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Autism spectrum disorders in the media

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Autism spectrum disorders in the media

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are a range of conditions classified as pervasive developmental disorders. The popular image of ASDs (as with many conditions) is often based on inaccurate media representations.[1]

Since the 1970s, fictional portrayals of autism, Asperger syndrome, and other ASDs have become more frequent.[2] Public perception of autism is often based on these fictional portrayals in novels, biographies, movies, and TV series. Many of these portrayals have been inaccurate and have contributed to a harmful divergence between public perception and the clinical reality of autism.[3] Portrayals in the media of characters with atypical abilities (for example, the ability to multiply large numbers without a calculator) may be misinterpreted by laypersons as accurate portrayals of autism.[4]


Since the 1970s, characters have appeared in film, television, and print that could be qualified as "on the [autism] spectrum."[2] Characters have been presented as having an ASD diagnosis or were designed with ASDs in mind.[5]


Mark Haddon's 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, examines the world of its teenage autistic narrator, Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old boy who has memorized every prime number through 7,057. Simple Simon, a novel by Ryne Douglas Pearson, features an autistic protagonist who has the mathematical ability to crack NASA security codes.[4] The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon, explores the possibility of a cure for autism and its effect on autistics.[6] Margaret Atwood's novel Oryx and Crake has a university labeled Asperger's U, where almost every student appears to have Asperger syndrome or autism; people in the university refer to non-autists as neurotypicals and seem to view them as something altogether different (and perhaps inferior) to themselves.[7] The novel features an autistic character who uses his atypical reasoning to topple society.[4]


The 1988 film Rain Man was among the first films to feature an autistic protagonist.[8] Since then, Hollywood has drawn both praise and criticism for its depictions of ASD characters.[9] While Raymond Babbitt, a middle-aged savant portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, is based on Kim Peek, an adult male with savant syndrome, he is recognized as autistic by the general population.[10]

The 1998 film Mercury Rising is about an undercover FBI agent who protects a nine-year-old boy who has autism from government assassins after the boy cracks a secret government code.

Molly, a 1999 romantic comedy, is the story of an autistic woman whose guardianship is assumed by her high strung older brother after the institution she's lived in closes.

Annie Wheaton, a teenager with autism, is one of the main characters of the 2002 miniseries Rose Red.

The 2008 movie Dark Floors features a girl with autism...and a latent supernatural gift.

My Name Is Khan is a 2010 Bollywood film which depicts the lead character played by Shahrukh Khan as having Asperger syndrome. The movie garnered critical acclaim.


Television programs featuring characters with ASD or characteristics stereotypical of autism spectrum disorders have become commonplace, most notably in sitcoms. Series such as The Big Bang Theory have been criticized for their depictions of characters with ASD traits as whimsically detached, one-dimensional characters, while Community has received critical acclaim for its depiction of Asperger's in the character Abed Nadir.

The series Star Trek: The Next Generation has been cited as the source of an inaccurate perception of relationships between people with ASDs and those around them as seen in the character of Data, an android who does not understand human emotions. He needs guidance to understand his effect on others by Deanna Troi, who is half-Betazoid, an alien race with the power to sense emotions.

SyFy series Alphas features an autistic character, Gary Bell, portrayed by Ryan Cartwright as one of its main characters. Dr. House, from the series of the same name, is speculated to be on the spectrum.

Season 5 of Grey's Anatomy had a reoccurring character, Virginia Dixon, a visiting doctor who has Asperger’s.

Max Braverman, on Parenthood, is at first a child and then teenager with Asperger's.

FOX show Touch's main character, Jake Bohm is autistic.

The parallel universe version of Astrid Farnsworth on Fringe has Asperger's.

Detective Sonya Cross on The Bridge, is on the autism spectrum.

Temperance "Bones" Brennan and Zach from "Bones" exhibit strong AS characteristics.

Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock (TV series) exhibits classic signs of Asperger syndrome.

Boston Legal Semi Regular Jerry Espensen was a middle-aged autistic, nicknamed "hands" due to his lack of hand gestures and frequently resting them on his body as his walks.

Video Games

River Wyles of To The Moon is diagnosed in game with a Pervasive Developmental Disorder and much of the game's story revolves around her husband Johnny and her peers adapting to it.[11]


Film, television, and print

Children of the Stars is an award-winning documentary about children with autism in China. The film examines hardships experienced by parents of children with autism and the lack of international resources for these families.[12]


MMR vaccine theory

The MMR vaccine was the subject of controversy resulting from publication of a (now retracted) 1998 paper by Andrew Wakefield et al.[16] In 2010, Wakefield's research was found by the General Medical Council to have been "dishonest";[17] the research was declared fraudulent in 2011 by the BMJ.[18]

A March 2007 article in BMC Public Health postulated that media reports on Wakefield's study had "created the misleading impression that the evidence for the link with autism was as substantial as the evidence against".[19] Earlier papers in Communication in Medicine and British Medical Journal concluded that media reports provided a misleading picture of the level of support for Wakefield's theory.[20][21][22]

PRWeek noted that after Wakefield was removed from the general medical register for misconduct in May 2010, 62% of respondents to a poll regarding the MMR controversy stated they did not feel that the media conducted responsible reporting on health issues.[23]

A New England Journal of Medicine article examining the history of antivaccinationists said that opposition to vaccines has existed since the 19th century, but "now the antivaccinationists' media of choice are typically television and the Internet, including its social media outlets, which are used to sway public opinion and distract attention from scientific evidence".[24]

The role of the media in the sensationalization of the MMR vaccination issue was discussed by the BMJ:
The original paper has received so much media attention, with such potential to damage public health, that it is hard to find a parallel in the history of medical science. Many other medical frauds have been exposed but usually more quickly after publication and on less important health issues.[25]
Concerns were also raised about the role of journalists reporting on scientific theories that they "are hardly in a position to question and comprehend".[26][27] Neil Cameron, a historian who specializes in the history of science, writing for The Montreal Gazette labeled the controversy a "failure of journalism" that resulted in unnecessary deaths, saying that 1) The Lancet should not have published a study based on "statistically meaningless results" from only 12 cases; 2) the anti-vaccination crusade was continued by the satirical Private Eye magazine; and 3) a grapevine of worried parents and "nincompoop" celebrities fueled the widespread fears.[28] The Gazette also reported that
There is no guarantee that debunking the original study is going to sway all parents. Medical experts are going to have to work hard to try to undo the damage inflicted by what is apparently a rogue medical researcher whose work was inadequately vetted by a top-ranked international journal.[29]

See also


  1. ^ Sarrett, J C (June 2011). "Trapped children: popular images of children with autism in the 1960s and 2000s.". Journal of Medical Humanities 32 (2): 141–53.  
  2. ^ a b Murray S (2006). "Autism and the contemporary sentimental: fiction and the narrative fascination of the present". Lit Med 25 (1): 24–45.  
  3. ^ Draaisma D (May 2009). "Stereotypes of autism". Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond., B, Biol. Sci. 364 (1522): 1475–80.  
  4. ^ a b c Bethune, Brian (3 July 2009). "Autistic licence: suddenly, Asperger's is the new 'it' disorder on screen and in fiction". Retrieved 18 April 2012. 
  5. ^ Poulson S (2009). "Autism, through a social lens".  
  6. ^ Grant, J. "The Speed of the Dark by Elizabeth Moon (review)". Retrieved 18 April 2012. 
  7. ^ Smith, Joan (11 May 2003). "And pigs might fly...". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 April 2012. 
  8. ^ Felperin, Leslie (4 April 2001). "Autism on film: can cinema get it right?". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 April 2012. 
  9. ^ Caryn J (29 April 2007). "Hollywood finds its disorder du jour".  
  10. ^ Weber, Bruce (26 December 2009). "Kim Peek, Inspiration for 'Rain Man,' Dies at 58". New York Times. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ Library Journal. (15 April 2009). Video (Reviews). Accessed 9 September 2010.
  13. ^
  14. ^ The Hollywood Reporter
  15. ^ Hector Gonzalez. "Autism One 2009 :: The Miracle Project". Retrieved 2012-04-11. 
  16. ^   (Retracted, see PMID 20137807)
  17. ^ Boseley, Sarah (28 January 2012). "Andrew Wakefield found 'irresponsible' by GMC over MMR vaccine scare". The Guardian (London). 
  18. ^ Godlee F, Smith J, Marcovitch H (2011). "Wakefield's article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent".  
  19. ^ Hilton S, Petticrew M, Hunt K (2007). "Parents' champions vs. vested interests: who do parents believe about MMR? A qualitative study". BMC Public Health 7: 42.  
  20. ^ Speers T, Lewis J (2004). "Journalists and jabs: media coverage of the MMR vaccine". Commun Med 1 (2): 171–81.  
  21. ^ Jackson, Trevor, "MMR: more scrutiny, please." British Medical Journal, 326.7401 (7 June 2003): p1272(1).
  22. ^ Dobson Roger (May 2003). "Media misled the public over the MMR vaccine, study says".  
  23. ^ "Reputation Survey: MMR panic subsides." PR Week, 2 June 2010: 24.
  24. ^ Poland GA, Jacobson RM (2011-01-13). "The Age-Old Struggle against the Antivaccinationists". N Engl J Med 364 (2): 97–9.  
  25. ^ Goldee, F (January 2011). "The fraud behind the MMR scare". British Medical Journal.  
  26. ^ "Link between MMR Vaccines and Autism conclusively broken".  
  27. ^ Broyd, Nicky (2011-01-06). "BMJ Declares Vaccine-Autism Study 'an Elaborate Fraud', 1998 Lancet Study Not Bad Science but Deliberate Fraud, Claims Journal".  
  28. ^ Cameron, Neil (2011-01-12). "Autism 'study' represents a failure of journalism". The Montreal Gazette. 
  29. ^ "False autism study has done untold harm". The Montreal Gazette. 2011-01-10. 

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