Autism Awareness on the Big Screen: Increasing Representation of Autism in the Media


People sitting in an auditorium

Recently, the movie and TV industry has been busy, with critics demanding more diversity in both actors picked to play parts and directors chosen to film these shows and movies. One aspect of this much-need push for diversity is the increased autism awareness shown on the big screen. From supporting characters on famous kid’s television shows to short films chronicling the life of children with autism, the roles are diverse, but still subject to much debate in the autism awareness community. Do they depict how a real-life child or adult with autism behaves? Or do these roles pick and choose the better behaviors and quirks to highlight? Let’s take a look at how far we’ve come in the media so far in 2020; then we can discuss what’s next for autism awareness and inclusion in the media and how you can help.

Heart autism puzzle

History of Autism in the Media

Historically, children and adults with autism have not received fair representation in mainstream media. However, with the worldwide push for not just autism awareness, but also inclusion, we’re seeing more and more media outlets like Netflix, Disney+, and other mainstream media outlets realizing the need for more diverse character portrayals and actors to play these critical parts.


One of the most notable portrayals of a character with autism came about in 1988 in the film Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman. In it, Hoffman portrayed an “autistic savant,” which is a person with autism that has one exceptional skill or brilliance in a limited field. While it wasn’t an inaccurate representation, this depiction sadly only represents about 10% of people on the autism spectrum.


The public outcry for more autism awareness in movies and TV shows is not only for more characters with autism, but for those characters to portray more real-life abilities of children and adults with autism. The media has done a better job by inviting in more diverse characters with different skills, and each year we continue to see improvements in the portrayal of these characters. However, we still have a long way to go in representing everyone equally.


How Have TV Shows and Movies Begun to Better Represent People with Autism?

In the last few years, autism awareness has gone from being an afterthought in the media to moving front and center on a few of America’s new favorite shows. From the inclusion of a Muppet with autism on Sesame Street to including more main characters with autism in upcoming or current TV series, we’re finding that the world is being familiarized with autism on a much larger scale. There is still far to go in accurately portraying the not so positive aspects of autism, but we’re hopeful that autism awareness in the media will continue evolving for years to come. Let’s take a look at a few examples of how TV and movies have begun portraying autism awareness.


  1. Julia, a female Muppet on Sesame Street
  2. Disney/Pixar’s Short Film, Float
  3. Sam, the main character on the Netflix show, Atypical
  4. Shaun Murphy on ABC’s The Good Doctor
  5. Disney/Pixar’s Short Film, Loop
  6. Matilda, a character from Freeform’s new show, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay


  1. Julia, A Female Muppet on Sesame Street

While Julia’s character has been around since 2015 in digital form, she made her official on-screen debut in April 2017. Her appearance coincided with Sesame Street’s new autism awareness initiative, Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children. This online autism awareness resource includes fact sheets, videos, and digital storybooks for kids and parents so they can better include children with autism, while also being a resource for parents of children with autism, too.

Julia and Elmo are best friends, and together, they teach kids how to include their friends with autism, because while they may do things differently, they like many of the same things!

Fun fact: did you know that the puppeteer who performs the role of Julia, Stacey Gordon, has a son with autism? Sesame Street producers even consulted with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network to create Julia’s character.


  1. Disney/Pixar’s Short Film, Float

With the launch of their new online streaming service, Disney+, Disney/Pixar have been releasing even more movies and shorts on the platform. For years, parents and critics have been asking for more diversity in these shorts and movies, and Disney and Pixar have been busy behind the scenes making this a reality. One of our favorites? The Pixar short, Float.

Float is a story full of heart and, best of all, speaks to autism awareness in a big way. This short film follows a father and son duo, but things aren’t quite what they seem. The son has the unique ability to defy gravity. As viewers watch the film, they see the father trying to hide or disguise his son’s unique ability, so he doesn’t stand out from others. This story was created and written by Bobby Alcid Rubio, who also has a son on the autism spectrum. About more than just autism awareness, this is also the first Pixar film to feature a Filipino-American family, as well.

We think any parent with a child with special needs will find this Pixar short to be relatable, compelling and it will help educate kids and families to have kindness, patience, and understanding with those that are different from them.


  1. Sam, The Main Character on The Netflix Show, Atypical

This Netflix-exclusive TV show follows the main character, Sam Gardner, an 18-year-old with an autism spectrum disorder, as he navigates the world of dating and independence.

Critics in the autism awareness community voiced concerns about the way autism was portrayed in this series, however, and called for more actors and writers with autism to coordinate on the series. Because of that response, creators and producers featured more actors and writers with autism to lend more credibility to the production. As such, the creator and writer, Robia Rashid, consulted with a professor from UCLA’s Center for Autism Research and Treatment while writing the scripts for the series. Furthermore, in season two, the team invited eight actors with autism from the Miracle Project to join the cast as members of the peer support group Sam joins.

As each season releases, critics have found that the addition of actors and screenwriters with autism has positively impacted this series, providing even more autism awareness. The series has since been renewed for a fourth season, set to release in 2021.


  1. Shaun Murphy On ABC’s The Good Doctor

In 2017, the Good Doctor, a medical drama starring an autistic savant surgeon based on a South Korean show of the same name, premiered on ABC. Since then, fans of the series have followed the career of Dr. Shaun Murphy as he navigates life and works in a San Jose hospital. Murphy has savant abilities such as a near-photographic recall and the ability to recognize even the smallest details or changes, both of which help him but often complicate his work as a surgical resident.

Those in the autism awareness community have some criticism for this portrayal of a person with autism, because the actor that plays Dr. Murphy does not have autism himself. Also, like Rain Man, The Good Doctor represents a tiny percentage of cases of autism, those that identify as autistic savants.


  1. Disney/Pixar’s Short Film, Loop

One of the most exciting instances of autism awareness in the media this year is Pixar’s new film, Loop, which premiered on Disney+ in January. Loop follows two main characters partnered together on a canoeing trip, a chatty boy and a non-verbal girl with autism. To make it across the lake, both have to work together, and that depends greatly on them determining how each experiences the world differently.


  1. Matilda, A Character from Freeform’s New Show, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay

An exciting new show from Freeform is Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, starring Kayla Cromer, an actress with autism playing a character with autism, as well. Comer plays the character Matilda, one of two half-sisters reeling after her father’s sudden illness and death. After getting the role, Cromer publicly announced that she, too, has autism like her character, and she believes that actors and actresses with autism deserve to play the roles that increase autism awareness in media today.

We can’t wait to see when this series premieres on Freeform, but for now, we are waiting expectantly for a 2020 premiere date!


What’s Next for Autism Awareness?

While there has been so much progress in the past five years regarding autism awareness on TV shows and in movies, as a society, we still have a long way to go to make sure that our children (and adults) with autism see characters that are familiar to them. This is crucial, even if the behaviors and actions aren’t picture-perfect, like aggressive behavior, minimal language, or lacking social skills.

Did you know that according to GLAAD, the number of regular characters with a disability on broadcast programs has increased to 3.1% for the 2019-2020 season, which is one full percentage point increase from the 2018-2019 season?


From Autism Awareness to Inclusion

Here at Blossom Children’s Center, we believe that early intervention is key to helping children diagnosed with autism and their families decrease unwanted behaviors, increase positive social skills and leads to further inclusion in school and play activities throughout their childhood.

Did you know that while a diagnosis of autism can typically be made by age two, most children don’t receive a diagnosis until the age of four or five in the United States?

Mother hugging her child with autism.

How Does Early Intervention Therapy Work?

Studies suggest that early intervention therapy can make an increasingly significant impact on a child’s future development. By intervening at a young age, therapists can impact a few crucial areas in your child’s life:

  • School readiness
  • Self-control
  • Play
  • Self-care skills (potty training, getting dressed, personal grooming, etc.)
  • Social and emotional development skills
  • Cognitive development


Because a child’s brain is developing at a rapid rate from infancy to age three, determining what experiences or behaviors your child struggles with early on can make all the difference. As a parent or caregiver, you are essential to this process, as well! You know your child better than anyone, and when you let your child’s doctor know about any specific behaviors your child is exhibiting that may be similar to those of a child with autism, you’ll be the reason your child gets the support they truly need.


Autism Awareness: A Parent’s Role

There are so many ways that parents and caregivers can support a child with autism while also promoting not just autism awareness in their social circles, but also inclusion in real-life situations and environments.

So, how can you help your child when it comes to early intervention and therapies like ABA therapy? We’ve listed a few ways below that can help you understand why your involvement inside and outside the clinic is so essential to your child’s success:


  1. Parents and caregivers are reporters
  2. Parents and caregivers can and should be active participants
  3. Parents are a child’s biggest cheerleader and defender
  4. Parents are researchers


  1. Parents and Caregivers Are Reporters

ABA therapy sessions only last so long, and because of that, as a parent or caretaker, we know you will be present for most of the time spent away from the clinic. In this case, your child’s therapist will depend on you to report back to them on wins, defeats, and behavioral modifications needed the next time you walk through your clinic’s doors for therapy.


  1. Parents and Caregivers Can and Should Be Active Participants

Because you will need to step in for your therapist once you leave the clinic, it’s always a good idea to participate in your child’s therapy so you can feel comfortable with the skills and behaviors you’re working towards building. Plus, you have the opportunity to ask your child’s therapist questions as you go about a therapy session, putting you further at ease for when you have to take charge at home or in a social situation.


  1. Parents Are A Child’s Biggest Cheerleader and Defender

You know that you are your child’s biggest cheerleader and defender, and we love that! ABA supports this role, too. Did you know that ABA therapy with familial support is proven to be beneficial to a child’s success when it comes to learning new skills, behaviors, and achieving goals?

However, having a support system for yourself as well is essential to avoiding burnout. We know how challenging it can be to parent a child with autism, so we want to make sure you have the community of support surrounding you, as well.


  1. Parents Are Researchers

Parents of children with autism are one-of-a-kind. And while it may be exhausting to stay on top of all the latest research and data behind therapies, medical equipment, and so much more, we know you are willing to put in the time to take care of your child. At Blossom Children’s Center, we work with you and alongside you to conquer the same goals you have in mind.

For more information about ABA therapy or to schedule a consultation for your child, visit our website today!

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