.
Going forward I would love to see more shows like Love on the Spectrum take into account the aforementioned topics. I would love to see their ableism addressed and hold themselves and others accountable.
What can I do?
Share this blog! By sharing this blog on social and tagging @ericknowsnorth you can help to share the important topics in this blog. You will help us reach a wider audience. You assist us in discussing topics about mental health and disabilities in the future. If you’re an autistic person looking to go into the film industry I would suggest you check out this article. Please feel free to check out some of our other blogs on Eric Knows such as Things to consider when creating a Dementia friendly venue or Anxiety in daily life: coping mechanisms to help further your understanding of mental health and disabilities in the world around you.