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Friday, February 2, 2024

Autism on TV

Sauermilch, W.S., Ivey, M.L., Rasmussen, E.E. et al. Examining the Authenticity of Autistic Portrayals in US Adult and Children’s Television Shows Using Medical and Social Models of Disability. J Autism Dev Disord (2024).
Television programs have introduced viewers to characters on the autism spectrum (e.g., Sesame Street, The Good Doctor), impacting audiences’ knowledge and attitudes. Thus, it is essential that character representations convey accurate health information. This study explores how autistic portrayals across six adult and children’s television programs align with the medical (e.g., American Psychiatric Association in Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 5th ed., text rev., 2022, and social models of disability. A content analysis methodology was used to investigate defining characteristics of autism (i.e., medical model) and how characters navigated their environment (i.e., social model) in 252 scenes (across six characters in 22 episodes). Measures included the frequency with which autism characteristics (e.g., social-communicative difficulties, restrictive repetitive behaviors) were present across autistic portrayals and the valence (e.g., positive, negative, neutral) with which characters interacted with their environment (e.g., character and neurodiversity affirming valence). Findings indicate that (a) television portrayals depict social-communication difficulties significantly more than behavioral characteristics, (b) children’s programming portrays autistic characters with significantly more positive personal attributes (i.e., character valence) than adult programs, and (c) the majority of programs portray characters navigating autism in positive or neutral ways (i.e., neurodiversity affirming valence). Results offer stakeholders (e.g., writers, advocates, neurodiverse community) insight into how autistic characters are portrayed on television, adding to a growing body of literature examining how such representations impact public knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors towards individuals on the autism spectrum. Collectively, such studies highlight how changes in diagnostic criteria, legal protections, and social inclusivity are presented to viewers, who are seeking entertainment but gaining public health information.