There are now more people with autism on-screen and in the workforce.
The two trends are related and, advocates hope, will open the door to even more progress.
“Sesame Street” debuted a character with autism in April after extensive collaboration with autism groups.
Filmmaker Rachel Israel wanted to make a movie about a neurological disorder that actually starred people with the condition. Her film “Keep the Change” won several awards at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Autism encompasses a spectrum or symptoms, and many people on that spectrum are challenged by unemployment and lack of acceptance.
However, software giant SAP set a goal of hiring 650 people with autism, about 1 percent of its workforce.
It’s one of several technology companies that have been seeking employees with autism to apply their strong logic skills in the software industry.
Developments like these may signal a turning point from awareness to acceptance of people with autism.
And that may bring a large segment of society — and largely untapped labor force — off the sidelines and into prominent roles within society.
One in 68 U.S. children has autism — 1 in 42 boys — and that rate has steadily increased since researchers began tracking it in 2000.
But just 58 percent of people with autism were employed in 2015. That’s far lower than the overall employment rate, and also the overall rate for people with disabilities.
More people with autism in films and on TV — portrayed accurately — help fix that.
“There’s an unemployment rate that’s ridiculously high,” Matt Asner, vice president of development at the Autism Society of America, told Healthline.
He said people with autism are “model employees,” and that employers need to step up and hire them.
“But in order for that to happen, we need to educate employers on what autism is, and I think film and TV does a great job at that,” he said.
He added that he’s “really excited about what we’re seeing on-screen now.”
Autism on the screen
Asner points to shows like Netflix’s “Atypical,” which debuts later this week.
The show employs people with autism for both on-screen work and behind the scenes, although autism isn’t the main focus of the series.
Other shows, like ABC’s “The Good Doctor,” which debuts next month, will feature a lead character with autism and make the disorder a more central theme.
“The greatest thing that’s happening right now…is that we’re starting to see people talk about autism in a very respectful way. We’re seeing people weave it into the lives of the people on-screen instead of making a statement about it,” Asner said. “They’re dealing with autism the way it should be dealt with, just as a part of life.”
He cites the Scandinavian crime drama “The Bridge,” in which the heroine shows multiple signs of being on the spectrum, but it is never addressed and isn’t what the show is about.
“It wasn’t a driving part of the show, the characters didn’t talk about it — they talked about her,” he said.
A wide spectrum
That’s important because autism is different for everyone.
People with autism might all be on the same spectrum, but being on the spectrum can mean many different things.
Hollywood appears to be getting better at depicting forms of autism in more head-on ways, too. Films like 2011’s “Fly Away,” last year’s “A Boy Called Po,” and the Special Olympics documentary “Swim Team” released earlier this year, were well-received by both critics and mental health groups.
When it may start to make a difference in hiring is an open question, but the first step is getting society as a whole to become aware of people with autism.
“In order to reach acceptance we need awareness,” Asner said.
“The issue with autism is that you can’t readily see it — it’s not visible,” he added. “Certainly there are traits that make it more visible...but basically it’s just a person with different abilities.”