Autism and Asperger’s in Popular Culture: A Signature Primer

Danny Pudi as Abed Nadir in 'Community'/Still © 2012 NBC Universal Media
Danny Pudi as Abed Nadir in 'Community'/Still © 2012 NBC Universal Media

Last year, the CDC reported that autism was prevalent in 1 in 88 births in the United States – and as diagnoses have become more common, so too have representations of autism in popular culture. For many TV writers, the unique characteristics of autism and Asperger’s syndrome have become a way to tell stories from an outsider’s perspective, exposing uncomfortable truths and hypocrisies about the behavior of supposedly “normal” people. Other writers focus on the challenges parents face in raising autistic children, or attempt to explain how autistic characters see and experience the world. To mark April’s Autism Awareness Month, Signature looked at some of this wide range of representations of characters with autism or Asperger’s in literature, film, and television.

Much of our understanding of the effects of autism and Asperger’s is shaped by what we see on television, through characters who combine intellectual brilliance with obsessive, antisocial behavior and a lack of empathy and ability to understand emotions. As several critics have noted, TV in recent years has boasted an unprecedented number of characters on the so-called “autism spectrum,” whether their quirks are played for dramatic effect, or for laughs -- as with genius physicist Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) on the CBS sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" or pop-culture-obsessed Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) on NBC’s "Community." On many shows like these, which feature characters with possible autism spectrum disorders, the details and diagnosis, if any, are left ambiguous. However, others make the diagnosis explicit: On NBC’s "Parenthood," the highly intelligent eight-year-old Max Braverman (Max Burkholder) is based on creator Jason Katims’s own son Sawyer, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s. The network runs a blog written by autism experts and provides links and support for viewers.

Autistic adults on TV are rarer than children or teenagers, although in several dramas there is an implied connection between professional brilliance and autism spectrum disorders. In "Grey’s Anatomy," cardiac surgeon Virginia Dixon (Mary McDonnell) has Asperger’s, while on "House," the behavior of Hugh Laurie’s erratic medical genius suggested a similar diagnosis. The character of Dr. House was created with an eye to one of the most famous possibly autistic literary figures, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, whose invention long predates the identification of Asperger’s syndrome in 1944, but whose recent on-screen portrayals often imply such a diagnosis.

Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance as an autistic savant in Barry Levinson’s 1988 drama "Rain Man" is still the definitive portrayal of autism in popular culture. More recently, from the same writer as "Rain Man," the indie romance "Mozart & The Whale" was based on the memoir by savant Jerry Newport and his wife Mary, about their real-life love story. Among documentaries about the disorder, 2007’s "Autism, The Musical" offers a sympathetic and optimistic portrayal of the lives of five autistic children and their involvement in the “Miracle Project,” a program that aims to encourage and display the children’s creativity.

In fiction, since the success of Mark Haddon’s 2004 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Nighttime, many writers have explored the experiences of characters -- especially children and teenagers -- who cannot communicate with the world around them, but whose powers of perception and deduction are far beyond the norm. This theme often lends itself to crime or mystery plots, as in Jodi Picoult’s popular House Rules, and -- among an explosion of recent YA novels with autism-spectrum characters at their center -- Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz.

No account of autism in culture would be complete without reference to Temple Grandin, whose life as an advocate for the disorder and as a pioneering animal scientist has made her the most recognizable American face of autism. The recent HBO film about Grandin’s life, starring Claire Danes, and Grandin's own memoir Thinking in Pictures, revised and expanded to tie in with the film, give a powerful glimpse into a unique mind.

Other memoirs that tell the story of autism and Asperger’s from the inside include Daniel Tammet’s Born on a Blue Day, which describes the world through the eyes of a savant who sees numbers as shapes and colors, can learn a new language in a week, and can recite pi to a record-breaking 22,000 digits. David Finch’s lighthearted Journal of Best Practices is part memoir, part self-help guide, which focuses on the challenges Asperger’s presents in intimate relationships, and the way that the author has learned to navigate them in his own marriage.

There are many memoirs written by parents raising children with autism and Asperger’s, among which Father’s Day, by sportswriter and Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger, is a standout.  John Elder Robison, meanwhile, has had the unusual experience of growing up with Asperger’s himself, and then of raising a son with the disorder. In his two memoirsLook Me In the Eye, about his own childhood before Asperger’s was identified or understood, and the new Raising Cubby, he offers a warm and funny picture of the bond between a father and son both labeled misfit and delinquent, and both exhibiting a single-minded intelligence and love of adventure (and explosives) that risks getting them into serious trouble.