Expert Opinion

Autism portrayals: then and now

In this post, Dr James McGrath, Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Leeds Beckett, assesses the changing public perceptions of autism in the last 80 years.

Since Autism was first medically recognised in the 1940s, its portrayal has been marked by two broad phases. Until around two decades ago, ‘Autistic’ connoted children who demonstrated little interaction. Often, their screaming or silence would occupy the moments when their speech was expected (and longed for). Contrastingly, since the 1990s, Autism portrayals have favoured people who may be verbose and capable of remarkable achievements, but find many social situations confusing and exhausting.

These two eras are shaped by the influence of research by Leo Kanner (1943) and Hans Asperger (1944). In discussing Kanner and Asperger’s ‘eras’, or ‘phases’, I refer less to the timing of their seminal research than the cultural historical periods in which their works have been most influential. After outlining features of both phases, I reflect on some fictional portrayals of Autism.

Kanner focused mainly on patients who depended significantly on daily assistance from others. Kanner’s Autism has been synonymous with ‘severe Autism’. It has also been called ‘non-verbal’ Autism, though the preferred term is preverbal Autism. One problem of the c.1943-1991 Kanner era (and its legacy) is that it popularised assumptions that personal fulfilment was unlikely for Autistic people.

Asperger’s paper, translated into English in 1991, concerned people who struggled with social expectations but (unlike Kanner’s patients) were not deemed intellectually impaired and experienced no significant delay in language acquisition. Asperger Syndrome (AS) was introduced into America’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in the fourth edition (1994). Controversially, DSM-5 (2013) removed AS. Its diagnostic criteria were adjusted and presented within an all-encompassing category, Autism Spectrum Disorder.

A link between the Kanner and Asperger eras was a 1986 memoir, Emergence, by then 39-year-old Temple Grandin, diagnosed Autistic aged 4. Previously, Autistic people had widely been considered (or just assumed) barely capable of verbal language, let alone authoring a book. Grandin’s was the first major ‘inside’ narrative. Her subsequent media profile typifies the second, ‘Asperger’ phase of Autism representation. Alongside her books and talks on Autism, Grandin is an internationally-renowned professor of Animal Science.

However, one problem of the Asperger era is its equation of Autism with exceptional talent and, alongside it, bourgeois notions of achievement.  Thus, despite the eminence of Grandin and other Autistic women authors, including Donna Williams and Liane Holliday Willey, recent fictional portrayals of Autism mostly foreground male, white, professional-class individuals, usually working in STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). Such equations come less from the Autistic community than from ableist culture industries in which entertainment for a neurotypical (non-Autistic) ‘gaze’ is prioritised over recognition of the experiences and diversity of Autistic people.

Millenial Autism

In 2001, journalist Steve Silberman’s baitingly-titled article ‘Geek Syndrome’ appeared in Wired magazine online, helping to popularise cultural notions (bordering on fixations) regarding Autism as a combination of high intellect plus eccentricity. However, as well as misrepresenting many individuals who live with AS, the ‘Geek Syndrome’ focus further marginalised cultural engagement with Kanner’s Autism.

Innumerable AS characters have featured in novels and on screen since the early 2000s. Some portrayals engage sensitively with subtleties of Autistic traits. Clare Morrall’s The Language of Others (2008) is a Bildüngsroman in which self-identification with AS marks an epiphany for protagonist Jess Fontaine. Morrall’s novel was one of the first major portrayals of adult female Autism in fiction.

More recently, in two novels by Robert Williams, noticeable Asperger traits are attributed to secondary characters in adolescence (Luke and Jon, 2010) and adulthood (Into the Trees, 2014). Unusually for the Asperger era, Williams positions tacitly Autistic characters in working-class circumstances.

Screen fictions, too, have situated Autism in relation to other aspects of identity. Karan Johar’s film My Name is Khan (2010) engages with both ableism and racism. US sitcom Community (2009-15) has addressed AS in relation to academic and also family identity.

Frustratingly however, more prominent, culturally-influential displays of AS have taken cruder, more uniform approaches, inspiring little re-thinking of established Asperger-phase assumptions about Autism.

The Latent Power of a Latent Name

Three of the most commercially-enduring fictional portrayals of Autism from the Asperger era freeze the condition in STEM-bound ‘Geek Syndrome’ associations, foregrounding male protagonists endowed with exceptional skills (and conventionally-measured high achievements) in Maths and Sciences. These portrayals are Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (UK, 2003), long-running sitcom Big Bang Theory (US, 2007-), and Graeme Simsion’s rom-com Rosie novels (Australia, 2013, 2014). Yet, despite relying on (and reinforcing) manifestly dominant expectations regarding AS, the actual content of these texts evades direct naming of Autism or AS.

The cover blurb of Haddon’s bestselling novel declares that the hero, Christopher, has AS; it then gives a brief textbook-like summary of the condition. (Ironically, Haddon’s novel has since been used as an Autism textbook on numerous teacher-training courses). Yet, no terminology of Autism or AS appears within Haddon’s narrative. Instead, through Christopher’s literalist thinking, outstanding mathematical skills and eidetic memory (reminiscent of Raymond Babbitt in Barry Levinson’s Rain Man, 1988), Autism is conveyed through a syndrome of already fixed associations.

The writers of Big Bang Theory insist that the socially-illiterate theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper does not have AS, though the actor who plays him, Jim Parsons, has disagreed. Whatever, much of Big Bang Theory’s loud, laughter-tracked hilarity relies on standardized, post-Curious portrayals of Autism. This aspect of the show remains uncontroversial to the point of being oppressive. We can laugh at Sheldon’s Autistic ineptitude, because he isn’t technically disabled: AS is blatantly conveyed, but in the script, it is not named.

Simsion’s The Rosie Project (2013) is narrated by the character of Don Tillman, a professor of genetics epitomising ‘Geek Syndrome’ ideals of Autism. The humour largely depends on the fact that while the hapless, tactless Don is oblivious to all indications that he has AS, it’s made obvious to readers on every page, plus the rear-cover.

The obliviousness of Sheldon and Don (both professional scientists) to their Autistic status is distractingly unconvincing even for comic fiction. To highlight the cultural potency of the very approach these AS exhibitions resolutely avoid, a line from James Baldwin’s cultural polemic The Devil Finds Work (1976) is pertinent: ‘That victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he, or she, has become a threat.’

Curious Incident, Big Bang and Rosie promote dominant contemporary assumptions about Autism. They invite us to gaze, even stare at AS – but not to acknowledge the condition. Like many contributors to online Autism forums, I have at times been moved, consoled even, by moments of sensitivity in these (acclaimed) portrayals of Autistic experience. But their tendency to point at AS without naming it veers worryingly close to socially stigmatising Autistic identity and its disclosure.

(All that said, I need to admit that maybe this is also a matter of me being somewhat lost about the intended – most likely good – humour of these texts).

Still, for some Autistic adults, perhaps especially those newly-diagnosed, a disempowering aspect of these fictional portrayals is that while they depend on AS for character-construction, they give no representation to Autism as diagnosis: what it involves; why it is given; how it can feel. In these ways, the most commercially-successful portrayals trivialise realities of Autism as a disability.

Another Then and Now

Autism portrayals have shifted focusing from severity (Kanner’s era) to idiosyncrasy (Asperger’s). But there is another ‘then and now’ that pervades and surrounds Autism. It concerns the individual’s subjectivity and identity, before and after diagnosis.

When someone you know is diagnosed Autistic, or discloses a diagnosis, does it change how you think about her? Or how you think about Autism? Or to put it, after reflection, more neurotypically: does it change how you understand her?

Does it change how you understand?

The rhetoric of love and other good intentions around another person’s Autism often sincerely insists that diagnosis “doesn’t change who you are”. For both parties, such expressions can be sustaining – especially in initial stages of someone wondering about her or his Autism status (or indeed, of being prompted to do so by professionals, peers, or popular culture). It’s important, though, not to underestimate the potential emotional stages of assessment and its aftermath. Autism diagnosis in adulthood can bring states of shock and relief simultaneously, in ways that are both liberating and grief-like.

A Concluding Introduction

Innovation isn’t everything but it is an opportunity, and when given to disability portrayal, innovation can promote and provoke deeper social understanding. It can also inspire more enlightening aesthetic engagement (a possibility which, in mainstream Autism representation, remains mostly overlooked, despite the unpredictable sensory intensity which is often at the core of Autistic subjectivity). Conversely, when innovation is wanting, the realm of stereotype gains a debilitating hold over disability portrayals.

Since the 1940s, Autism representation has seen two major eras of cultural focus: Kanner’s, and Asperger’s. A problem common to portrayals in both phases has been their domination by neurotypical authors and indeed, audiences.

Yet, the next major phase has the capacity to assert more diverse portrayals and perceptions of Autism. I refer to the emergence – alongside neurotypical people – of writers, artists, directors, actors, academics, politicians and more who themselves have Autism. All of these are of course privileged positions, notwithstanding disadvantages that people may face in reaching and sustaining them – and a most lamentable cultural disservice of the Asperger-era was an over-emphasis on conventional, neurotypical ideas of high achievement amongst Autistic people. In this process, individuals whose Autism may be most disabling – along with the people who love and look after them – became marginalised from portrayals.

Like Kanner’s era, Asperger’s era brought progressions but also problems. However, as both eras inevitably recede, lessons can be gathered from them. Perhaps the most urgent lesson concerns the acknowledgement and recognition – the portrayal – of Autistic diversity.


I’m very grateful to friends and colleagues who vitally supported my first research seminar on this topic at Leeds Beckett University recently. Highest thanks, though, to my students for the support: Gemma, Laura, Lucybelle, Madison, Martin, Matt, Mel, Rose, Saba, Tim.

Dr James McGrath is a Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Leeds Beckett University. His book The Naming of Adult Autism: Identity, Ambiguity, Culture will be published by Rowman & Littlefield International in 2016.

Dr James McGrath

Senior Lecturer / School Of Humanities And Social Sciences

Dr James McGrath is Lecturer in English and Creative Writing. James’s recent book Naming Adult Autism is one of the first critiques of literary, cultural and medical narratives of autism to be authored by an adult diagnosed with this condition.  

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