Understanding autism
Understanding autism

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Understanding autism

4.1 Media portrayals of autism

How is autism portrayed in the media? You can explore this question in the activity below.

Activity 3 Media portrayals of autism

Allow about 20 minutes

Think about the 1988 film Rain Man and two more recent media or fictional representations of autism. These could be films, TV series, books, etc. How accurate was Rain Man’s representation of autism? Do you think that media representations have become more authentic in recent works? Can you think of any portrayals of women? (Note: if you have not seen Rain Man, you can look up a synopsis on Wikipedia).

You can type text here, but this facility requires a free OU account. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Discussion

It is only possible to discuss one or two of the different representations of autism here. In Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman plays the autistic character Raymond Babbitt with a skilful and convincing portrayal of social detachment, naivety and rigid adherence to structure and routine. Equally key to the plot, however, is Raymond’s exceptional memory and powers of mental calculation, which his brother Charlie exploits to his advantage in the Las Vegas casinos. For movie-makers and writers, special or savant skills have the obvious attraction of making the character exciting, exceptional and exotically different, but as you have learned in earlier weeks, such skills are by no means representative.

In a recent portrayal of autism in fiction, Stieg Larsson, the author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, takes the unusual and important step of portraying a female character who is strongly implied to have autism. The character Lisbeth Salander contrasts strongly with Raymond Babbitt in her independence, autonomy and capacity for deception. Yet the motif of special powers of memory and exceptional skills – IT skills, as befits the era – still surfaces in this portrayal.

A recent study (Nordahl-Hansen et al., 2017) compared portrayals of the autism spectrum in 26 films and four television series with the core symptoms in the DSM-5 criteria. Encouragingly, they found that most of the portrayals aligned well with the diagnostic criteria. However, there was still an undue emphasis on savant characteristics. The authors also expressed concern that the characters tended to be stereotypically autistic, thus failing to portray the rich variation and individuality of autism

A Guardian article about the BBC series The A Word offers an interesting critique by parent Simon Hattenstone and his autistic daughter Maya (Hattenstone and Hattenstone, 2016).

An important step towards giving autism an authentic voice in the media was taken by the TV series Holby City. In 2016, the series introduced an autistic character, Jason Haynes, played by the young autistic actor, Jules Robertson.

AUT_1

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has nearly 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus