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You Don’t Have to Be a Superhero

Recent onscreen depictions of autistic adults reflect our growing understanding of a lifelong condition.

Clockwise from top: Hannah Gadsby, The Outsider’s Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), a couple from Netflix’s Love on the Spectrum, and Community’s Abed Nadir (Dan Harmon) together represent a necessary shift in how we tell stories about autism. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, NBC, Netflix and HBO
Clockwise from top: Hannah Gadsby, The Outsider’s Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), a couple from Netflix’s Love on the Spectrum, and Community’s Abed Nadir (Dan Harmon) together represent a necessary shift in how we tell stories about autism. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, NBC, Netflix and HBO
Clockwise from top: Hannah Gadsby, The Outsider’s Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), a couple from Netflix’s Love on the Spectrum, and Community’s Abed Nadir (Dan Harmon) together represent a necessary shift in how we tell stories about autism. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, NBC, Netflix and HBO

In her 2020 Netflix special, Douglas, Hannah Gadsby presented her audience with the question “Am I allowed to eat the box?”

It’s a ridiculous question. Gadsby knows it. The joke is that she’s recalling a childhood moment when she seriously and sincerely had to ask her teacher during a lesson (on what the preposition is for being behind a box) if the metaphorical box was, in fact, edible. Or if she was related to the box. Or if she was made out of the box. Did the box have a name? “You’re being deliberately obtuse,” her teacher snapped. “I’m not a triangle,” Gadsby countered.

To a theater of strangers, Gadsby was explaining her literal thought process of navigating the classroom as a child. This, like much of Douglas, was a metaphor for how she has had to navigate her life. She was explaining her autism. The joke was funny, and she wasn’t the punch line. Or a sitcom character. Or a child. The thousands of YouTube comments on this clip mostly echoed what I, also an adult on the spectrum, first thought: Finally, someone gets it.

We’re in the midst of a quiet sea change in how autism is depicted onscreen. It reached a new peak in the past 12 months with Douglas, Netflix’s reality dating series Love on the Spectrum, and Jason Katims’s confirmation of his remake of the 2018 Israeli show On the Spectrum with autistic actors and writers. Pop culture, historically a source of hurt and lies about autism shared by neurotypicals and well-intentioned parents — in which the most well-known autistic celebrity is a Sesame Street puppet — is increasingly opting instead to show more real, and older, autistic people. The children who were a part of the big wave of diagnoses in the late 1980s and ’90s are now adults, and entertainment is finally, fitfully, catching up.

“[Douglas] was the first time I felt like I saw something that was made for me in mind,” says Sara Luterman, a reporter on the spectrum who has been covering autism and disability news for years. She and most people I interviewed agree that Douglas felt like a genuine turning point, with “Am I allowed to eat the box?” capturing the autistic experience better than most of Hollywood’s baffling attempts — like the image of Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man reentering an institution because, to the film’s logic, he belonged there.

These Rain Man–like films are still being made. With two Golden Globe nominations, Sia’s feature-directing debut, Music, centers on a shell of an impression of an autistic teenager. Sia, who also co-wrote the screenplay, initially lashed out at critics within the autism community but has since apologized for the film and says she will remove from future releases the scenes featuring its autistic character, played by the neurotypical actor Maddie Ziegler, being physically restrained. Sia’s apology, genuine or not, is rare; the film, in which the audience relates to the neurotypical lead for her willingness to put up with an autistic person, is not. Although Gadsby and Sia are both exploring autism in youth, they’re doing so from very different perspectives and with very different results.

Some of this quality control is due to a screen’s limits. A TV series has more time than a stand-alone feature film to weave autistic characters into its story and explore its nuances over several seasons; you slowly get to know the person as you would anyone else. (And TV writers get to address any backlash with subsequent episodes.) When a film has only about two hours, even if it has good intentions or generally does right by its autistic characters, like Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, it’s forced to rely on autism just as a narrative device. So TV is becoming the space that encourages different views of the spectrum, along with more creators consulting and hiring autistic people. Not that TV has always been friendly. Gadsby (who was unavailable for an interview) still contrasts with the most famous smaller-screen depictions of autism as, usually, the butt of a joke (The Big Bang Theory), the butt of a funny joke (The IT Crowd), or the signaling of an awkward, unfeeling genius: Sherlock, Bones, Criminal Minds, Dr. Virginia Dixon in Grey’s Anatomy, and more.

There are even fewer examples of pop culture addressing the anti-vaxxers who hide behind the belief that vaccines cause autism, which has been proven false. South Park’s infamous 2011 “Ass Burgers” episode, mocking both autism and anti-vaxxers, tried to have it both ways. “We are not part of the anti-vaxx conversation, and that infuriates me,” Gadsby told The New York Times Magazine last year. “It’s anti-vaxxers saying autism is worse than polio, or other people saying anti-vaxxers are stupid. Autism is not a prison … and no one is asking what people with autism think.”

Asking more autistic artists (yes, they are out there) what they think is an oft-overlooked first step in transforming our perception of autism from a scary monolith to be fixed into the spectrum that it really is. The impulse among neurotypical creators to paint autistic characters in cartoonish extremes — as either an empty shell or too savant to function — mirrors many popular and now-outdated theories on autism. This includes the longtime “theory of mind,” which suggests autistic people aren’t capable of self-reflection or empathy. The most recent research, including the double empathy problem and the intense world theory, suggests the opposite. For those on the spectrum, the world’s volume is turned all the way up, and our relationship to our senses is so intense that our bodies don’t always know how to process what we’re taking in. It’s more common now to think of different kinds of autisms, instead of just one scale of extremes. Autism is no longer a line but a circle.

There’s also the issue of “masking,” the act of hiding one’s autism to better fit in at the risk of intense stress or burnout. Most art created by neurotypicals seems to respond to this idea: How well, or poorly, can you mask? If you can’t, could you put your autism to use? It can go a step further: Can you wear your mask like a superhero? Could you justify your disability as a superpower? Many of the most positive portrayals of autism are fictional “masked” characters aimed at children. This isn’t bad by default, but it’s also telling that the most forward-thinking depiction of autism before 2020 was in a mediocre Power Rangers reboot.

The “autism is a superpower” connection works for children; it’s harder when kids grow up to realize that there are no well-known role models to guide them into adulthood. (How many kids grow up with posters of Temple Grandin?) Gadsby, then, reflects our better understanding and acceptance of autism as a real adult who, though playing up a version of herself as a stand-up comedian, isn’t hiding behind a mask. She’s not alone. More programs in the 2010s have included older autistic characters, like Community’s Abed Nadir, created by the publicly autistic Dan Harmon; Cynthia Erivo’s take on Holly Gibney in HBO’s The Outsider; and Hannibal’s Will Graham, a more nuanced take on the “genius serial killer” stereotype. These characters have redeeming qualities and are more than just plot devices or pity porn. They are part of the story, not the story. Even the more controversial Atypical and The Good Doctor have normalized the idea that a TV show can revolve around an adult who is explicitly autistic.

“In media, you’d think we’d just dropped dead at 18,” says Luterman. “It’s only in the past six, seven years that things have started to tilt more towards what they call ‘lifespan issues.’ People really thought they were going to cure their kids and they wouldn’t grow up into autistic adults. Now I think a lot of parents are having to adjust their expectations.”

One of those parents is Jason Katims. The producer behind Friday Night Lights has been a visible supporter of the autism community for years, with his own autistic son inspiring his 2010 NBC show Parenthood and its young character, Max Braverman. “When we did Parenthood, I was not aware of another show that had an ongoing character that was openly on the spectrum and was talked about,” Katims tells me over the phone. At the time, he was scared of how it was going to be received on broadcast TV. He notes that things have changed a lot since then. While adapting On the Spectrum, which is still in development, his focus was to hire autistic people in front of and behind the camera. “It wasn’t even like we made the choice not to do that on Parenthood,” says Katims. “It wasn’t even considered a possibility. That’s very different now.”

Katims’s desire to bring On the Spectrum to the United States from Israel came from his own growing understanding of autism as a lifelong condition as well as from seeing the lack of autistic adults onscreen. The show will break from tradition and feature multiple autistic characters, each one showing a different side of the spectrum beyond what Katims calls the “misunderstood genius.” He proudly notes that neurodiverse actors will also play neurotypicals. He talked about how the original Israeli characters are given government subsidies to live in their apartment to learn to be more independent. “I had to change that,” he says, “because that doesn’t exist here.”

Someone else who picked up on America’s hesitation to offer more long-term disability support is Cian O’Clery. His Australian dating show Love on the Spectrum became an unexpected hit last summer when it came to Netflix; it’s notable for its disarming kindness toward autism and tackling the taboo of disabilities and sex. “Audiences will just grasp on to something because they don’t know any better,” O’Clery tells me over the phone while editing Love on the Spectrum’s second season. “People back in the Rain Man days did think that being on the spectrum means you can count cards.”

A director who has worked with many autistic people — his 2018 documentary series Employable Me followed disabled Australians looking for work — O’Clery said his goal with Love on the Spectrum was to represent the diversity of autism in adults. He says season two will include more-experienced daters (season one followed many people on their first-ever dates) and autistic participants dating neurotypicals. He paraphrases Roger Ebert’s famous saying about art as an empathy machine. “It’s just the combination of seeing someone and hearing them,” he says. “It’s a much more powerful thing than reading what someone’s written.” (Ebert’s lede in his original Rain Man review: “Is it possible to have a relationship with an autistic person? Is it possible to have a relationship with a cat?”)

For all its mixed reviews, Love on the Spectrum does address the lack of attention given to autism in adults. “We treat it as a charity, or we treat it as a personal thing. [We don’t] have a policy,” says Eric Michael Garcia, a political journalist and Washington Post contributor who is on the spectrum. Garcia notes that TV’s shift mirrors a notable change in politics as more elected officials are coming out to talk about their own autism, including state assemblymembers Jessica Benham of Pennsylvania, Yuh-Line Niou of New York, and Briscoe Cain of Texas. Garcia hopes that autism in media, still very much a white man’s club, will come to better reflect the spectrum’s actual diversity. “Depiction is so white because a lot of people who were able to get a diagnosis were predominantly white,” he says. “When you have that very narrow idea of who could be autistic, that carries over into pop culture.”

Garcia also warns against hinging an entire demographic’s well-being on the next Netflix show. “I don’t think that’s a good way to govern,” he says. “I think what matters more is: Is it accurate to a specific version or at least trying to get as much right as possible?”

To paraphrase Jim Sinclair, those of us on the autism spectrum don’t need art to mourn us. And when we see more realities of the spectrum, TV’s fantasies will be less of a big deal. It’ll be fine having autistic serial killers or superheroes, knowing that you aren’t doomed to the same fate. In a nice bit of irony, PBS’s recent animated series Hero Elementary follows superheroes learning to master their powers and features a Black lead child whose spectrum diagnosis is just another part of his life instead of the defining factor that will help him. American pop culture continues to worship the superhero, yet you don’t have to be a superhero to have value. Autism is not a prison. Neither is art.

You Don’t Have to Be a Superhero