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Autism in Media

With the film Adam receiving good reviews, I thought it might be useful to reflect on autism and pop media.

Generally, portrayals of autism have resembled what I consider fringe notions of individuals with autism disorders. The depictions are too close to the The Empty Fortress described by Bruno Bettelheim or the long-standing French literary notion that autism is actually extreme
narcissism -- a way to control other people. The "cure" brigade has added to the depictions of autism, unintentionally (or intentionally) feeding into misconceptions about the people with autism.

On television, we have had narcissists and criminals. Law & Order: Criminal Intent, has featured an obsessed murderer, Wally Stevens, with Asperger's Syndrome. Stevens, an insurance investigator, was obsessed with patterns and order.

When Dr. Gregory House wanted to excuse his narcissism, he left a DSM-IV entry on Asperger's Syndrome marked. While Dr. Wilson, the character's best fried, discredited House's attempt to claim AS, other people have use AS as an excuse for misbehavior. It can't help when fiction and reality include criminals, sociopaths, and narcissists using autism as an excuse for manipulating people.

In film, we have had Elvis "cure" an autistic girl through the power of love in Change of Habit (1969). The Bruce Willis mystery Mercury Rising (1998) was far less extreme, but the depiction of a teacher saying "look at me" upset me when I saw it. I've never liked such "therapy" meant to change behaviors.

Anyway, accurate depictions are going to vary, no matter what, because people with autism are each unique. There is no one way to portray an individual with an autism disorder. Still, some depictions don't seem helpful.


  1. Thank you. Seriously. I totally agree.

    I gave up watching Law and Order. Being a Christian I was getting sick of having us portrayed as psycho killer pedophiles or whatever.

    We'll get there, I think.

  2. I generally enjoy crime shows and cannot blame the writers for basing stories on "real life" crimes. Unfortunately, we've had two high-profile murder cases in which "autism" was a defense -- and I know there have been others. Hans Reiser and Michael Anderson committed horrible devious, well-planned murders and then used autism as a defense. Of course shows will use these as inspiration.

    Still, these shows should also include the fact that experts (and juries) rejected the defense claims.

    I'm also tired of computer hackers using "autism" and "AS" as excuses for clearly illegal actions.

    The media should be careful not to depict autism based on myths or lies. Personally, I think people trying to get away with murder are sociopaths...

  3. gosh, such a flip of the coin moment! We read all the time about the portrayal of minorities or ethnicities in the media, and yet I have never had a tangible relationship to what a black person or gay person may truly feel when they see the stereotyping, etc... but your post has brought this to light for me! wow.

    I am not personally familiar with some of the media examples you've mentioned, but just the notion of someone using the spectrum to excuse their behavior is indeed annoying (at the very least).

    hmmm... will have to think about this for a bit... and will also have to google "Adam".

  4. "Adam" is a neutral or positive portrayal. It's a rare exception to the rule, so far.


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