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The Autistic American: The Age of Mass Media

Christopher C. Gagliardi, Staff Writer

For as long as there has been media such as film, television, video games and literature, there has also been a need to bring forth a general awareness to the humanistic side of autism.

With television shows such as “The Good Doctor,” “Parenthood,” “NCIS,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Atypical” and “Sesame Street,” there are a few examples that have actors portraying the characters who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

But since the 1970s, characters who have appeared in film, television and print have been presented as either “on the autism spectrum,” “openly autistic in canon” or have been designed with one of many ASDs in mind.

Producers and writers were afraid to even mention the word “autistic” because if it was mentioned, people would not tune in to the shows.

Films like “Rain Man” (which put autism into the consciousness of the American people), “Adam, Autism: The Musical,” “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” “Temple Grandin,” “Mercury Rising,” “This Business of Autism” and “The Big Short,” are just a few prime examples that try to open up people’s thoughts and change the psyche of how a person with autism really is and what they can do.

There have been pros to having characters who have autism in the mass media and sadly, some cons sadly as well.

The pros include the increased willingness to have people who have ASD in activities, neurodiversity through the portrayal of people who are high-functioning or have high-functioning autism holding down a job or going to school and solving mysteries.

But the cons also include the limits such as a poor understanding of autism as a spectrum disorder, which includes people with low intelligence, aggressive behaviors and other major health issues (and very few genius-level savants) and a sense of misunderstanding.

Professor Chan, who teaches mass media at Bergen Community College, told me in a brief interview, as a result of “Rain Man,” there has been a dramatic shift in the general public consciousness toward diversity in the characters that have been portrayed in motion pictures and television especially.

Chan said, “Autism, in my view, has been one of the many diverse characters that have been introduced over the last 20 years. Other disabilities, as well as people from different backgrounds, have become more apparent in media.”

He also mentioned the reason why it took so long for mass media to recognize it is because of, “prejudice, ignorance and some fear by well-meaning producers to not actually misinterpret or misportray autism because they did not understand it well enough. So, it was easy to not have characters portrayed in it.”

He also stated that he supports the idea of a “Person-first” language – a type of language that describes what a person ‘’has’’ rather than asserting what a person ‘’is.”

“As these characters now start to show America those who have challenges, especially autism, I hope that the media will see first the personal character and their challenge and not as a no issue, but a secondary issue.”

We have come a long way in the struggle for recognition as a result of the civil rights when it comes to us being portrayed fairly, but the quest for universal acceptance in media continues today for people who are trying to get main roles and more presence in mass media. We can only hope and pray that this is realized in our lifetime for equality, not just in Hollywood, but beyond.

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