Hollywood Loves It Some Autism (Sort Of)

Between The Big Bang Theory, Grey’s Anatomy, and Parenthood, autism is totally hot in Hollywood. Or at least Asperger Syndrome, a neurological disorder on the autism spectrum, is. Some television shows and movies handle it well; some don’t.

Last fall Glee botched the introduction of a character named Sugar who had “self-diagnosed Asperger Syndrome” and used it as an excuse for terribly self-absorbed behavior.

“I have self-diagnosed Asperger’s so I can pretty much say whatever I want…I’m pretty much like a diplomat’s daughter”, she said.

Many people in the autism community were less than pleased with the one-dimensional nature of the character, who was seen as perpetuating negative stereotypes. Considering Glee’s sensitive handling of  issues like cognitive impairment, what it’s like to be a gay teen, and bullying, the one-note character of Sugar was surprising.

Here’s my take on several of the most popular movies and shows with characters who are autistic, or who have autism-like traits. Some of them are great, some of them are … less great. And some, honestly, are just meh, because the connection to autism isn’t necessarily really there for me.

Note: I have two kids with Asperger Syndrome, but I don’t speak for anyone in the autism community but myself (my kids speak fine for themselves). I’d love to know what shows and movies you love for their portrayal of autism, and which ones you think really missed the boat.


  • image-287 1 of 10
  • Just don’t. 2 of 10
    Just don't.
    Please don't ask me if my kid can count the toothpicks if you drop a whole box of them. He can't. And they're a pain to clean up.
  • Kim Peek did not have autism. 3 of 10
    Kim Peek did not have autism.
    Just a little FYI.
  • My kid is also not Forrest Gump. 4 of 10
    My kid is also not Forrest Gump.
    I swear if you say "Run, Forrest, run!" while my kid is running across the playground, I will lose my freaking mind.
  • Really? Flying? 5 of 10
    Really? Flying?
    This movie had me until the kid actually flew. Because WHAT THE HELL?
  • Mental abilities run the full spectrum. 6 of 10
    Mental abilities run the full spectrum.
    But I will say that my friend Marj's son can climb like nobody's business.
  • The prize for Really Outdated Approach goes to this Elvis flick. 7 of 10
    The prize for Really Outdated Approach goes to this Elvis flick.
    He may have been the King, but no, his touch will not miraculously "cure" autism. A 2005 interview with A Change of Habit's director, William Graham (not the televangelist) really ramped up the weirdness. About the young actor who played the little girl with autism, Graham said, "I don't think she was actually autistic, but that was what she was playing." So...yeah.
  • One of these things is not like the other… 8 of 10
    One of these things is not like the other...
    Of these three characters, only Mary McDonnell's character on Grey's Anatomy definitely has Asperger Syndrome. Neither Adrian Monk (Tony Shaloub in Monk) or Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel in Bones) is ever identified as having an Autism Spectrum Disorder in the scripts.
  • Thumbs up for keeping it pretty real. 9 of 10
    Thumbs up for keeping it pretty real.
    The character of Max Braverman on Parenthood has Asperger Syndrome, and it's a central point of the show. Although the actor who plays Max, Max Burkholder, doesn't have Asperger, producer Jason Katims has a son who has it. I appreciate that Parenthood doesn't wrap everything up in a neat little package at the end of each episode. Also, the show addresses the impact that a child's autism spectrum disorder can have on the whole family.
  • How to do it right: HBO’s Temple Grandin biopic. 10 of 10
    How to do it right: HBO's Temple Grandin biopic.
    HBO's biographical film about prominent autism advocate, professor, and doctor of animal science Temple Grandin was a huge success. Sure, Claire Danes did a great job, but the primary reason this film rings so true is that Dr. Grandin advised on everything down to the type of cattle used in the film.

(Photo credits: iStockphoto, Wikimedia Commons)

Read more from Joslyn at her blog stark. raving. mad. mommy. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter for even more funny.

Related post: But S/he Doesn’t Look  Autistic!

Article Posted 4 years Ago

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