Until very recently, growing up with autism meant growing up without seeing "someone like me" in the cultural narrative. To some, that may not seem like a huge deal, but for autistic children (and their parents), it’s a very big deal. After all, part of childhood is identifying with what you see in movies and on television.
Thankfully, Hollywood seems to have finally taken notice. The past few years have seen a surge of stories about autism and people on the spectrum becoming part of the mainstream. For the first time, my autistic daughter Lily is represented in that culture. For the first time she, and others like her, have potential role models in pop culture, favorite heroes or stories that feature “kids like me”. They are conversation starters for a group noted for social interaction difficulties. They are reference points for a misunderstood condition that can help bridge the gap to greater general understanding.
Perhaps it’s been spurred by that 1 in every 68 school-aged children has autism—a startling statistic. Or perhaps it’s due to entertainment industry insiders who champion the cause.
Either way, for an "invisible disability," this increased visibility might make a real difference in the cultural awareness and acceptance of people with autism. Here are just some of the autism community's most recent pop culture icons, more “power” to them!
Billy in ‘Power Rangers’
The new “Power Rangers” movie features a ranger on the autism spectrum: Billy, the blue ranger. Actor R.J. Cyler, who plays Billy, recently said that he wanted to show “that people that are on the spectrum are just regular people,” and that it was important to show accurately how an autistic hero might see the world and react to it. The fact that Billy is African-American in the film is impactful, too. Autism is underidentified in ethnic minority communities in the United States, and most often is portrayed as a condition that affects only white people.
Julia in ‘Sesame Street’
The character Julia made her first appearance almost two years ago in a digital storybook, and is now appearing on the flagship show as part of a broader initiative to promote awareness of autism. Played by puppeteer Stacey Gordon — herself the mother of a child with autism — Julia is set to bring autism awareness into the lives of millions of young Americans.
Max in ‘Parenthood’
Watching the Braverman family react to some of life's little quirks with their son Max, who has Asperger's syndrome, was like watching my own life dramatized. They tackled both the positives and the negatives in a variety of true-to-life situations, from going to school, to family dinners, to dating.
Symmetra in ‘Overwatch’
A video game released in 2016 by Blizzard Entertainment, “Overwatch” features a playable character — Indian architect Satya Vaswani, or Symmetra — who is on the autism spectrum. The game’s director confirmed fan theories after a player pointed out hints from a supporting comic book that Symmetra is on the spectrum.
Christopher in ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime’
A book turned into a Broadway play, “The Curious Incident…” turns the mundane into a suspenseful mystery adventure. The challenges of navigating the world and solving a mystery are seen through the eyes of the autistic main character. Production crews found innovative ways to expose audiences to the overstimulation that Christopher struggles against.
And into the future …
The progress doesn’t stop there! Netflix coming of age comedy "Atypical,” to be released in 2017, will feature the first ever autistic lead character. Also, trauma drama "Chicago Med" is developing a storyline around surgeon character Dr. Isidore Latham, who is on the autism spectrum.
Incorporation of autism into pop culture means I’m not starting from ground zero when I have a conversation about autism. If I’m talking to Lily’s classmates, I can use Julia as a reference. If I’m chatting with another parent, I might discuss my daughter’s potential by relating it to one of these characters. These become reference points not just for me, but for my daughter and for the community.
Often, pop culture can be seen as shallow and stereotyped, so it’s refreshing to see attempts to do right by the autism community by not only including them in the cultural conversation, but also attempting to do so authentically and sensitively. I, for one, look forward to taking my daughter to see the show!
Jim Walter is the author of Just a Lil Blog, where he chronicles his adventures as a father of two daughters, one of whom has autism.