As autism has increased in frequency and recognition in society, TV is welcoming more characters with the condition.
The lead characters of Netflix’s Atypical (now streaming), ABC’s The Good Doctor (due Sept. 25) and a supporting character in TNT’s Claws all have autism, which is characterized by difficulties with social perception and inflexible, repetitive behaviors. The characters are portrayed by actors who don’t have autism.
The series represent a growing trend toward depicting people who traditionally haven’t been seen much on TV, such as the young man with cerebral palsy who is the central character on ABC’s Speechless.
But as TV seeks more representation of people with physical or developmental challenges, it’s important to present accurate and honest portrayals, while not defining characters solely by their condition, says Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel), who plays young surgeon Shaun Murphy on Doctor.
“I appreciate the way in which Shaun is a fully formed character. Often, people with autism on screen have been represented as somewhat emotionless or singularly focused on one thing, and that isn’t true,” he says. “We get to see Shaun in moments of joy, what makes him excited, alongside the very real struggle he’s facing.”
Characters with autism have appeared on TV over the years, but there have been more depictions in the last decade or so, including young Max Braverman of NBC’s Parenthood, Detective Sonya Cross of AMC’s The Bridge and real-life professor Temple Grandin, played by Claire Danes in an Emmy-winning HBO film.
On Doctor, Murphy is a surgeon in training who has savant syndrome, which in his case manifests itself in a photographic medical memory, depicted on screen with anatomical graphics.
Executive producer David Shore (House) says Murphy, who has difficulty with social cues, is fascinated by the ways people interact.
“He comes at it from a pretty optimistic point of view. There’s no judgment there,” he says. “He will ask the most outrageous questions. He’s genuinely asking why we do what we do.”
On Claws, which finished its first season Sunday and has been renewed for a second, Dean Simms (Harold Perrineau, Lost) is an adult who gets support from his sister, owner of a nail salon. And Atypical‘s Sam (Keir Gilchrist, United States of Tara) is a teen dealing with universal coming-of-age issues such as dating, but his autism poses unique challenges.
“Because he does have the opportunity to have those ‘normal’ experiences, it makes things more dangerous” in terms of how setbacks might affect his progress, executive producer Robia Rashid says. “He’s not out of the game, but the game is harder for him.”
People with autism have a range of traits and behaviors, and individual depictions don’t represent the broader group, says Heather Volk, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She cites a saying familiar to professionals: “When you’ve seen one individual with autism, you’ve seen one individual with autism.”
Andrew Duff, a multimedia producer at advocacy organization Autism Speaks who is on the autism spectrum, welcomes the growing representation.
He has seen Atypical and the pilot of The Good Doctor, and says Highmore and Gilchrist “did a great job. They did their homework. They didn’t feel too cookie-cutter.”
Some have criticized TV shows and films for casting actors who are not on the spectrum as characters with autism. Atypical features an actor who has autism in a supporting role and Shore says he “would love to see some representation” on the show.
Producers considered casting an actor with autism in the Murphy role, he says. “We looked into it. It’s tricky. But ultimately, Freddie Highmore came along and he’s just been fantastic.”
Duff doesn’t take issue with the Atypical and Good Doctor casting decisions, but says he’d like to see people with autism getting more roles and help to shape characters. “It’s important to get a voice from somebody on the spectrum.”