02.24.10

Hollywood Takes on Autism

With autism being represented more frequently in pop culture, The Daily Beast talks to some of the projects' creators about why they are—or aren't—labeling characters as autistic.

The tearjerker Dear John—which earlier this month became the first movie to unseat James Cameron's Avatar from its No. 1 spot at the box office—depicts the decade-long star-crossed romance between two lovers who write each other letters over the years. While neither of the leads (played by Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum) in the film, based on Nicholas Sparks' novel, has autism, the neurological condition hovers over the action as two supporting characters—a young neighbor and the titular John's father (Richard Jenkins)—grapple with forms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The weight placed on the dual autism storylines is a surprise in what is essentially an old-fashioned war weepy, but it brought a very modern context to Dear John's love story.

While most people think of Dustin Hoffman's Raymond in the 1988 film Rain Man when it comes to portrayals of autism, the character's savant skills aren't ones shared by the vast majority of those who have autism spectrum disorders. In the 20 years since Rain Man was released, more information about autism has become available, amid climbing ASD diagnoses within the U.S. and portrayals of autistics, or people on the higher functioning end of the spectrum (such as those with Asperger's syndrome), have become more common. In the last year alone, there has been an unusually high concentration of portrayals of autism spectrum disorders in both film and television.

"I'd like to show both the beauty and challenge of having a child with Asperger's as well as some of the frustrations of being a kid grappling with it," said Jason Katims, the writer/producer of Parenthood.

Beside Dear John, there was the 2009 drama Adam, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and revolved around a man with Asperger's (Hugh Dancy) who finds himself in a slow-building romance with a female neighbor. In HBO's Temple Grandin, airing this month on the pay cable channel, Claire Danes (who is, coincidentally, married to Dancy in real life) plays the high-functioning autistic inventor/advocate/author Temple Grandin, and is already being touted as an Emmy frontrunner.

Julia Rothwax: My Brother, Autism, and MeThe trend isn't limited to films. Mary McDonnell played a doctor with Asperger's on ABC's Grey's Anatomy last season, The Amazing Race featured their first autistic contestant—Zev Glassenberg—this past fall, and NBC's new drama Parenthood, which launches Tuesday, features a major storyline in which a couple (Peter Krause and Monica Potter) grapple with their son Max's (Max Burkholder) autism. Additionally, members of the autistic community have embraced The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon and Community's Abed as members of their flock, despite the series' creators keeping mum about their characters' diagnoses.

The presence of these projects coincides with a sharp increase in occurrences and diagnoses of ASD cases in the U.S. According to figures released in December by the Centers for Disease Control, an average of one in every 110 children in the United States now have an autism spectrum disorder. The CDC, categorizing ASD as "an urgent public health concern," estimated that roughly 730,000 children currently aged 0-21 have some form of ASD in the U.S. alone.

"There's one thing that's very concerning about the increase in autism," said Temple Grandin, interviewed last month by The Daily Beast for a feature about the HBO film about her life."Asperger's is just increased diagnosis. They've always been there. Geeks and nerds? Always been there. But there's some very severe autism that I think has increased."

Given the surge in diagnoses and the staggering prevalence of ASD, it therefore seems only logical that we'd see this growing minority represented on screen. In some cases, writers are upfront about the diagnosis of their characters, labeling them as having Asperger's syndrome or another form of high-functioning autism, from the get-go—such was the case with McDonnell's character on Grey's Anatomy. Likewise, reality contestants Glassenberg from Season 15 of The Amazing Race and Heather Kuzmich from the 2007 cycle of America's Next Top Model both identified themselves as having Asperger's.

Peter Bell, executive vice president for programs and services of the autism advocacy group Autism Speaks, says the trend is just another case of art imitating life.

"The increased awareness of autism certainly has [led to] it being included in a lot of these projects," said Bell. "Because autism has increased so significantly in the last two decades, you have people who are directly affected themselves or they know a family that is affected and they have brought these [experiences] and included them in scripts… It's hitting close to home for many people who are responsible for creating these pieces."

Parenthood, which is executive produced by Ron Howard and based on his 1989 feature film, is overseen by writer/producer Jason Katims. Best known for his work on NBC's Friday Night Lights, Katims is himself the father of an autistic child, and wanted to dramatize the experiences he and his wife have encountered by having the show's family come to terms with the fact that Max's behaviors aren't a series of quirks but manifestations of a more serious neurological condition.

"I'd like to show both the beauty and challenge of having a child with Asperger's as well as some of the frustrations of being a kid grappling with it," said Katims. "I hope that by seeing a depiction of Asperger's it may take some of the mystery and stigma off it… I've worked with experts in the field of Asperger's and autism to help to create this character."

"I feel like my wife and I are way more exposed than my son–since the show is really more from the point of view of the parents than the children," he continued. "What's weird is having a conversation with my wife on the phone about some parenting issue and then walking into the editing room and watching a scene that is exactly like the scene I just lived. It's like art imitating life, except a little too much."

In the case of Parenthood, the diagnosis is not only clear, but the series' creator is honest about the fact that the character in question has an ASD. That's not always the case. Two current network comedies, CBS' The Big Bang Theory and NBC's Community, feature characters that many viewers—including members of the autistic community—assume have an ASD. However, the shows' creators have been wary about labeling them.

On Community, Abed (Danny Pudi) seems to exhibit many of the classic behavior patterns of Asperger's; he's socially awkward, emotionally distant, and often misinterprets social cues while having an intensely logical mind. In the series' pilot, smart-aleck ex-lawyer Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) tells Abed that he has Asperger's syndrome. Another character shoots back that Jeff isn't qualified to diagnose him, leaving it up in the air.

So why hasn't the show labeled Abed outright as an "Aspie" (to borrow autistic author Liane Holliday Willey's terminology) or as a "neurotypical"? According to Community's creator and executive producer Dan Harmon, it's intentionally been left vague. "The lazy reason is that I want my characters to be my characters, with rules that I create, based on my life experiences, not rules set forth in someone else's manual," said Harmon.

"The 'artistic' reason, and the most important reason of all: In real life, every day, we interact with people who may-or-may-not have this-or-that condition we've read about in Time magazine," he continued. "And there are people wondering similar things about us. And there are people who are relieved, comforted and assisted by diagnoses, and there are people who resent or laugh at the notion of their highly functioning personality as [being] 'afflicted.' I live in a world where the lines between 'special' and 'sick' are still thankfully blurry, and that is the world I know how to reflect with my stories and jokes."

It's a question that many viewers and critics have also raised with Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, executive producers of CBS' The Big Bang Theory. Asked about whether Sheldon Cooper (played by the Emmy-nominated Jim Parsons) is in fact autistic at last month's Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, Lorre said, "We chose not to diagnose Sheldon."

"I think, in general, we hear from a whole spectrum of people who have felt on the outside and for a lot of reasons," said Prady at the same press conference. "All of our characters have connected with people because they're characters on the outside sort of looking in."

It's as close to a confirmation or denial as Lorre and Prady are willing to give at the moment. (Prady, when contacted, refused to comment for this story.) According to an August 2009 piece written by The New Jersey Star-Ledger's Alan Sepinwall, Prady was reluctant to label Sheldon has having Asperger's syndrome, because it would necessitate getting the details about ASD just so.

Maybe it shouldn't matter whether or not Sheldon has Asperger's or not. But for the millions of teens and young adults with an ASD, is it a missed opportunity to present a valuable role model? Sheldon's behavior patterns, while played for comedy on The Big Bang Theory, fit into the same rubric as those of Star Trek's logical and emotionally detached Spock or Data, both extremely popular and enduring characters within the autistic community.

Ultimately, anything that draws more attention and awareness to autism is a good thing, according to Autism Speaks' Bell, also the parent of an autistic child, especially if it has the ability to erase misconceptions about autism.

"I think sometimes the [media] tends to focus on those people who have savant skills," said Bell. "I think we have to be careful that we don't perpetuate this notion that everyone who has autism has this kind of special talent of some kind that we need to figure out and uncover and then put to good use."

All representations of minorities or underrepresented groups offer an opportunity to educate the public, to dispel myths, and offer positive and nuanced portrayals. In this case, they provide an understanding about the range of the autistic spectrum.

That said, those characters that haven't been labeled challenge our preconceptions about so-called "typical" behavior and broaden our understanding of both society and the neurological spectrum on which we all sit. Whether Abed is eventually revealed to have Asperger's (or not), the important thing is perhaps the very discussion of neurodiversity that his character inspires.

"I don't want to force-feed data about characters to the audience before it's narratively necessary to do so," said Community's Harmon. "A television audience has an inalienable right to relax and speculate, with their friends, about the characters they watch. I'm still trying to figure out if Bo and Luke"—he was referring, of course, to The Dukes of Hazzard—"were the straightest or gayest men in Hazzard County."

"It's a medium for the voyeur in all of us," Harmon continued. "I like to provide the window and walk away."

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Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment Web sites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.