Autistic viewpoint: representation of autism in popular culture

The seventh national Autism Symposium is taking place at the Potchefstroom Campus of the North-West University (NWU) from 30 June until 2 July 2022. The event highlights the realities of autistic persons and their families. It promises to deliver insightful perspectives by experts in the field.

This year the format will be a hybrid event that can be attended online or in person. The first day of the symposium will consist of workshops with practical strategies and tips for parents, teachers and clinicians. The main event, featuring renowned and knowledgeable speakers, takes place on Friday and Saturday.

There is still time to register before 30 June. Click on, contact the Institute for Psychology and Wellbeing at or phone 018 299 1737, or contact Autism South Africa at

One of the expert speakers at the event is Karen Jeynes, a stage and screenwriter. Her presentation, From Rainman to the A-Word: Autism portrayed on screen, focuses on the representation of autism in popular culture.

Here is an insightful extract from her about the topic:

From Rainman to the A-Word: Autism portrayed on screen

Why does the representation of autism that ends up on TV matter to the autism community? Depictions of a disability cannot affect the physical effects of the disability on an individual, after all. But we are increasingly understanding how the ways in which disability is represented and therefore popularly understood can (and absolutely do) influence the social effects of a disability on an individual.

To date, the majority of television and film representations of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) still fall into a few narrow categories: the savant, the quirky or comic sidekick, the undiagnosed and unlabelled, and – the smallest proportion – the realistic. These media representations have real-world effects. In the school context, for example, teachers and learners may have preconceived ideas about learners with ASD, without having ever taught or been in classrooms with them. People can have quite firm preconceptions due to the socially storied representations they have seen. They perceive the depictions of autism they have seen in popular media as "knowledge". When characters are on TV, they become part of an audience's lives and exist in the living rooms and lives of viewers. They have considerable potential to stigmatise, or to educate and humanise people. This is why creating more accurate and diverse depictions of ASD is important.

The research points to a few key pitfalls in representation. Only white people feature in stories about autistic characters, with an extensive review identifying no depictions of autistic people of colour. The vast majority of representations feature boys and men, despite a growing understanding of how ASD manifests in women and girls, and has previously gone underdiagnosed. There is an over-emphasis on ASD as it manifests among teenagers and young adults, even though ASD is a lifelong neurodiversity. Autistic people are usually portrayed in extremes: either near-genius, such as The Good Doctor, or near-incapable, as in Love on the Spectrum. There is a high incidence of characters who are assumed to be neurodiverse but are never explicitly labelled as such, which does not provide room for discussion and ownership. Finally, there is a lack of or problematic autistic involvement in the creative process.

At its extremes, the effects of representation can be more serious than misunderstandings and stereotypes. In South Africa, one of the only representations of autism is Raaiselkind, a film about an autistic child who may or may not have been murdered by his own mother. Recently, the singer Sia came under fire for the portrayal in her film Music of a restraining technique that is considered highly dangerous and potentially deadly and that is sometimes practised on autistic children. She also reacted badly to criticism from the autistic community, getting angry at those who felt she should have cast an autistic person in the role. When incorrect representations are broadcast, especially by people with enormous audiences and powerful voices, they damage the disabled community. Every time a dangerous practice is depicted as an act of love or kindness, it increases the likelihood of an autistic child being hurt or injured.

We must look at all the perceptions about ASD, whether real or invented, that are being presented as truth. This year's Autism Symposium calls on us to step forward with conversations, and it is clear to me that the first autistic person a lot of people will "meet" will be someone on their TV screens. How then do we ensure that the conversations being held are representative of the autism community, and not creations of the imaginations of others? We have to centre and give more power to individuals with ASD and those immediately surrounding them as the real experts, and ensure their stories are told and amplified.

More about the author:

Karen Jeynes has worked extensively as a writer for stage and screen. She is in demand as a script consultant and adviser, working with local and international production companies, industry bodies and individual writers.

She segued her TV writing and research into work as a fact checker and researcher, writing in the fields of health, education, disability and migrancy. Karen has an MA in writing for the screen, and is pursuing her PhD in representations of autism on South African television at UP.

Submitted on Tue, 06/28/2022 - 11:31