How is autism portrayed in film and TV? - new research published

Monday, 11 September, 2017

Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson (Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences), along with colleagues at the University of Oslo, has recently published an article in Psychiatry Research dissecting portrayals of autism on film and TV. They found that representations of autism on screen align unrealistically-perfectly with the diagnostic criteria, making portrayals of autism archetypal, but not representative. This may be contributing to narrow stereotypes about autism, which in turn is expected to impact on the day to day experiences of people on the autism spectrum.

The research found that autism on screen may reinforce stereotypes.  Fictional portrayals of autistic people – such as The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper – are not fully representative of those with the condition, research suggests. The team from the Universities of Edinburgh and Oslo analysed Sheldon’s character along with a further 25 fictional personalities from TV and film. They judged each character against the standard criteria that doctors use to diagnose autism, known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-5. Most of the characters displayed at least nine of the 12 defining characteristics of the condition, the researchers found. In reality, this level of alignment with the diagnostic criteria is rare. About half of those analysed are portrayed as being a genius or having some other exceptional skill – such as Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1988 film Rain Man. In reality, the researchers say, fewer than one in three people with autism will have such a skill. The researchers say this narrow view may reinforce widely held stereotypes about autistic people.

Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson, of the University of Edinburgh’s Patrick Wild Centre, said: “To deepen public understanding of autism spectrum disorders, we need more autistic characters on our screens. These characters should reflect the diversity we see in real life, rather than being artificially built from a textbook diagnosis of somebody with autism.”

The study is published in the journal Psychiatry Research.