The Impact of an Autistic Character Media Portrayal on Autistic Stereotypes



Autism is a developmental disorder that affects how people communicate and interact with others. People with autism often face challenges in social situations, such as making friends, understanding emotions, and expressing themselves. Unfortunately, many people have negative views of autism and autistic people, which can lead to discrimination, exclusion, and stigma.


One way to improve people’s attitudes towards autism is to expose them to positive and realistic portrayals of autistic people in the media. Media can influence how we think and feel about different groups of people, especially if we do not have direct contact with them. For example, watching a movie or a TV show that features an autistic character can help us learn more about their experiences, challenges, and strengths.




A recent study by Sreya Mallipeddi, Cheryl L. Dickter, and Joshua A. Burk examined how watching an autistic character in a TV show can affect the stereotypes that college students have about autism. The researchers showed participants one of three short video clips from the show “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay”, which stars Kayla Cromer, an autistic actress who plays an autistic character named Matilda.

The three clips were:

  • Informational: Matilda talks about her diagnosis and how autism affects her life.
  • Relatable: Matilda interacts with her boyfriend and shows interest in sex and romance.
  • Stereotypical: Matilda displays some common autistic behaviors, such as rocking, stimming, and avoiding eye contact.

After watching the clip, the participants answered questions about their stereotypes of autistic people, such as whether they think they are smart, friendly, creative, or weird. They also rated how much they liked Matilda as a character.




The results showed that the participants who watched the informational clip had less negative stereotypes of autistic people than those who watched the relatable clip. The participants who watched the stereotypical clip did not differ from the other two groups. The researchers also found that liking Matilda as a character mediated the effect of the clip on the stereotypes. In other words, the more the participants liked Matilda, the less negative stereotypes they had of autistic people.


The study suggests that watching a short video featuring a likeable autistic person can reduce stereotypes about autism. The researchers argue that this is because the informational clip provided factual and personal information about autism, which increased the participants’ knowledge and empathy. The relatable clip, on the other hand, did not address autism directly, and may have made the participants compare Matilda to themselves or other neurotypical people. The stereotypical clip, while showing some aspects of autism, did not provide enough context or explanation to challenge the existing stereotypes.




The study has important implications for media representation of autism and autistic people. The researchers recommend that media creators include more autistic characters and actors in their stories, and that they portray them in a balanced and nuanced way, highlighting both their challenges and their strengths. They also suggest that media consumers seek out more diverse and authentic sources of information about autism, such as blogs, podcasts, or documentaries by autistic people themselves.


By increasing our exposure to and understanding of autism, we can foster more positive and respectful attitudes towards autistic people, and create a more inclusive and supportive society for everyone.



How is autism represented in the media?


Autism representation in the media refers to how autistic people and their experiences are portrayed in various forms of media, such as movies, TV shows, books, news, and social media. Autism representation can be positive or negative, realistic or unrealistic, diverse or stereotypical, depending on how the media creators and consumers understand and depict autism.


Why is autism representation in the media important?


Autism representation in the media is important because it can influence how people perceive and treat autistic people in real life. Media can educate, inform, entertain, and inspire people, but it can also misinform, stigmatize, and harm people. Media can shape people’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors towards autistic people, either positively or negatively. Media can also affect how autistic people see themselves and their identity.


What are some examples of autism representation in the media?


There are many examples of autism representation in the media, both fictional and non-fictional. Some of the fictional examples are:

      • The Good Doctor: A TV show that follows the life and career of Shaun Murphy, a young autistic surgeon with savant syndrome.
      • Atypical: A TV show that depicts the journey of Sam Gardner, a teenage autistic boy who seeks independence, romance, and self-discovery.
      • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: A novel and a play that tell the story of Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old autistic boy who investigates the murder of his neighbor’s dog.
      • Rain Man: A movie that features Raymond Babbitt, an autistic man with exceptional memory and calculation skills, who reunites with his estranged brother.
    • Some of the non-fictional examples are:
      • Temple Grandin: A movie and a book that portray the life and achievements of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who became a renowned animal scientist and autism advocate.
      • Sesame Street: A children’s TV show that introduced Julia, an autistic muppet, who teaches kids about autism and diversity.
      • Autism Speaks: A website and an organization that aim to raise awareness and funds for autism research and services.
      • NeuroTribes: A book that explores the history and culture of autism, and argues for neurodiversity and acceptance.


What are some of the challenges and opportunities of autism representation in the media?


Some of the challenges of autism representation in the media are:

      • Lack of diversity: Many autistic characters and stories are white, male, and heterosexual, which does not reflect the reality and diversity of the autism community.
      • Stereotypes and stigma: Many autistic characters and stories are based on stereotypes and myths, such as being emotionless, antisocial, violent, or genius, which can create negative and inaccurate views of autism.
      • Tokenism and exploitation: Many autistic characters and stories are used as plot devices, comic relief, or inspiration porn, which can dehumanize and objectify autistic people.
      • Misinformation and sensationalism: Many autistic stories and news are distorted, exaggerated, or fabricated, which can mislead and confuse people about autism.

Some of the opportunities of autism representation in the media are:

      • Education and awareness: Media can provide factual and personal information about autism, which can increase people’s knowledge and empathy.
      • Representation and empowerment: Media can showcase the voices and perspectives of autistic people, which can enhance their visibility and agency.
      • Advocacy and activism: Media can highlight the issues and needs of autistic people, which can mobilize support and action.
      • Art and entertainment: Media can celebrate the creativity and diversity of autistic people, which can enrich and delight people.



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