How the Depiction of Autism on TV Continues to Evolve

Netflix's 'Atypical' and ABC's 'The Good Doctor' help illustrate the human side of a disorder that remains mysterious to many.
Courtesy of Netflix
"Atypical"

In 1988's Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic savant named Raymond Babbit, who can complete difficult mental calculations in seconds while being unable to live on his own. Although it was a specific portrayal of a very specific place on the autism spectrum, Rain Man was a blockbuster hit, and Raymond thereby became the poster child for an extremely complicated disorder onscreen.

But during the past decade, television has been ushering in a new era. Recently, series such as FX's The Bridge, NBC's Chicago Med and Parenthood and even HBO's Sesame Street have given viewers a more multifaceted look at autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in all its forms.

Now, two new series  Netflix’s Atypical (Aug. 11) and ABC’s The Good Doctor (Sept. 25)  are being added to that list, and both are hoping to capture the human side of a disorder that in many ways remains mysterious. As Parenthood creator Jason Katims wrote in a guest column for THR in 2012, crafting the character of Max Braverman (Max Burkholder), a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome, proved difficult even though he himself was raising a son with the disorder:

“Early in the series, I asked our show's Asperger's ‘consultant’… if he felt he really understood what went on in the minds of kids with Asperger's. He answered candidly, ‘No, I don't.’ I asked him that question because after 15 years, my son, who has Asperger's, is still very much a mystery to me. There are moments where he can be lucid and expressive, but very often I am left guessing.”

Atypical creator Robia Rashid can relate. Previously a writer on ABC's The Goldbergs and CBS' How I Met Your Mother, she was inspired to create the series in part due to her close personal relationship with someone on the spectrum. But as she soon discovered, writing the POV of her main character Sam (Keir Gilchrist) — an 18-year-old on the spectrum who begins to branch out with the help of his therapist (Amy Okuda) — wasn’t easy.

“When I realized that this was the thing that I wanted to write, I was mad at myself, because it seems really hard to write his POV especially,” Rashid said of the series, which also stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sam’s caring but neurotic mother Elsa and Michael Rapaport as his father Doug.

To get that POV right, Rashid threw herself into research mode: listening to podcasts, reading books and blogs written by individuals on the spectrum and collecting stories from those touched by the disorder. In addition to hiring a consultant for the series who “read every script, read every outline and watch[ed] every cut,” she leaned on input from those on the cast and crew who also had personal experience with autism.

“We had crewmembers who would stop and say, 'this doesn't feel authentic,’” said Rashid, who noted that one crewmember who has a son on the spectrum quit her regular job to come work on the show. “And I made sure it was a set where people felt comfortable telling me that.”

For the show’s star Gilchrist (Showtime's The United States of Tara), the task of getting into character was helped immensely by the 2012 book The Journal of Best Practices, in which author David Finch writes about being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome five years into his marriage.

“[Reading it was] probably the most helpful thing, just because it really puts you in the mindset of someone who's on the spectrum,” Gilchrist said of the book, which Rashid bought for every member of the cast and writing staff. Still, nailing Sam’s specific place on the spectrum required a lot of fine-tuning. “It's such a huge spectrum that it was also about figuring out where Sam exactly fell, or what worked for this particular character instead of necessarily trying to cover all of it.”

The challenge of specificity was also faced by The Good Doctor star Freddie Highmore. His character — a brilliant surgeon named Shaun Murphy who leaves his hometown to work at a prestigious hospital — has both autism and savant syndrome, a condition in which an individual (often autistic) demonstrates highly advanced abilities in a particular area.

To prepare for the role, Highmore dove into books and documentaries on the subject, including Temple Grandin’s 2013 tome The Autistic Brain, which urges a focus on the strengths rather than the weaknesses of autistic individuals. For the actor, that attitude extends to what they’re trying to do with the series.

“It's not about denying the very real struggles that [Shaun] will face in this hospital environment by dint of having autism,” said Highmore, who additionally relied on an on-set consultant to help inform his portrayal. “But at the same time, there is an attempt to celebrate his unique view of the world.”

“When I pitched this to ABC, I believe the second sentence I said [was], 'This is not Rain Man,” said The Good Doctor creator David Shore, referring to that film’s focus on a more debilitating form of the disorder. “I think it's important that autism is part of it, and I think we can enlighten people and do something quite positive. But it's a show about a man who has autism. And he is very specific.”

Good intentions aside, advocates will no doubt be paying close attention to the new series, both of which feature a neurotypical actor (i.e. one not on the spectrum) in their respective lead roles. That kind of casting in the past has been a point of contention for some in the community, and it’s one that ties into a greater overall push for actors with disabilities. That said, Autism Speaks multimedia producer Andrew Duff sees the issue in relatively more diplomatic terms.

“There's room for both neurodiverse [actors on the spectrum] and neurotypical actors to approach these roles,” said Duff, a part-time actor who was diagnosed with autism as a pre-schooler. “But at the end of the day, I would love to see more opportunities for people on the spectrum.”

In the case of Atypical, Rashid actually auditioned a number of actors with autism for the role of Sam before Gilchrist was cast. “The decision to go with Keir over someone on the spectrum was not one we took lightly,” said the creator, who later did cast an actor with autism — Anthony Jacques — as a character named Christopher. “But Keir ultimately felt like the right choice and the right fit because he did such a wonderful job.”

In discussing this issue, both Gilchrist and Highmore stressed their desire to do justice to the characters they’re portraying without resorting to tropes. For Highmore, that meant playing against, as he put it, “that stereotypical version of someone with autism who somehow can't feel. Whereas of course that's the complete opposite.”

Accordingly, Gilchrist noted that playing Sam opened him up emotionally in a way he hadn’t in a long time. “I'd been single for quite awhile when I did the series,” he said, “and it actually opened me up to the idea of dating again for the first time in quite some time.” (He’s now in a committed relationship.)

In The Good Doctor, the task of accessing Shaun’s emotional core is visually accomplished via flashbacks to the character’s traumatic childhood. “Freddie Highmore did such a great job of communicating that there's a lot more going on there,” said Shore. “But the flashbacks allow us to get a glimpse into his mind.”

While Sam and Shaun represent very different places on the autism spectrum, both characters are able to verbally communicate, putting them in line with the majority of portrayals. While Autism Speaks chief program and marketing officer Lisa Goring applauds the increasing number of autistic characters in the spotlight, in the future she hopes to see more depictions of an underrepresented segment of the community. (It's worth noting that Atypical does feature multiple characters representing different points on the spectrum.)

“For a portion of our community, they may not be able to communicate verbally,” said Goring. “It doesn't mean that they don't have a lot to say, it's just they have another way to communicate. ... That's a very real experience for a portion of our community that maybe we don't see as much on television.”

For both show creators, the counsel of organizations like Autism Speaks is important, though Shore in particular is wary of becoming too beholden to their input. “I'll be honest, we don't want to be answerable to them,” he said when asked if there were plans to screen The Good Doctor for nonprofits. (An ABC representative later confirmed that the series will indeed be screened for nonprofits). “But we want to be fair, and we want to be honest, and I want the feedback from the people who really know and understand this condition and have looked at this condition in a much deeper way than I have.”

At the end of the day, the numbers bear out one very encouraging fact: multi-faceted portrayals of TV characters with autism are on the rise. That’s good news for viewers who live with the disorder and have rarely seen themselves or their families represented onscreen. Said Rashid: “To meet with people who were basically saying, 'This story hasn't been told, and it's about me,' was really cool.”

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