An estimated 1% of the world’s population, or around 75 million people, are on the spectrum, but so few of us are represented well on screen— at least, not in a way that doesn’t make autistic traits the butt of the joke.
But it’s Autism Acceptance Month, and it’s a good time to recognize the positive and well-researched representations of autism and autistic people on screen.
A quick aside, where I highlight a truism within the community: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” That is to say, although there are some traits and characteristics shared by many people on the spectrum, each autistic person embodies different traits to different extents.
And so, while the characters below might be relatable to some autistic folk, they’re not going to represent every single person within the community. What I would like to highlight, though, is the way their characters are treated within their fictional universes and by the real-life creative teams that crafted them.
Abed Nadir – Community (2009-2015)
Played by Danny Pudi, Abed Nadir is a character on Community (2009-2015), a show about a study group at the fictional Greendale Community College. Along with Abed, the group is made up of disbarred lawyer Jeff, psychology major Britta, former footballer Troy, elderly millionaire Chevy, compulsive overachiever Annie, and aspiring entrepreneur Shirley.
Abed, a film major, is heavily coded to be on the spectrum. At one point, he raps, “On the spectrum, none of your business.” He also refers to his friends as “neurotypical.”
He also ticks a lot of the common boxes. Abed comes across as “eccentric,” often speaks in a flat tone, can be almost disturbingly observant, has some trouble with social interaction and understanding social cues, and even has a verbal tic of saying “Cool. Cool, cool, cool.”
His special interest is pop culture, particularly TV shows, which he uses as a lens to better understand the world around him. It also means that he compares the events of his life with media tropes — making him the show’s meta guy.
All this isn’t what makes Abed’s character a good representation of autism, though. What makes him stand out among (the still too few) autistic characters on screen is that we, the audience, are allowed to see his humanity.
Series creator Dan Harmon has shared that he did a lot of research on autism while writing Abed’s character. The positive feedback from autistic fans of the show helped him dive further into it and, in the process, realized that he himself is probably autistic.
Here’s an interview where he explains, with refreshing clarity, the problem of ableism and how adults with autism have learned how to mask or blend in all their lives.
In the video, Harmon explains how describing disorders like autism as an affliction makes it seem like it’s something that inhibits someone. When in reality, he says, “The inhibition is on the part of other people.”
Even if he didn’t turn out to be on the spectrum, what Harmon did for the autistic community is still pretty remarkable: He did the research and was willing to listen. Neurotypical creators can learn a lot from that.
This dedication to autistic audiences means that even though Community is a comedy, the jokes about Abed are never mean-spirited. The show doesn’t shy away from showing his autistic traits, but it never mocks them, and, in so doing, it gives autistic folk a character they can relate to without being made to feel like they’re a joke.
It even pokes fun at shows that handle autism with a lot less grace. In one scene, Dean says, “Abed, you’re special. Can’t you just stand at the scene of the crime and see what happened?”
In his signature meta humor, Abed moves his arms against a backdrop of dramatic music and responds, “I see a man using a social disorder as a procedural device. Wait, wait, wait! I see another man…mildly autistic super detectives everywhere…basic cable…broadcast networks…pain, painful writing…it hurts.”
(I am a fan of Bones, a show about an ultrasmart, crime-fighting forensic anthropologist who is mildly autistic coded, and this made me cackle.)
But what’s also remarkable is how the rest of the characters in the show accept Abed, who is never made to feel like he needed to be anything other than his autistic self. They recognize that despite his less-than-typical behavior, he is able to empathize and form meaningful relationships — challenging some harmful and all-too-common autism myths.
In Season 3, for example, Abed runs an array of scientific scenarios about his group of friends, which Annie takes as him lacking empathy. Later on, Annie realizes he’s actually just terrified of his friends changing and leaving him behind. In this scene, which I may or may not have bawled over, she assures him that he’s not going to be alone or forgotten.
Throughout the show’s six seasons, we see Abed’s friends understanding and respecting his special interests. They help him deal with change and manage his emotions, recognizing his quirks without making fun of them while also helping him grow.
They also see him for what he is: a student of life and of human behavior. His special interest in media helps him understand others and learn how to express himself, and we see how, sometimes, he understands his friends even better than they understand themselves.
Julia – Sesame Street (1969-)
In 2017, Sesame Street introduced Julia, the first new Muppet in 10 years and the first ever to be canonically autistic.
A new resident on the titular Sesame Street, Julia is a four-year-old with a sunshine-yellow body and a beloved toy rabbit named Fluffster, who goes with her everywhere. In Julia’s debut episode, Abby Cadabby asks Alan what autism is, to which he responds: “Well, for Julia, it means that she might not answer you right away…and she may not do what you expect. Yeah, she does things just a little differently, in a Julia sort of way.”
It’s a simple and understated enough explanation, but one that makes a world of difference for children learning about autism for the first time. And I don’t know about you, but it’s definitely way better than the derogatory way it was first said to me as a child.
The World Health Organization estimates that around 1 in 100 children have autism. But given how hard it is for girls and Black and Latino children to get diagnosed, that number is likely higher in real life.
What makes Julia’s character so special is that she’s shown to be a part of a community that cares for her. Yes, she’s different from the other Muppets: she can be overwhelmed by loud sounds, holds on to Fluffster for comfort, and may not look at people when they are talking to her. She also shows some stimming (or self-stimulatory) behavior, like jumping or flapping her hands.
But her friends embrace her anyway, doing their best to understand and include her, while adults help her develop and practice coping skills. And really, it’s part of how Sesame Street has been so wonderfully revolutionary from the very start.
The show presents us with a model of a better world for children with autism, and it’s honestly pretty moving to watch as an adult. The show even came out with an anthem called The Amazing Song.
At first glance, the line “We all can feel happy, we all can feel mad” seems simple enough. But the lyrics debunk yet another unfortunate myth about autism: that kids on the spectrum don’t have feelings.
Part of the magic is in the production team and how they draw from their own experiences. Julia’s puppeteer, Stacey Gordon, has a son with autism, from whom she draws inspiration for her movement. Julia’s designer, Louis Mitchell, has volunteer experience with autistic kids. The scriptwriter, Christine Ferraro, has an autistic sibling.
Moreover, another factor of Julia’s success is that she was created in collaboration with groups like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). Actually, reaching out to autistic people meant that Sesame Street didn’t just get the facts about autism right — it was able to foster empathy for autistic people, too.
“Julia is an autistic character who is consistently shown to be fully included in her community, as being a part of a loving family, being a good friend to other members of her community, and standing up for others. That’s really revolutionary,” explained Julia Bascom, ASAN executive director. “That’s not usually how autistic people are depicted in the media—as having these ordinary lives and these valuable social roles and being a positive addition to the community around them.”
But of course, I have to mention that Sesame Street’s more recent decision to partner with Autism Speaks — the US’ largest autism advocacy and research organization that has a history of, ironically, not letting autistic folks speak — is a bit of a step back.
The organization’s controversial 100-Day Kit, which tells parents to “grieve” their autistic child, among other worrisome messages, reflects so much of the stigma and misinformation that Julia’s character is supposed to fight. And rightfully, ASAN has decided to break up with Sesame Street for it.
Despite the controversy, I do still think that Julia is a great example of autistic representation done well… as long as one looks away from the show’s ties to Autism Speaks.
Billy Cranston – Power Rangers (2017)
Okay, hear me out.
Yes, the 2017 Power Rangers movie was indeed a box office bomb that had mixed-to-bad reviews. Maybe I might’ve loved it less if I wasn’t a ‘90s kid who grew up with the classic TV show. But one thing in the movie that really shined was Billy Cranston, who is also the Blue Ranger that, in this reboot, is autistic.
Billy is a bit of a genius when it comes to weapons and technology and has trouble reading people’s emotions and understanding when they’re being sarcastic. He’s also pretty blunt: When he doesn’t get a joke, he says so.
Early in the film, Billy straight up tells Red Ranger Jason Scott that he is autistic, with a brain that’s a bit different. Jason replies, “Consider that a good thing.”
Having that on a big-budget blockbuster superhero film, said by one lead character to another lead character, is pretty cool.
Director Dean Israelite had previously shared that the inspiration for Billy’s autism is the fact that the original character had always been very mathematical. Of course, this isn’t to say that all autistic people are great at math and that people who are good with numbers are automatically autistic. It’s just that, according to some studies, kids on the spectrum tend to be better at math. Alongside writer John Gatin, Israelite decided that it’s better not to be vague about the diagnosis.
At school, Billy’s an average guy, but he’s also a superhero and an integral part of the team. Just having Billy as a lead character sends the message that not only do autistic people exist — they’re also important enough to be in central roles, serving as indispensable parts of a plot.
It’s also notable how Gatin makes sure to emphasize Billy’s empathy. We see him throughout the film, awkwardness and all, looking out for his friends and their well-being. Sure, seeing this might not seem all that special, but from a character with a largely misunderstood condition, it kind of is.
RJ Cyler, who plays Billy, took the role very seriously. Though it would be nice to have an autistic actor play an autistic character, we did get the next best thing: An actor who wanted to do their best. “There’s a lot that I didn’t know before,” Cyler shares in an interview with ScreenRant. “I actually sat down and shut my mouth and just listened and, you know, accepted every bit of information with no judgment.”
At the end of the day, autism, or the developmental disability that affects how people experience the world in terms of senses, thinking, physical movement, communication, and socializing, is something a lot of us are born with and will continue to have all our lives. There isn’t one single way to be autistic. But what people on the spectrum share is the need to see more of ourselves on screen.
Too often, autistic people on film and TV fall under one of two categories: clueless and slightly annoying intellectuals or, sadly, burdens for neurotypicals. This further pushes a lot of misconceptions about autism that helped shape these representations in the first place.
Healthy, empathetic representations of autistic people, as we’ve seen above (like we know we can see more of if the industry wills it to happen), can help counter these myths. This can improve not just how the public thinks of autism but how autistic people, especially autistic kids, see themselves.