Neurodivergence on television

I’ve never really written a fandom post before on this blog, so I was surprised to find that for the first time, my blog was actually coming up on people’s searches yesterday.  From “how long until season 3” to “a time when Sherlock was kind to Watson”, the results have been amusing. 

In any case, today I want to expand on yesterday’s post just a little bit.  I want to talk about media representation and why it matters.  Growing up, I found it difficult to relate to many of the characters I found on screen.  I was captivated by their stories, but I really didn’t find anyone like me.  That doesn’t even necessarily mean that they needed to be Autistic.  Any neurodivergent person would have been fine; actually, most people who deviate from the norm would have been fine too.  But I found far too many people who were normal, happy, solve the problem in 30 minutes sort of people.  If there was an episode of a television show about someone different, it was a “special” episode, to be dealt with and then never mentioned again. 

Things have changed a lot in the last few years.  I can name for you several book personas that I identified with (starting in childhood), but until a few years ago, I was not able to find a television or movie character that I could identify with.  But let me count the ones I can name (though to be honest, I’ve not seen every single one of these, but I feel confident mentioning some of these based on the word of my Autistic Tumblr friends).

  • Abed from Community.  Julia Bascom, author of “Quiet Hands”, writes a very good piece about him here (though she and I are certainly not on the same page with regard to Sherlock, which is absolutely fine). I’ve seen a few episodes, and he’s by far the most blatantly autistic adult on TV that I know of. 
  • Sherlock, in many different adaptations.  I started out watching Elementary thinking that this Sherlock was more ADHD than autistic, but since then, I have seen several autistic traits that make me think differently. 
  • Max from Parenthood.  Max is a preteen who is autistic, and that is established with great certainty in episode 3, when he is diagnosed with Asperger’s.  There are a few things that bother me about him, but it’s more about how his parents react, and how some things are blamed on his autism rather than telling him “no, that isn’t acceptable.”  I think that the show is fairly realistic, though.  I definitely disliked Max not knowing about his diagnosis for a long while.  He was eight, I believe, when his character was introduced, and just recently entered middle school, I suppose at age twelve.  It was only around age ten or so that he was told of his diagnosis.  I compared that to my own kids and I thought, “well, they already know.”  I think that the difference is that Max was quite a bit older when he was diagnosed.  Still, he went into several doctors’ offices, therapists, etc. to discover what made things difficult for him.  That would have been the perfect time to reveal his diagnosis.  The show writers are doing a decent job with Max now that he’s a bit older.  The parents, Adam and Kristina, are definitely reacting how many parents who are fed the tragedy model of autism would react.  It’s very realistic. 
  • Temperence Brennan from Bones.  I’ll be honest that I’ve not seen very many episodes of this show, but she certainly does have an extraordinarily sensitive sensory system, and there’s a lot of social gaffes that her friends need to help her through. 
  • Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory.  Yes, I realize that the creator claims that he does not fall on the autism spectrum.  However, this is the same person who wrote Two and a half men.  I don’t know that I really trust Chuck Lorre’s idea of what autism is.  There are more and more instances where I think that Sheldon is definitely a lot like me.  It’s quite stereotypical that he be a scientist, of course, but stereotypical doesn’t mean wrong. He’s very much into routine, and gets upset when that routine is altered. 
  • Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds.  I admit that I have not watched this show, but I believe within the last season, this has been accepted as canonically correct.  I don’t know if they use the word “Asperger’s”, but according to friends who are fans of the show, he certeainly is on the spectrum.
  • Gary from Alphas.  I know absolutely nothing about this show, but thought it was worth mentioning.
  • Hank from Parenthood.  I don’t know if very many people are talking about this.  I know that my best friend and I have discussed this at length, that Sarah Braverman’s love interest in last season of Parenthood is Hank, a photographer, who immediately bonds with Max, who he later refers to as “the kid who doesn’t talk to people”.  In a conversation with Sarah in one of the final episodes of this past season, he talks about how eye contact is difficult, and people are difficult, and he even gives Max a gift of a camera that you look down into so you don’t have to look into people’s eyes.  He’s in his 40’s, so it’s unlikely that he would be official diagnosed, but it certainly makes a lot of sense. 
  • JJ from Skins UK.  Oh, this is probably my absolute favorite character who is diagnosed as autistic.  Because he’s a teenager and he has a lot of self-loathing, and a therapist who keeps giving him more pills to take, and it’s very heartbreaking.  But his friends, though a bit problematic in other ways, are very good to him.  And they understand and don’t treat him like a pariah.  I know, I’m giving out the “basic standard of human decency” award here, but honestly, most of the “friends” that I have had were there because they were bribed, or because they were assigned to be my friends, not because they really were.  It’s good to see a character on TV who has struggles with accepting himself, and not feeling self-loathing about his diagnosis, but who can have fun and have friends and care about people.
  • Jake from Touch.  This one is … debatable? His diagnosis is refuted as “inconclusive” by his father in the first episode.  But he is nonverbal, and sees patterns, and well, is your stereotypical nonverbal autistic kid, I think.  Things do eventually change, however, and he becomes much more than the “disabled kid with superpowers”.  It’s a fascinating show, and sometimes, you really do forget that he is (probably) autistic.

I’m certain there are more, particularly in literature. I can list some other neurodivergent characters, like Ramona Quimby, Luna Lovegood and Anne Shirley — characters, specifically female characters who were “weird” but who were oh so much like me. But for now this is a good list.  You know what would make it better? To have more characters that are nonspeaking, or who don’t fit neatly into the “Asperger’s” category.  How about an autistic character who is part of a gender and/or sexual minority? One day.  I want us to get there one day. 

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15 thoughts on “Neurodivergence on television

  1. You. Put. Spencer. Reid. In. There.

    I like you. I can already tell. XD Spencer Reid is the character that alerted me to my own ASD traits to begin with, though I haven’t yet received a diagnosis. It’s frustrating. >.< But yeah. c:

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      1. His character spoke to me from the moment I laid eyes on him. Sure, I still do present a bit differently, but the core characteristics are all the same. I would definitely recommend it- he’s one of the main characters. However, I’ve never really liked the way the rest of the team treated him- they just don’t understand, even if they try to, you know? But that makes him all the more lovable, in my opinion.

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  2. [INFODUMP ALERT, sorry!!!!] This is probably a really obscure one and it isn’t television, but I am of the opinion that Blanche DuBois from the Tennessee Williams play “A Streetcar Named Desire” is on the spectrum. There’s definitely a lot of sensory issues there and possibly a few infodumps, plus she doesn’t react particularly well to breaks in routine. She can be incredibly blunt, and there’s a lot of seemingly randomly placed pauses in her lines, Also, when I studied the play at school, everyone else in the year group disliked her, except for me and one other (allistic) person. I really saw a lot of myself in her, then I sort of developed this theory and went with it, even though the play was written in 1947 so it’s almost certain that she wasn’t deliberately written as autistic. I haven’t found any other autistic people who have read/seen the play, though…

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  3. Cool post, I like watching neurodivergent characters but they are rare, some of the one listed bother me since their traits are a joke. I think I would have included other neurodivergences or called this post Autism on television, I sometimes relate to character with other mental disabilites.
    If you take non-autistic but neurodivergent characters there is a show called Perception where the main character is schizophrenic, it has one of the best episodes in my opinion about crimes and mental illness.
    There is also a older show called Monk where the main character has many mental illness, I remember OCD being the focus but I always found some ASD similarity at some points.

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    1. Ooh I loved Monk! I didn’t watch it faithfully, but yes, definitely good.

      I think I went with neurodivergent vs autistic because some of these were sort of iffy, like not everyone is going to agree with me, and I don’t know, I think there are some similar disorders (like ADHD, for example, and social anxiety disorder) that exhibit some but not all of the same symptoms.

      I think pretty much all of these characters have their disorder or quirkiness used as a joke at some point. It’s actually painful for me to watch TBBT because the way Sheldon is treated is reminiscent of bullying I experienced as a kid. The fandom treatment of some of Sherlock’s neurodivergent social gaffes breaks my heart because I’ve been that person – to not know that someone fancied me, or what someone meant by a particular phrase. It’s frustrating.

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  4. Not only did they not tell Max for years, but they *never* actually told Max — he found out accidentally when Adam and Crosby were arguing about Crosby having sex with Max’s therapist.

    It was WAY yucky, the episode where the whole family went on an Autism Speaks walk and Max said, “let’s go help those autistic kids!” and the whole family exchanged uncomfortable looks because Max didn’t know.

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      1. I’m going to have to go back to those books. I read and reread the Henry Higgins, Beezus and Ramona . . . canon as a child? Even in retrospect, such a reading of Ramona didn’t occur to me.

        There was a Ramona series on PBS in the 80s. And now apparently there’s a film version as well.

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      2. I think it might have been because I identified with her so strongly, and while my classmates thought she was weird and funny and quirky, I thought she was awesome! And yeah, I want to reread the books, too, especially now that my daughter is just about the age to enjoy the books (she’ll be 7 this summer).

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  5. Funny you should mention this. Will Graham, from the latest NBC show Hannibal, is someone on the spectrum (not sure if he’s autistic in the books, though). I just read a comment by a fan on the Hannibal Facebook page that she wouldn’t have had him pegged as autistic at all, yet anyone who knows about the spectrum (and all its variations) would definitely say he is!

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