Misrepresentation is worse than no representation

By Skylar Fondren

You might have heard the phrase, “Everyone’s a little autistic.” Incorrect. 

Why is it that this particular disability is so misunderstood and misrepresented? Consider a character that you have seen on television who you might think is autistic. You might be thinking of Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory,” or maybe Raymond Babbitt from “Rain Man.” Maybe you have fallen down the rabbit hole of neurodivergent characters and you have even found Abed from “Community” or Sam from “Atypical.” All of these characters are either heavily coded to be autistic or are actually labeled as such, but they all share one common trait. They’re all males, and all but one is a white male. 

Considering the extensive diversity in the world, why is it that the large majority of representation for autistic people in television is white men? One might say it’s because autism is most prevalent in white males, when in reality, autistic people come from any and all backgrounds. Unfortunately, we live in a patriarchal society that gives privileges to those in power. What do I mean by that? I mean that white males are more likely to be diagnosed because doctors have only studied the symptoms of autism in white males. By only presenting the stereotypical expression of autism in the media, women and people of color are going through life without the support and accommodations they need, because they don’t realize there are more ways to be autistic. In turn, they feel alienated and unnatural because they are remaining undiagnosed. This is one reason why more autistic characters need to be included in media, with diversity in age, gender, and ethnicity. These characters should be played by actually autistic actors because they are the ones who will be able to properly represent their disability. 

From an uneducated perspective, this might seem impossible to do. How could an autistic person handle a chaotic set, learning lines, and fast-changing schedules? Well, that is exactly why more representation is needed because these actors should be given accommodations with no questions asked and no complaints made. Just like with portrayals of other disabilities, the best people to portray autistic characters are autistic actors. It can be very difficult for autistic actors to get cast in roles where they have to hide their disability, meanwhile, an abled person is taking the roles that they would be most suited for. 

Now, it may still seem like accommodating an actually autistic actor is too much work when a less “needy” actor could do the same job, but there are already a couple of shows that have been very successful in representing an autistic character. My personal favorite example of this is Netflix’s new series, “Heartbreak High.” In this show, there is a character named Quinni, who is autistic. She is played by the wonderful Chloe Hayden, who is autistic herself. She brought her own experience to her character in a way that shatters the stigma around autism and shows autism in a positive light. Throughout the show, Quinni has her ups and downs, she falls in love, and experiences being belittled, but still communicates when she needs to leave an overwhelming situation or has to do things a certain way. Quinni is expressive and has a best friend who understands her needs and helps her when she needs it but also pushes her to be her best self. When she has a nonverbal episode, whenever people begin to treat her as a child, they are quickly educated by Quinni and her best friend, who tells people to respect that Quinni cannot speak and work around it. I say all of this to make it crystal clear that actual autistic representation in the media is possible, and should be done more often. Quinni is a fantastic step forward in the right direction, but to truly rewrite those harmful stigmas, more must be done. 

Even people who have no care for proper autistic representation should recognize how important it is to be represented in the media. Though most white neurotypical people can see themselves in the media, many other groups are not able to see themselves, and thus are not able to recognize that they are capable of the same things. Just like the breakthrough of Black Panther for black superhero representation, now autistic people will be able to truly see themselves in the media and know that they are not defined by society. The proper representation will also help to educate those who have never even considered that there might be diversity in disability. People need to see that autistic people should not be treated like children or overprotected, rather they should be included and given the respect everyone deserves.