Autism in reel life

In just more than a week, ABC is premiering “The Good Doctor,” a show which follows a young surgeon with autism and savant syndrome joining a prestigious hospital’s surgical unit.

autism

The show is a latest in a pattern that’s been emerging in the last few years, a stark shift in how people with autism and other disabilities are portrayed in the media, compared to old favorites such as “Forest Gump,” “I am Sam” and “Rain Man.” While those are critically acclaimed, Academy-Award winning films, it’s impossible to divorce these characters from the disability that defines them.

It’s important for [people with autism] to see characters in media that have autism, to see how it’s portrayed … to see that it’s just one of their personality traits.

But there’s a new model for writing characters with autism spectrum disorder — characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts — seen most recently in Netflix’s “Atypical” (released earlier this month) and the newest “Power Rangers” film (released in March). (If you’re wondering, the Blue Ranger mentions briefly in one scene he has autism.)

Autism is just one aspect of these well-rounded characters. They also fall in love, succeed or struggle with their school work, have friendships and, occasionally, even fight crime.

“It’s important for [people with autism] to see characters in media that have autism, to see how it’s portrayed,” said Jenna Varley, a 24-year-old from Kankakee who has lived with the label of autism her whole life. “To see that it’s just one of their personality traits.”

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