As an autism momager, I’m always networking on behalf of my actress daughter Samantha and her neurodiverse theater group EPIC Players. In that spirit, I was able to arrange for Samantha, EPIC Players’ Talia Eapen and myself to appear at the Asperger/Autism Network (AANE) Fall Conference in Marlborough, MA for a presentation on the Evolution of the Autistic Character in Film and Television.
I started my research by Googling “autism characters in film and television.” The good news is that these lists are surprisingly long and include from 20 to 30 films and television shows. We have come a long way since Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman playing a card counting Asperger Savant in 1988, but we still have a VERY long way to go.
The good news is Neurotribe’s Steve Silberman said: “So Rain Man created this wave of cultural awareness of autism more than any of the autism organizations had been able to accomplish in decades before that.” But the bad news, according The Guardian, is that “Rain Man made autism visible, but also started the myth of Autism and Savantism.”
As the number of children diagnosed on the autism spectrum has exploded from 1 in 150— when Samantha was born in 1990—to 1 in 40 in 2019, there has been tremendous research and interest in autism. Hollywood has cashed in, especially in the last few years. Now we have movies, like The Accountant, starring Ben Affleck, Please Stand By with Dakota Fanning and Snow Cake with Sigourney Weaver. All of these films feature characters with Asperger’s Syndrome (often considered the “high” end of the spectrum) played by neurotypical actors. These films may offer enjoyable entertainment for audiences, but they are neither believable nor authentic from the perspective of this autism mom.
Multi-season television shows like The Good Doctor, starring Freddie Highmore and Atypical, starring Kier Gilchrist have also arrived on the scene. Question: What do all of these shows and films have in common? Answer: The characters with autism are played by neurotypical actors, many of whom are well paid celebrities. There has been and continues to be an enormous inclusion gap when it comes to authentic casting for disability roles.
My daughter Samantha Elisofon and her co-star Brandon Polansky are the first actors living on the spectrum to play the leading roles of characters with autism in a full-length feature film (not a documentary). What amazes me is that I found only one list on Google which includes Keep the Change. Only ARI (The Autism Research Institute) includes Keep the Change on its list of “Movies Featuring ASD.” A disproportionate number involve characters with Aspergers: Adam, My Name is Khan, Little Man Tate, Rain Man, Please Stand By, Mercury Rising.
Most autism experts and people attending the AANE conference would never expect a film like Forrest Gump to be included on a list of movies with autism characters. Forrest Gump is developmentally disabled, but to my mind exhibits no other symptoms of autism.
Forrest Gump was a wonderful film which won Best Picture in 1994 with Tom Hanks, but how many people do you know with autism who served in the army, saved the life of a commanding officer, and fell in love with a neurotypical woman with AIDs whom he cared for till she died? And for anyone who saw I Am Sam, did you think Sean Penn accurately portrayed a person with autism?
In House of Cards: “A bright, young girl withdraws after her father is killed by falling off a cliff. She believes that by withdrawing socially and climbing tall structures, she will reunite with her father near the moon. She exhibits many autistic characteristics: insistence on sameness, lack of social interaction, no language and good coordination.” All of these are plausible-though-stereotyped descriptions of autism qualities EXCEPT for good coordination. There are a few autistic athletes with good coordination, but they are in the minority, just as people with exceptional abilities in math, computers and music are also in the minority (1 in 10).
To suggest that autism is caused by a traumatic event, such as a death in the family, is not only misleading, but disinformation. In other words: fake news. Autism is NOT a mental illness, nervous breakdown, or a reaction to childhood trauma.
While it’s unclear after years of research and millions invested in trying to unravel all of the mysteries of autism, one thing is very clear. People with autism have brains that are wired differently, and each individual with autism is an individual. A person or movie character should not be assembled from a collection of shallow stereotypes or symptoms. Public interest in autism must be accompanied by accurate information and the inclusion of people on the spectrum. Without inclusion, these shows border on being exploitive because they are using the idea of autism for entertainment without actually helping people living on the spectrum, or giving them the opportunity to represent themselves.
Google’s lists did not agree with my assessment. Surprisingly, none of the following lists included Keep the Change, despite being the winner of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.
IMBd’s “TV and Movies with Autistic Characters” listed 22 films and 2 TV shows.
ABA’s list offers “30 Best Books, Movies and TV Characters on the Autistic Spectrum.”
Wikipedia – “List of Films About Autism” includes 52 movies, documentaries and a foreign film from Change of Heart in 1969 to Athiran 2019
Wikipedia – “List of Autistic Fictional Characters from 1969 to 2019”
Or my personal favorite: “14 Movies to Watch During Autism Awareness Month” VERY disappointing, since KTC was released in March 2018, right before Autism Awareness month in April.
Only the Autism Research Institute (ARI) included Keep the Change on its list of “Movies Featuring ASD,” which lists 22 films. ARI offers the following caveat to readers: “Most of the actors in the movies do a reasonable job of portraying a person with autistic traits. However, the majority do not provide an accurate description of the underlying cause of autism and may, in fact either label a person as autistic, who given the circumstances presented, may not be, or fail to recognize the disorder and confuse it with another neurodevelopmental disorder.” Why does ARI offer such a muddled legal/medical disclaimer?
Clearly, the lists of autism characters in movies and the sites which describe them need to be updated and improved. Hollywood has a long way to go in creating realistic and accurate characters on the autism spectrum.
Not everyone with autism is a genius or non-verbal. All people with autism are NOT socially withdrawn, unable to make eye contact, or lacking in empathy and the desire for intimate relationships. I’m hopeful that in the near future more films and TV shows will portray people with autism as interesting and complex individuals who have the same hopes and dreams as neurotypical characters.
And what about featuring characters with autism who live in the middle of the spectrum? These individuals have social and communication issues but still yearn for independence, respect and meaningful relationships. Keep the Change manages to deliver the important message that people with autism can make significant emotional connections and even display emotional intelligence.
But in order to create such authentic characters, Hollywood must cast actors with autism like Samantha and her fellow cast members in EPIC Players (Empower, Perform, Include, Create) a non-profit, neurodiverse theater group.
Currently, only 2% of TV roles are written for actors with disabilities. Of those roles, 95% are played by able-bodied actors. These are dismal statistics reminiscent of the days when white actors wore black face to depict Afro American characters.
EPIC Players is dedicated to dramatically expanding the opportunities for its actors with and without disabilities by providing performing arts training and building social communities for neurodiverse artists.
At EPIC, neurotypical actors and those with autism BOTH learn the same skills: creativity, accountability, confidence, collaboration, team work, social skills, perseverance, empathy, focus, and communication (verbal and non-verbal), constructive feedback, dedication and responsibility. EPIC Players’ mission is to open a world of possibilities for talented individuals on the spectrum.
If not now, when?