Breaking Down Autism Portrayal in the Media

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The media, specifically in film, has cast characters with disabilities since the early 1900s (Safran, 1998). Although these types of characters have been seen in a variety of roles overtime, there are three main sliding scales that describe how characters with disabilities are typecast to their viewers. They can range from negative to positive, authentic to unreliable, and informative to untruthful. Many sources cite instances where disabilities and disorders are revealed negatively in the media through a variety of characteristics.

For example:

  • A study analyzing mentally ill characters seen in 58 programs on network television over the course of three months. His results concluded that most of these characters are seen as violent, having a low quality of life, and/or having a negative effect on society.

The consequences these negative stereotypes have on the millions of people who view these media channels are drastic. A study finds that those who receive information about mental illness primarily through television are more likely to exhibit thoughts of “ignorance and neglect” even if they are otherwise well-informed viewers.

This statement is extremely powerful because it highlights the amount of people who are truly misinformed about the reality of mental illness, and the harmful effects their views can have on society.

Although there are countless disabilities that are presented negatively and/or inaccurately in the media, autism, in particular, is frequently 5 misrepresented due to the continual exaggerated depictions of autism in film, television, and books.

Autism affects about 1 in every 110 children. With such a high prevalence, it is unbelievable that so many people are misinformed about the disorder, making it absolutely imperative that these misconceptions be corrected. With an incidence of almost 1%, it is critical that members of society learn the facts of autism through accountable and reliable resources.

Frequently, certain “defining” characteristics are attributed to people with disabilities based on deceiving stereotypes seen in movies and on television.

Interpretations of individuals with autism are frequently exaggerated in the media as a way of captivating audiences rather than providing authentic portrayals of the disorder.

Directors commonly use savantism as an established feature of autism. Although authors  comment on the media’s fascination with savant skills, one analysis is stated by fixating not just on examples of savant skills in film, but also on the harmful effects that coincide with the savant/autism stereotype.

This skill is associated with autism based on its presence in popular movies like Rain Man and Mercury Rising.

Author argues that these types of movies mislead people to believe that all individuals with autism express some type of a savant expertise, when in reality only about 10% of people with autism have savant skills. By accepting these stereotypes as the norm, people will expect individuals with autism to manifest some type of “special skill” during their encounters. By not living up to the idealized image, the people with autism become a “diminished capacity” in the eyes of the typical developing person.

These authors found that sources had mostly pessimistic opinions with many of them using condescending terminology with describing a person with autism.

The authors classified their findings into three main themes, which included missing voices, the lack of first-hand accounts of individuals with autism; the burden of autism, marginalizing and dehumanizing those with autism; and sensationalizing, misconceptions and misuse of a label, expecting people with autism to have certain abilities strictly due to their autism.

These fallacies are significant because of the impact they have on society. With journalists producing works containing such generalizations, it’s easy to comprehend why so much of the general public has misconceived perceptions of autism.

These stereotypes negatively affect the autism community as well by creating yet another barrier in their lives; a barrier from both society, and from themselves.

While the media has distorted how autism is perceived, one outlet of expression that provides the most accurate depictions of autism are personal narratives. Since the release of YouTube in 2005, Video blogs have also become increasingly popular on the site, with users presenting personal thoughts and feelings regarding a specific topic. Individuals with autism are no exception to this phenomenon.

A study was conducted about the prevalence of disability-related videos in various formats on YouTube over a one-week span. The three most popular types of videos were vlog (video blog), personal story-parent, and personal story-individual. Out of 58 videos from the autism group, 24 of them fell into one of these three categories The significance of the popularity in these three categories is not lost to the author. The desire to share one’s own thoughts and feelings with others is extremely noteworthy, especially within the autism community. With social interaction and communication being major difficulties in those with autism, it is highly remarkable that these individuals are willing to openly express themselves to the entire world through the World Wide Web. YouTube provides a safe haven for individuals with autism to go and speak their minds without having to deal with the social repercussions of everyday face-to face conversation. It provides an outlet for them to convey personal thoughts and feelings that may otherwise be suppressed.

While individuals with autism can communicate freely about topics of their choice, one subject matter that is extremely beneficial to the general public is personal stories, particularly in regards to those describing what it is like to have autism. As discussed, the major restriction concerning the public’s perception of autism is where they receive their information. “This effect is salient when direct experience is limited, and particularly so when the mass media account is the principal source of information”).

With the growing number of people with autism posting personal reflections on YouTube, the public can become enlightened about their true self in ways previously unavailable. Insight into their true beings is no longer limited to how the media projects what individuals with autism think and believe; we are now able to see a personal side to autism that was once controlled by movie and television representations. This is exceedingly beneficial to those with autism not only because their voices are no longer stifled by popular media depictions, but also because it gives them a chance to educate those who are otherwise misinformed.

Although autism stereotypes continue to perpetrate our everyday lives in movies, newspapers, and television, individuals with autism are starting to break down the barriers by expressing their true selves through video narratives on YouTube.


Want to read more?

  1. Frequently Asked Questions on Autism
  2. The Career Path of People with Autism and Their Parents





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