An Examination of Autism in Media


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This is a symbol of the autistic community in place of the puzzle piece ribbon that has an ableist history.

I recently finished watching the new (and overwhelmingly popular) Netflix original The Queen’s Gambit, which I highly recommend if you haven’t already seen it. The show follows the life of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, as she navigates the surprisingly thrilling world of competitive chess while simultaneously dealing with a drug and alcohol dependency, along with all of the emotional trauma that accompanies being orphaned at a young age. 

There are a plethora of topics to explore in the miniseries ranging from discussions of sexual freedom to examinations of international politics in the 1960s. However, what caught my attention almost immediately was Beth’s seemingly obvious autism

It’s never explicitly stated in the show or by the creators that Beth is autistic. However, she is heavily coded as such, even if unintentionally. Beth is brilliant but has trouble reading between the lines. She is extremely blunt and clearly hyper fixated on chess beyond what would be considered “normal.” Of course, her actions could be seen as the result of her extensive traumas. But even in that regard, her responses to notable events never seem to fit what one might expect of a neurotypical person. For example, in the very first episode, Beth’s non-reaction to the violent car crash that takes her mother’s life is striking and could be easily interpreted as a depiction of an autistic child experiencing an emotional shutdown. I could easily delve more into the specifics of Beth’s character in relation to autism. Still, I simply wanted to introduce her as a stepping off point to talk about autism in the media in general.  

Beth is not the first example of accidental neurodivergence portrayed in the media. There’s a long list of TV, book and movie characters who are heavily coded as autistic even if it’s never formally declared to be true. Some are more obvious and stereotypical, whereas others fly under most people’s radars. An incomplete list of these characters would include Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, Dr. Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds, both title characters from Lilo and Stitch, and even Star Trek’s beloved Spock

There are also some examples of canonically autistic characters in popular entertainment media, though not as many as one might hope. Off the top of my head, I can think of Raymond from Rain Man, Shaun from The Good Doctor and Sam from Atypical and that’s about it. 

Of all of the examples listed thus far, I have two substantial criticisms. One: authentic and intentional representation of autism is incredibly rare. And two: what representation does exist showcases a particular and palatable part of the autism spectrum. 

To the first point, the fact that I could only easily find three well-known characters who are explicitly stated to be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) should speak volumes on its own. But even in those examples, there are still prevalent issues. The most obvious of which is that none of the actors portraying autistic characters are actually autistic. 

It’s an issue that isn’t exclusive to autistic representation. Characters representing marginalized populations are rarely if ever, played by actors who are actually a part of that population. There is the obvious fact that it’s acting and actors play characters with whom they have nothing in common all the time. It’s their job. However, when characters with marginalized identities are played by actors who have no lived experience with that identity, it makes an accurate representation that much harder. Not to mention, it takes job opportunities away from actors who are actually autistic (or trans, or gay, or deaf, or whatever else it may be). 

A very recent example of this exact issue is highlighted in the controversy surrounding Australian singer Sia’s new movie, Music, which focuses on a nonverbal autistic girl named Music. Sia is both not autistic and evidently unwilling to listen to actually autistic people who have told her that casting a neurotypical woman in a film expressly written as a “love letter to caregivers and the autism community” completely defeats the supposed point of the film. In an article by Teen Vogue, Charlotte Gush says that “to ventriloquize a nonverbal autistic girl, one of the more marginalized and misunderstood identities even within disability discourse, is misguided to the point of misanthropy.” 

That specific criticism leads me to the other main point of this article: the extremely limited representation of autism in entertainment tends to showcase a particular part of the autism spectrum. Almost all characters with autism are white, fully verbal, distinctly independent men who (more often than not) are ridiculously intelligent. Usually, a character’s autism is used as a plot device instead of an intrinsic aspect of one’s existence. Most characters that display autistic traits are given characteristics of ASD but no stated diagnosis so that their “quirky” personalities can be used to further a plot device and maintain viewer engagement. And in the rare instances where they are given a diagnosis, autism becomes the only aspect of their personality. The reality is that autistic people are people and while autism most certainly informs one’s experience of the world, it does not define their personality or existence as human beings. 

In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth Harmon falls almost directly into the formerly stated character archetype. She’s white, verbal, independent and exceedingly intelligent. The only noticeable difference between her and characters like Dr. Reid is that she is not a man. It should be noted that her character is a well-developed, easily admirable and good representation of a young autistic woman –especially in the way her interpersonal relationships are shown. But even then, she still falls into the Hollywood stereotype. 

All of this is to say that representation of autism needs to go beyond the “white genius-boy whose lack of emotional intelligence is the only real barrier in his life.” There is no singular representation of autism and individuals’ on the spectrum experience wildly different and infinitely varied symptoms, all of which can and should be showcased. By autistic actors, of course.