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Lucy Pottinger looks at portrayals of autism in popular culture and their impact on autism awareness

Sesame Street’s newest character, Julia, is a four-year-old redhead with autism. The character made her TV debut this April as part of a bid to reduce the stigma that surrounds children with autism and promote a better understanding of the condition.

Accurate and sensitive portrayals of autism in popular culture can do wonders for raising awareness of the condition and can help de-stigmatise those on the autistic spectrum. The way the condition is depicted in the media and popular culture is so important. The books we read, TV shows we watch and news we consume all feed into our every-day language and affect the way the public thinks, talks about and treats people on the autistic spectrum.

But it’s a delicate balancing act. Inaccurate representations of individuals with autism can be damaging. Autism is such a misunderstood condition already that anything that perpetuates inaccurate stereotypes or common misconceptions can be really harmful.

According to the US National Autism Association, children with autism are two to three times more likely to be bullied, and teaching children from a young age how to be more accepting and understanding of each other’s differences is a valuable way to tackle this issue.

Julia

Introducing Julia to the main cast of Sesame Street marks a really important and positive move towards educating children about how to interact with a friend or classmate who has autism. It’s been suggested that high-functioning young girls with autism are under diagnosed, compared to boys, due to their ability to mask their difficulties and “fit in” with their peers. In their decision to depict a female character, the creators of Sesame Street are tackling this head on and helping to ensure autism in young girls is more visible and widely accepted.

Perhaps the most promising moment we’ve seen so far is the scene in which Big Bird asks the owner of Hooper’s Store, Alan, to explain what autism is. Alan responds by saying: “Well, for Julia, it means this…”.

The other characters go on to explain that Julia does things “a little differently – in a Julia kind of way.” As a spectrum condition, autism manifests in a whole variety of ways and affects every individual differently. Through these explanations of Julia’s behaviours, Sesame Street aren’t claiming that Julia is representative of all people with autism. Instead, she’s just one example of a person with autism.  Alan’s response shows Julia as a person, rather than someone defined by her condition, or a character claiming to represent the whole autistic spectrum.

Christopher Boone

The central character in Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time, 15-year-old Christopher Boone, certainly has characteristics typical of Asperger’s syndrome – an autism spectrum condition.

What’s great about the character is that the entire book is written from his perspective and shows us Christopher’s wide range of genuine and strong emotions. When it was released in 2003, the novel was fairly ground-breaking for this reason. Christopher displays a really wide range of emotions; he shows great affection for people, animals and his personal heroes and conversely sometimes exhibits behaviour that seems hurtful and even threatening towards other characters.
 
Of course, positioning Christopher as an intimidating character could be a damaging portrayal, but the author does a fantastic job of giving readers an insight into Christopher’s thought processes. This helps readers follow Christopher’s logic and see things from his point of view. Often, when his outward behaviour could be interpreted as menacing, we can understand that he’s simply reacting to feelings of anxiousness or nervousness, or feeling unsure of his surroundings. This approach to his depiction does wonders for promoting a deeper and more sympathetic understanding of autism.

Sheldon Cooper

One of the central characters of the US sitcom The Big Bang Theory is characterised by a strict adherence to routine, hyper-awareness of hygiene, a general lack of empathy and only a vague understanding of irony, sarcasm and humour.

There’s some dispute over whether or not Sheldon is on the autistic spectrum. Although the writers have never established whether the character has a form of autism, Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon on the show, has confirmed in several interviews that his character does exhibit some Asperger-like characteristics.

Sheldon can be seen as a great role model for others living with this condition; he lives independently, has a successful career and maintains strong friendships and a romantic relationship with his girlfriend, Amy. That being said, his symptoms are extremely atypical of many people’s perception of autism and are often the key driver behind the comedic aspects of the character. It’s undeniable that the show’s popularity has brought a discussion about autism to a large audience but, in its bid for laughs, the sitcom often treads a fine line between illustrating the condition and mocking it.

Jonah Jeremiah “JJ” Jones

Perhaps the most important thing about the portrayal of JJ in the gritty British teen drama Skins is that his personality goes so much further than his condition. Like Mark Haddon’s Christopher Boone, his characterisation is extremely well developed. JJ has a love of magic tricks and forms meaningful friendships and intimate romantic relationships.

JJ is able to understand a variety of social cues like humour and sarcasm and interacts well with his family and friends. He is often shown having difficulty interacting with strangers and struggling to control and understand his emotions and viewers soon learn he is extremely sensitive to sensory stimulation – an aspect of many autism spectrum conditions often left out of pop culture representations.

The show also goes as far as to show an entire episode from JJ’s point of view, giving viewers an insight into how he feels about his condition and how he perceives the actions of those around him. In all, the show succeeds in creating an honest, well-rounded portrayal of a young person with autism.

To see an increase in the number of depictions and interpretations of autism in pop culture is certainly encouraging. It promotes conversation and helps combat prejudice against the condition and people who are affected by it. But there’s always more that can be done. We need more portrayals of characters with autism and Aspergers, more opportunities for actors who are on the autistic spectrum themselves and more thorough research into the realities of living with the condition.

Further information

Lucy Pottinger is Director of Education for Orbis Education and Care, which runs independent specialist schools for children and young people with autism:

www.orbis-group.co.uk


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