Media Portrayal of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Multi Colored Blocks With Text Autism

Article by Manya Dhupar

Autism disorder is described as a “pervasive developmental disorder marked by extreme
unresponsiveness to others, poor communication skills, and highly repetitive and rigid
behavior” (Comer, 1992). Autism disorder exists on a spectrum. Lower functioning
individuals with autism show more severe social and cognitive impairment, expressed in
severe communication and behavioral impairments, or even being non-verbal. High
functioning individuals, often described as being diagnosed with Asperger’s, show deficits in
social functioning but maintain higher levels of cognitive ability. This paper is an analysis of
the media portrayal of Autism Spectrum Disorder in the shows ‘Atypical’, ‘Boston Legal’,
and various YouTube Videos.

Netflix show ‘Atypical’ is centered around the life of 18-year-old Sam Gardner with high
functioning ASD. The show is comic exploration of the familial, romantic and social
dynamic of an individual with autism. While Sam’s exhibition of ASD is sometimes
dramatized for television, the show’s creator, Robia Rashad did a great job in showcasing the
realities of the disorder in a positive and factually based light.

A major DSM criterion for ASD is rigid and repetitive areas of interest and behavior (DSM-
IV). Sam’s interests are focused around Antarctica and penguins. We watch as he attempts to
navigate the nuances of everyday life by relating various confusing situations to his
knowledge on the penguins in Antarctica. A study assessing the functionality of restricted
interests (also described as an abnormal interest/focus in an area) in autism seeks to
understand the benefits and detriments of this aspect of the disorder. Studies have shown that
this could be more associated with higher order ASD symptomology. This could cause
problems for Atypical individuals like Sam, such as diminished capacity for socialization and
peer acceptance, maladaptive coping mechanism, and increased anxiety. Frustration and
outbursts may arise if the interest of the individual is somehow disrupted. There is also the
worry that some individuals may develop a preoccupation with illegal activities (Smerbeck,
2017). These aspects of Sam’s ASD are definitely portrayed in the show. He has trouble
relating with his peers through terms not associated with his area of interest. Interruptions in
his routine cause him to have an outburst, directly related to sensory overstimulation, causing
him to act in panic and practice self-preservation in ways that make sense only to him. He
may shut down, or frantically pull his hair, rock back and forth, scream, or even physically
react to any stimuli that unsettles him.
However, these restricted interests also serve as a beneficial and productive source of comfort
for ASD individuals. These areas of interest have many practical uses in terms of
employment expertise, promote individual happiness, and serves as a source of identity.
Research also indicates that children who have been encouraged to explore their areas of
interest have higher levels of confidence and positive attitudes (Smerbeck, 2017).
Interventions centered around using these areas of interest for behavior adjustment have been
found to have positive effects on individuals with ASD. For example, in Atypical Sam’s
therapist has a very positive and understanding approach to his interests, he has been taught

the cues to de-attach himself from outbursts. He recites the five kinds of penguins over and
over in Antarctica when he needs to calm down.

Sam’s routine is also one that needs to remain rigid and routine in order to make him feel
comfortable. Disruptions in his routine or everyday life make him uncomfortable and
agitated. For example, when he was forced to try and find a new therapist, he became filled
with anxiety and distress and delves into maladaptive behaviors. His physical behaviors tend
to be repetitive in nature too, for example constant hair pulling when nervous.

ASD is also characterized by a sensitivity to various stimuli (DSM-IV). Certain small sounds,
tastes, smells or physical touch can overstimulate and overwhelm an individual and cause
them to have an outburst. Sam’s favorite food is buttered noodles, as other more intense
flavors feel overwhelming to him. When attempting to go on his first date, the girl gently
caresses Sam, instead of using a hard touch as he prefers. This then caused him to push
violently push her off of him. He has to wear noise cancelling headphones to block out the
overstimulation of noises that cause him distress. Other symptoms of ASD include inability
to understand non-verbal communication, sarcasm, small-talk, metaphors, and a lack of
empathy (which does not come from lack of emotional feeling, but simply a lack of
understanding what another person is going through.) There is a tendency to understand
things in an extremely literal context. Niamh Mccann elaborates on this experience in a Ted
Talk, wherein she expresses that a metaphorical phrase such as “he bent over backwards”
would strike the image of a man who’s back was literally broken and bent over backwards in
the mind of someone with Asperger’s (“Copy & Paste, Hidden Asperger’s”, 2018).

Another show, Boston Legal, stars a character name Jerry Espensen, who is later diagnosed
with Asperger’s. He is constantly described as being extremely intelligent but “quirky”. His
mannerisms include constantly having his hands glued to his thighs, exclaiming the word
“whoop” in inappropriate situations, having extreme outbursts in inappropriate settings and
an intense preoccupation with the law (this is his area of restricted interest). Jerry’s therapy,
as opposed to Sam (who was diagnosed when he was only 2 year’s old), takes place only
during late adulthood. He begins taking medication as well as behavioral interventions for his
behavior. We see that he does not like being ridiculed by his colleagues and being a social
outcast, but he simply cannot understand why he cannot seem to relate to them or understand
what makes him so different. This ties back to his inability to understand nonverbal social
cues and behaviors. This feeling of wanting to be included in the social group but not
understanding how to navigate doing so, is similarly represented in a video by Jubilee
regarding the opinions of a group of autistic individuals (“Do all Autistic People Think the
Same?,” 2020).

It is also interesting to note the different manifestations of ASD, especially in the context of
their presentation amongst men and women. In a review of “Atypical” by ABC, interviewer
Emily Sakzewski asks Karly Brown, an 18-year-old girl with ASD to compare her own
experiences with those portrayed in the show. She expressed autism presents quite differently
amongst females as compared to males, and the reason so many women with ASD go
undiagnosed is because the diagnostic criteria is mostly based on male sample studies.
Specifically, women with ASD tend to be far more likely to engage in “masking behaviour”
or tend to be more capable of adapting and imitating their social environment to behave
seemingly more “normal”. This coping mechanism takes a large mental toll and causes
exhaustion and even “autistic burnout” (Sakzewski, 2020).

Though media portrayals of autism in shows like ‘Atypical’ and ‘Boston Legal’ have
managed to portray a somewhat accurate (though dramatized) interpretation of the symptoms
of autism, there still exists false research and findings about the disorder. The most well-
known of which was an article published by A J Wakefield, claiming that vaccination of
children was directly correlated with the development of autism. He claimed that out of a
sample of 12 children receiving vaccination, 9 developed autism post their shots (Wakefield,
1998). This article received huge criticism and multiple studies were conducted after to test
this, and none were able to replicate his conclusion. In fact, most research indicates autism is
linked to genetics. It was criticised that the sample was far too small and there were no
controls. After investigation it was found that the entire paper was work of fraud based on
altered results and Wakefield retracted his paper.

In conclusion, this analysis of the media portrayal of autism spectrum disorder in the context
as Atypical, Boston Legal, and various YouTube videos shows mostly accurate (yet
dramatized) representations of the disorder based on research and real life experiences. There
still remains a large amount of research to be done on the disorder, especially in the context
of its presentation in women. In addition, it is also extremely important to fact check research
conclusions and continuously do checks to replicate their results in order to ensure validity
and reliability.

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