Do the “ASD” characters on television adequately reflect the reality of autism?

In North America the new season of television series has begun and autism awareness is bound to increase.

Jenny McCarthy, a strong public figure who believes that vaccination causes autism, debuted on The View this past Monday. Autism Daily Newscast first reported on the controversy of her appointment as talk show host last July and the Toronto Public Heath department started a campaign asking the producers of the television talk show, The View, to reconsider their decision.

Jenny McCarthy CC by  Michael Dorausch

Jenny McCarthy CC by Michael Dorausch

Jenny McCarthy has responded about her new job on The View:

“I have no personal agenda other than to spiritually grow from the life experiences that come with this job. “

As autism awareness increases, it is expected that this would be reflected in the the entertainment industry as well.

Autism and television is not a new phenomenon. Many with some form of ASD themselves,  suggest that Gilligan (Gilligan’s Island) was likely to be one of their own. Certainly,  Monk (Monk) while “labelled” OCD by the media could well have had asperger since the two disorders are often associated. Actress Emily Deschanel who plays Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan (Bones) has implied that her character doe have asperger syndrome.

In the UK, ASD characters can also be found:  Roy Cropper (Coronation Street), Morris Moss (IT Crowd), and of course Mr. Bean (Mr.Bean)  Some would also include Sherlock Holmes (Sherlockin the list and discussions of Mr. Holmes idiosyncrasies have been up for debate for many years.

Producers of most of these shows prefer not to label their characters one way or the other. As we reported early in July, the co-producer of The Big Bang Theory, Bill Prady notes the similarities between behaviors of computer programmers of his time, and current-day autism traits. However, he does not want to label the main character Sheldon Cooper as autistic, because it would turn the comedy into a more serious show than it is meant to be.  Other producers seem to be taking a similar stance.

Never the less, each year brings on new characters either in lead or supporting roles with behaviours that many would describe as being on the autism spectrum.

Does this mean we will see a new polithera of characters on the screen that are on the autism spectrum? 

Probably not. While the representation of African Americans and LBGT (Lesbian Bisexual Gay Transgender) characters are more prevalent on television, they still do not make up the proper statistical  ratio.  There is not reason to suspect that ASD will fair better or that this representation will be properly skewed.

1 in 5 ASD are women.  However, the female characters versus male on television with ASD appear 2 out of 5.

Almost all the characters have asperger type behaviours versus autism. Perhaps it is more interesting and entertaining to depict someone with asperger syndrome than someone with greater behavioural challenges often associated with autism.

Television is about entertainment, so it comes as no surprise that virtually all of the characters in a regular role have asperger syndrome or at least display those characteristics. Unfortunately, until recently, their behaviours are often wacky, quirky or robotic.


Max Burkholder, 15, as Max Braverman on “Parenthood”

Most agree that there are two characters that project a truly authentic representation. The first is Max Braverman (Parenthood). the character Max  was created by Jason Katim who’s own son, Sawyer, has a diagnosis of asperger syndrome. With an advisor on the set, Max is best researched and authentic character with an actual asperger syndrome diagnosis.

Diane Kruger as Sonya Cross on "The Bridge" (Credit: FX)

Diane Kruger as Sonya Cross on “The Bridge” (Credit: FX)

The second is Sonya Cross (The Bridge) but again her diagnosis remains unstated nor confirmed.  Correction: The series producers at the beginning consulted Autism Speaks about asperger syndrome and sought input for the lead Diane Kruger. However, on the show no character makes mention of her diagnosis.

 Trend or Fad? 

While the number of ASD characters in television may begin to level off, the portrayal of those with special needs and other disabilities will continue to expand.

NBC plans to debut during the 2013-2014 season, three have main characters with disabilities which is 17% of the total new shows for the network. How successful these new shows are, remains to be seen. Not since the original series of Ironside (1975 – 1975) starring Raymond Burr as a paraplegic Chief of Detectives has there been such an enduring leading character with disabilities in main stream television.