New TV Series From Netflix And ABC Feature Main Characters With Autism : Shots - Health News Two new TV series feature main characters who have autism. While some are applauding the fresh take on the disorder, others worry that the shows send the wrong messages.
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Netflix, ABC Portrayals Of Autism Still Fall Short, Critics Say

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Netflix, ABC Portrayals Of Autism Still Fall Short, Critics Say

Netflix, ABC Portrayals Of Autism Still Fall Short, Critics Say

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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One of the best-known depictions of autism in a major film is Dustin Hoffman's character in the Oscar-winning 1988 film "Rain Man."


DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Raymond) Maple syrup was supposed to be on the table before the pancakes.

TOM CRUISE: (As Charlie) Ray...

HOFFMAN: (As Raymond) Of course when they bring the maple syrup after the pancakes, it'll definitely be too late. We're going to be here the entire morning with...

SHAPIRO: Few movies or TV shows discussed autism 30 years ago. That's changed. There are two major TV projects centered on autistic characters debuting soon. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says while these modern depictions of autism have come a long way and mean well, they still occasionally stumble on stereotypes and misunderstandings.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Like a lot of kids in high school, Sam worries that he doesn't fit in.


KEIR GILCHRIST: (As Sam) I'm a weirdo. That's what everyone says.

DEGGANS: Sam is the 18-year-old lead character in Netflix's dramatic comedy series "Atypical." One reason he struggles to fit in - he has autism.


GILCHRIST: (As Sam) Sometimes I don't know what people mean when they say things, and that can make me feel alone even when there are other people in the room.

DEGGANS: Autism can make it difficult for people to understand social cues or nonverbal signals. People with autism can say things that seem inappropriate or misread how someone else is reacting. So when Sam tells his family that he wants to date and get a girlfriend, he does it in a very literal way, referencing a discussion with this therapist, Julia.


GILCHRIST: (As Sam) Julia thinks that I should put myself out there and find someone to have sex with.

BRIGETTE LUNDY-PAINE: (As Casey, laughter).

GILCHRIST: (As Sam) Well, she didn't say the sex part. I added that.

DEGGANS: "Atypical" can be wonderfully compelling, pushing back against stereotypes by taking viewers into Sam's world. Creator Robia Rashid said she wanted to tell a different kind of coming-of-age story, inspired by recent increases in autism diagnoses.

ROBIA RASHID: There are all these, you know, young people now who are on the spectrum who know that they're on the spectrum and are interested in things that every young person is interested in.

DEGGANS: Rashid researched accounts of adults with autism, has several parents of autistic children working in her crew and hired an actor with autism to play a minor role. So "Atypical" offers a complex portrait of a family where everyone's struggling. Its model surfaces in a scene where Sam tells a friend about a date that went badly when he pushed away a girl trying to touch him.


GILCHRIST: (As Sam) Sometimes I wish I was normal.

GRAHAM ROGERS: (As Evan) Dude, nobody's normal.

RASHID: I really, really relate to that theme. I'm half-Pakistani, half-white. It grew up in northern Vermont. There wasn't anyone except my brother who looked like me (laughter). So I think that was a part of it.

DEGGANS: But some critics say despite its good intentions, "Atypical" presents some troubling images. Mickey Rowe, an actor who is autistic, says that because the show doesn't have any writers, producers or actors in major roles who are autistic, it can feel like the series is allowing people without autism to make fun of autistic people.

MICKEY ROWE: The motto of the autistic community is, nothing about us without us, just because there is such a long history of other people making decisions on behalf of autistic people.

DEGGANS: Rowe, who has written about the show for Teen Vogue magazine, was troubled by a scene played for laughs where Sam wears headphones in public to cut down on sensory overload. He also criticized another moment where Sam frightens a girl because he doesn't quite know how to smile comfortably. And he's not the only critic with concerns.

ELIZABETH BARTMESS: The audience is basically laughing at his being autistic.

DEGGANS: That's Elizabeth Bartmess, a writer and editor with autism who's written often about how autistic characters are depicted in literature.

BARTMESS: That's partly a problem because in real life, autistic people in real life get laughed at a lot for showing autistic traits.

DEGGANS: Another show that Bartmess finds troubling is a new series debuting this fall on ABC called "The Good Doctor." It's centered on a surgical resident named Shaun Murphy who's an autistic savant highly skilled in medicine but struggles with social skills. "West Wing" alum Richard Schiff plays the hospital president fighting to convince a skeptical hospital board to hire him.


RICHARD SCHIFF: (As Dr. Aaron Glassman) We hire Shaun, and we give hope to those people with limitations that those limitations are not what they think they are.

DEGGANS: Still, because not all people with autism are savants like Dustin Hoffman's character in "Rain Man," Bartmess takes a different message from that clip in "The Good Doctor."

BARTMESS: It's basically saying the only way that you can get to have a job and keep a job is to be this incredible super-powered autistic person that you can't be because almost no one is. That's kind of the opposite of inspiring.

DEGGANS: David Shore, executive producer of "The Good Doctor," says the show argues against attitudes which keep disabled people from employment. He spoke after a recent press conference for the series.

DAVID SHORE: People look at them and make judgments. I hope this is part of a dialogue that gives rise to simply reducing prejudices right across the board and let us be open to, what does it mean to be qualified?

DEGGANS: Both Shore and Rashid say their characters aren't meant to be symbols for every autistic person, but with so few autistic characters on TV, those few who do appear onscreen often become symbols whether the creators intend it or not. I'm Eric Deggans.


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