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Netflix, ABC Portrayals Of Autism Still Fall Short, Critics Say

Aug 11, 2017
Originally published on August 11, 2017 8:23 pm

Like a lot of kids in high school, Sam worries that he doesn't fit in.

"I'm a weirdo. That's what everyone says," declares the 18-year-old character at the center of Netflix's new dramatic comedy series Atypical.

One reason Sam struggles to fit in: He has autism.

As his character explains at the start of the first episode, sometimes he doesn't understand what people mean when they say things. And that makes him feel alone, even when he's not.

Sam's family in Atypical is thrown in all sorts of new directions by his quest to date and find a girlfriend. Creator Robia Rashid says she wanted to tell a different kind of coming-of-age story, inspired by recent increases in autism diagnoses.

"There are all these young people now who are on the spectrum, who know ... they're on the spectrum," she says. "And [they] are interested in things that every young person is interested in ... independence and finding connections and finding love."

On-screen depictions of autism have come a long way since Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in the 1988 Oscar-winning film Rain Man.

Hoffman's Babbitt focused obsessively on watching The People's Court and getting served maple syrup before his pancakes. He could also memorize half the names in a phone book in one reading and count the number of toothpicks on the floor, moments after they spilled out of the box.

For Atypical, Rashid says she researched accounts of adults with autism, has several parents of autistic children working in her crew and hired an actor with autism to play a minor role.

Still, some critics say Atypical presents some troubling images despite its good intentions. Mickey Rowe, an actor who has autism, says that because the show doesn't have any writers, producers or actors in major roles with the disorder, it can feel like the series is allowing people without autism to make fun of people with it.

"The motto of the autistic community is 'Nothing about us, without us,' " Rowe says. "There is such a long history of other people making decisions of behalf of autistic people and deciding what's best for their well-being and how to represent them to the world."

Rowe, who has written about the show for Teen Vogue magazine, was troubled by a scene played for laughs, where Sam wears headphones in public to cut down on sensory overload. He also criticized another moment when Sam is shown frightening a girl because he doesn't quite know how to smile comfortably.

And he's not the only critic with concerns.

"The audience is basically laughing at [Sam] being autistic," says Elizabeth Bartmess, a writer and editor with autism who has written often about how autistic characters are depicted in literature.

"That's partly a problem because in real life, autistic people ... get laughed at a lot for showing autistic traits," she says. "He's trying to make a facial expression that will look like the facial expressions that other people expect him to have. ... It's stressful, and it takes up a lot of energy and attention. And you're always at risk of getting it wrong."

Another show that Bartmess finds troubling is a new series debuting this fall on ABC called The Good Doctor. It's centered on a surgical resident named Shawn Murphy who has autism and savant syndrome. He's highly skilled at medicine but struggles with social skills.

West Wing alum Richard Schiff plays the hospital president, fighting to convince a skeptical hospital board to hire Murphy.

"We hire Shawn, and we give hope to those people with limitations that those limitations are not what they think they are," the character shouts during a board meeting as inspiring music rises in the background. "They do have a shot!"

Still, because not all people with autism are savants like the character Hoffman portrayed in Rain Man, Bartmess takes a different message from that moment.

"That's basically saying the only way that you can get to have a job and keep a job is to be this incredible, super-powered autistic person that you can't be, because almost no one is," she says. "That's kind of the opposite of inspiring."

David Shore, executive producer of The Good Doctor, says the show argues against attitudes which keep people with disabilities from employment.

"People look at them and make judgments," Shore says. "I hope this is part of a dialogue that gives rise to simply reducing prejudices right across the board and [being] open to ... [the question of] what does it mean to be qualified? What does it mean to be a good doctor?"

Both Shore and Rashid say their characters aren't meant to be symbols for every person with autism.

But with so few autistic characters on TV, the few who do appear on-screen often become symbols, whether the creators intend it or not.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of the best-known depictions of autism in a major film is Dustin Hoffman's character in the Oscar-winning 1988 film "Rain Man."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RAIN MAN")

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Raymond) Maple syrup was supposed to be on the table before the pancakes.

TOM CRUISE: (As Charlie) Ray...

HOFFMAN: (As Raymond) Of course when they bring the maple syrup after the pancakes, it'll definitely be too late. We're going to be here the entire morning with...

SHAPIRO: Few movies or TV shows discussed autism 30 years ago. That's changed. There are two major TV projects centered on autistic characters debuting soon. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says while these modern depictions of autism have come a long way and mean well, they still occasionally stumble on stereotypes and misunderstandings.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Like a lot of kids in high school, Sam worries that he doesn't fit in.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATYPICAL")

KEIR GILCHRIST: (As Sam) I'm a weirdo. That's what everyone says.

DEGGANS: Sam is the 18-year-old lead character in Netflix's dramatic comedy series "Atypical." One reason he struggles to fit in - he has autism.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATYPICAL")

GILCHRIST: (As Sam) Sometimes I don't know what people mean when they say things, and that can make me feel alone even when there are other people in the room.

DEGGANS: Autism can make it difficult for people to understand social cues or nonverbal signals. People with autism can say things that seem inappropriate or misread how someone else is reacting. So when Sam tells his family that he wants to date and get a girlfriend, he does it in a very literal way, referencing a discussion with this therapist, Julia.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATYPICAL")

GILCHRIST: (As Sam) Julia thinks that I should put myself out there and find someone to have sex with.

BRIGETTE LUNDY-PAINE: (As Casey, laughter).

GILCHRIST: (As Sam) Well, she didn't say the sex part. I added that.

DEGGANS: "Atypical" can be wonderfully compelling, pushing back against stereotypes by taking viewers into Sam's world. Creator Robia Rashid said she wanted to tell a different kind of coming-of-age story, inspired by recent increases in autism diagnoses.

ROBIA RASHID: There are all these, you know, young people now who are on the spectrum who know that they're on the spectrum and are interested in things that every young person is interested in.

DEGGANS: Rashid researched accounts of adults with autism, has several parents of autistic children working in her crew and hired an actor with autism to play a minor role. So "Atypical" offers a complex portrait of a family where everyone's struggling. Its model surfaces in a scene where Sam tells a friend about a date that went badly when he pushed away a girl trying to touch him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATYPICAL")

GILCHRIST: (As Sam) Sometimes I wish I was normal.

GRAHAM ROGERS: (As Evan) Dude, nobody's normal.

RASHID: I really, really relate to that theme. I'm half-Pakistani, half-white. It grew up in northern Vermont. There wasn't anyone except my brother who looked like me (laughter). So I think that was a part of it.

DEGGANS: But some critics say despite its good intentions, "Atypical" presents some troubling images. Mickey Rowe, an actor who is autistic, says that because the show doesn't have any writers, producers or actors in major roles who are autistic, it can feel like the series is allowing people without autism to make fun of autistic people.

MICKEY ROWE: The motto of the autistic community is, nothing about us without us, just because there is such a long history of other people making decisions on behalf of autistic people.

DEGGANS: Rowe, who has written about the show for Teen Vogue magazine, was troubled by a scene played for laughs where Sam wears headphones in public to cut down on sensory overload. He also criticized another moment where Sam frightens a girl because he doesn't quite know how to smile comfortably. And he's not the only critic with concerns.

ELIZABETH BARTMESS: The audience is basically laughing at his being autistic.

DEGGANS: That's Elizabeth Bartmess, a writer and editor with autism who's written often about how autistic characters are depicted in literature.

BARTMESS: That's partly a problem because in real life, autistic people in real life get laughed at a lot for showing autistic traits.

DEGGANS: Another show that Bartmess finds troubling is a new series debuting this fall on ABC called "The Good Doctor." It's centered on a surgical resident named Shaun Murphy who's an autistic savant highly skilled in medicine but struggles with social skills. "West Wing" alum Richard Schiff plays the hospital president fighting to convince a skeptical hospital board to hire him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD DOCTOR")

RICHARD SCHIFF: (As Dr. Aaron Glassman) We hire Shaun, and we give hope to those people with limitations that those limitations are not what they think they are.

DEGGANS: Still, because not all people with autism are savants like Dustin Hoffman's character in "Rain Man," Bartmess takes a different message from that clip in "The Good Doctor."

BARTMESS: It's basically saying the only way that you can get to have a job and keep a job is to be this incredible super-powered autistic person that you can't be because almost no one is. That's kind of the opposite of inspiring.

DEGGANS: David Shore, executive producer of "The Good Doctor," says the show argues against attitudes which keep disabled people from employment. He spoke after a recent press conference for the series.

DAVID SHORE: People look at them and make judgments. I hope this is part of a dialogue that gives rise to simply reducing prejudices right across the board and let us be open to, what does it mean to be qualified?

DEGGANS: Both Shore and Rashid say their characters aren't meant to be symbols for every autistic person, but with so few autistic characters on TV, those few who do appear onscreen often become symbols whether the creators intend it or not. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF COYOTE'S "ELECTRIC SUNBURST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.