When it comes to Autism representation, traditional media leans heavily on the trope of the socially disruptive [read: rude] white man. Despite ableist notions, popular depictions of disabled people affect mainstream understanding of them and ultimately reflect the experiences of disabled people in the real world.
Many on the spectrum have invariably been compared to Dustin Hoffman’s Rain man or Jim Parsons’ Sheldon Cooper and the stereotypes assigned as a result have been difficult to break.
These stereotypes have consequently followed many into spaces such as the NHS and educational support with many non-white, non-male autistic people being second guessed with the commonly heard, “you don’t look autistic”.
It leads those on the spectrum to wonder why so many non-autistic people have a visual for what is clearly an invisible disability.
In recent years, it has been shows such as The Good Doctor, The Big Bang Theory and Atypical that have contributed to the idea that autism can be seen.
The ubiquitous casting of white men has added to the popular notion of autism as predominantly experienced by white men and statistics have shown that despite progression in autism research surrounding women and ethnic minorities, there are still significant biases in what autistic people “look like” from healthcare professionals that results in high rates of undiagnosed from these communities.
Netflix’s dating show Love on the Spectrum has been the latest to enter the foray of autism representation on TV, and with mixed results.
Notable autistic people on social media have argued that the show carries a discernible neurotypical gaze that assigns a certain range of behaviour as “normal” and subsequently presents autistic behaviour as dysfunctional.
To many autistic viewers, the behaviours of the participants were very functional, with one popular TikToker on the spectrum, @Auteach, arguing that “every person on the show [was] a well adjusted, kind and good natured person” but that the viewers were supposed to find something funny in the way the participants acted.
She praised one participant, Michael, as “an angel” and criticised the way in which “somehow he is supposed to be…like…the mockery of the show” with long pauses and bemused facial reactions inserted into his scenes to build humour at his interactions and create a sense of an “outside gaze”.
The show was originally aired on ABC Australia and the homogeneity in the casting of the show, save for one East Asian participant, reminded many of the systemic issue of racial bias within autism research.
The noticeable absence of any Aboriginal representation on the show reflects the real-life implications for the Aboriginal community in regards to accessing autism support.
Any representation is not good representation and the more and more tv shows cropping up, without the necessary diverse autism-led storytelling, means more stories that lack nuance and negate the very community they are trying to “represent”.