Local experts weigh the impact of autistic characters on television

Local experts weigh the impact of autistic characters on television
Actor Jim Parsons portrays Sheldon Cooper on "The Big Bang Theory." Cooper is never explicitly described as being autistic but viewers have speculated that the character has Asperger's syndrome.

SEATTLE -- As the weather gets colder we tend to spend more time indoors looking forward to the return of our favorite television shows. In recent years, an increasing number of popular programs have featured characters with autism, including some shows premiering this week. While some members of the local autism community appreciate the representation, others say simply writing a character with autism into a script is not good enough.

The appearance of characters with autism in popular media is not new -- think of Dustin Hoffman’s 1988 performance in “Rain Man.” But more and more television shows, including “Parenthood,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Community” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” feature characters that are either explicitly described as autistic or are perceived to fall somewhere on the autism spectrum.

Matt Young, a member of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s Washington chapter who has autism himself, says the portrayal of characters with autism in a show can be positive or negative.

"Simple awareness isn't enough," Young says. "It has the potential to be a good thing but it could easily turn into a bad thing if these depictions promote harmful stereotypes that make our lives harder, if it makes [autism] seem more alien, more unrelatable."

Young says fictitious characters with autism rarely demonstrate the wide range of abilities and functioning that an autistic person can have. The characters are not always portrayed in as multi-dimensional. 

"A lot of times they fall in one of two extreme stereotypes," Young says. "Either as a person that appears so different and inaccessible to people around them that it can create a caricature or as someone with savant-like capabilities."

While “The Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper is interpreted by many to be an extreme example of a high-functioning person with Asperger's syndrome, Young appreciates that his is a more multi-dimensional character.

"I don't like him as a person but in some ways he is a more real, faithful character with differences in functioning," he says. "It's stereotyped and exaggerated, but it speaks for a more fully fleshed out character."

Dr. Felice Orlich, a psychiatrist at Seattle Children's Hospital's Autism Center, says she appreciates Sheldon because he demonstrates how someone with Aspergers can live a happy, productive life. 

"He really captures some of the higher functioning kids that we see at Children's," Orlich says. "These really quirky, happy kids who are having a good life. He's this quirky, scientific person who's happy the way he is and he has friends. The outcome is good for him."

Orlich has more mixed feelings about the character Max on “Parenthood,” a child who is explicitly described as having Asperger's. While she appreciates the portrayal of very patient, attentive parents, she is concerned that Max's lack of progress could be discouraging for real-life parents with autistic children.

"I think it spreads the message that it's not the parents' fault; autism really is a hard thing to live with even if they're high functioning," she says. "But [Max] is a pretty unhappy guy. I wouldn't characterize kids with autism that way."

Young says he thinks the portrayal of a child with autism in the series 'Touch' had a positive influence on the autistic community.

"The way people around him responded to his autism, there was this model of acceptance," he says. "You could see it was not easy for his father but he was doing the work. That message was so strong and touched me in a positive way."

Young stresses the most important thing that television producers can do if they choose to include a character with autism in their show is hire an autistic consultant for feedback.

"It's so important to have an autistic person included in shaping the conversation about us. The true experts on autism are the people who live it every day. ”