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Does Hollywood Get Autism Right? 10 Portrayals of the Disorder on Film and TV

While the CDC estimates about 1 in 88 children are currently living with some form of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the appearance of someone with autism in movies and television has been pretty rare. In honor of National Autism Awareness Month, and to shed much needed light on the effects of the disability, we put together a list of some of the most memorable movie and TV characters that have an autism spectrum disorder. — Scott Neumyer

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  • Max Braverman — Parenthood (2010 — Present) 1 of 10
    Max Braverman — Parenthood (2010 — Present)
    Max Braverman, played to perfection by Max Burkholder, is the highly intelligent, insect-obsessed 11-year-old with Asperger syndrome on the hit NBC dramedy Parenthood. Show creator Jason Katims has a son with Asperger syndrome, so he knows full well the effects of living with someone suffering from ASD. In an interview about the show, Katims said, "If I'm to write a story about family and parenting, how could I not write about [Asperger's]? It had been such an integral part of my experience as a parent."
  • Eric Gibb — The Boy Who Could Fly (1986) 2 of 10
    Eric Gibb — The Boy Who Could Fly (1986)
    Jay Underwood stars as a boy with autism named Eric Gibb in Nick Castle's 1986 film The Boy Who Could Fly. Underwood spoke about his role in a 1986 interview with The Orlando Sentinel: "One of the things that appealed to me in [the film] was that this kid doesn't speak, so I would have to rely on other things rather than just my voice, like facial expressions and body language." While the film takes certain flights of fancy, The Boy Who Could Fly still depicts a fairly accurate portrayal of autism at a time when not many movies were broaching the subject.
  • Raymond Babbitt — Rain Man (1988) 3 of 10
    Raymond Babbitt — Rain Man (1988)
    Arguably the most popular and well-known autistic character on this list is Raymond "Ray" Babbitt, portrayed by Dustin Hoffman. In a 2010 interview with Los Angeles Magazine, Hoffman described a very special reaction he once received in response to the film: "I guess the most special moment was a couple of years after the film came out, I bumped into some parents who said they had a nine- or ten-year-old autistic son they took to see Rain Man, and their son had never made physical contact with them … On their way home, one of the parents said, ‘Did you like the movie?' And suddenly their son came forward from the backseat and embraced one of the parents." Now that's a memorable portrayal of someone with autism.
  • Spencer Reid — Criminal Minds — TV (2005 — Present) 4 of 10
    Spencer Reid — Criminal Minds — TV (2005 — Present)
    The 20-something genius autodidact with an IQ of 187, three PhDs, and a photographic memory on CBS' Criminal Minds is clearly an exaggerated version of someone with autistic character traits. While the show has never definitively stated that Reid has a form of autism, Matthew Gray Gubler has described his character as an "eccentric genius, with hints of schizophrenia and minor autism" in an interview. It's great to see a character with Reid's traits — and ingenious crime-solving instincts — on a major network drama.
  • Arnie Grape — Whats Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) 5 of 10
    Arnie Grape — Whats Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
    While Lasse Hallström's 1993 classic What's Eating Gilbert Grape doesn't come right out and talk about Arnie Grape's condition, he's clearly mentally impaired with what many believe to be a form of autism. Extremely familiar with autism spectrum disorder, director Lasse Hallström has since directed more films featuring autistic characters; he even cast a young boy with autism to play a small role in his 2010 film Dear John. What's Eating Gilbert Grape is a testament to the power of family, love, and the undying spirit of someone who will never give up on those closest to him. And it's an incredibly interesting look into a seemingly autistic character who exists in the middle of it all.
  • Charlie Mollison — The Black Balloon (2008) 6 of 10
    Charlie Mollison — The Black Balloon (2008)
    In this film, the character Charlie Mollison has severe autism, which is a source of frustration and constant challenge for younger brother Thomas. To prepare for the role, actor Luke Ford spent time with director Elissa Down's autistic brother, Sean. "Sean was very good to me," the actor said in a 2008 interview. "He was very excited about me playing him in that role, or what he understood I was doing with that role. Whether he knew it was him is a different thing. Sean was a very interesting and humbling experience for me." The fact that this film centers on not only the autistic character, but the effects he has on his family and those around him, make it a realistic portrayal of the highs and lows of living with someone with an ASD on a day-to-day basis.
  • Simon Lynch — Mercury Rising (1998) 7 of 10
    Simon Lynch — Mercury Rising (1998)
    The 1998 action film Mercury Rising doesn't set out to provide the most realistic portrayal of an autistic character you've ever seen in movies, but that doesn't make young savant Simon Lynch any less interesting. The film doesn't delve too deeply into Lynch's autism, but it does show some of the more traditional traits of savantism, such as difficulty forming emotional bonds and social awkwardness, that make Simon Lynch such an interesting little guy. Camilla Stein, a film critic and mother of two children with autism, wrote this about the film in 2011: "In 1998, autism was still an understudied subject, and rather controversial as well. [The movie] made me not want to find out what can happen if my children's autism becomes a matter of national security."
  • Donald Morton & Isabelle Sorenson — Mozart and the Whale (2005) 8 of 10
    Donald Morton & Isabelle Sorenson — Mozart and the Whale (2005)
    The 2005 romantic dramedy Mozart and the Whale might just be the most interesting film on this list, as it tells the story of not one, but two people with Asperger syndrome who must navigate the difficulties of falling in love when they both have an autism spectrum disorder. Loosely based on the life and relationship of Jerry and Mary Newport, Mozart and the Whale treats Asperger's with the respect it deserves and provides a fresh, funny, and often heartfelt look at two people struggling with disability, life, and love. "I think marriage is a lot of hard work no matter who is married," said Newport in a 2006 interview. "The hardest thing if you have two AS people is that's a lot of inflexibility in one relationship."
  • Cody OConnor — Bless the Child (2000) 9 of 10
    Cody OConnor — Bless the Child (2000)
    Not all portrayals of autistic children in Hollywood are realistic; take Chuck Russell's 2000 supernatural thriller Bless the Child, for example. It follows the story of a woman played by Kim Basinger who takes in an abandoned, autistic baby and raises her on her own for six years — until it's discovered that Satanists are after her in order to protect mankind from ultimate evil. Basinger is no stranger to mental difficulties herself, as she's been known to suffer from anxiety and panic disorders as well as agoraphobia. About.com explains as well that as a child, Basinger's "parents had her tested for autism and other psychiatric disorders."
  • Abed Nadir — Community – TV (2009 — Present) 10 of 10
    Abed Nadir — Community - TV (2009 — Present)
    Abed Nadir, played by Danny Pudi on NBC's Community, is another character with so many ASD traits that it would be impossible to rule him out from having a case of Asperger syndrome. Even if the show has never stated outright that Nadir has Asperger's, thAutcast.com called the character "the coolest, funniest, most realistic aspie on series television." And it's true. Nadir is a trilingual pop culture junkie with a savant-like ability to reference just about any movie or TV show at will. He clearly cares for his friends, but he often comes across as emotionless, detached, and extremely blunt and straightforward.

Scott Neumyer is a freelance writer and publicist. His work has recently appeared in places like Maxim, Complex, The Atlantic, Babble.com, and is upcoming in NJ Family Magazine and MensFitness.com. He lives in NJ with his wife and daughter. You can find more of his work at www.scottwrites.com and feel free to chat with him on Twitter @scottneumyer.

 

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