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Beyond stereotypes: a historical analysis of how autism spectrum disorder is depicted in movies, 1962–2010
  1. M A Anjay1,
  2. V Palanivel2,
  3. J Palanivel3
  1. 1Respiratory Paediatrics, Great Ormond Street Hospital, London, UK
  2. 2Paediatrics, Chelsea & Westminster Hospital, London, UK
  3. 3Dermatology, Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital, Norwich, UK

Abstract

Aims Depiction of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in movies is an indicator of how this condition is perceived by the society.

We aimed to:

  • Identify all English language movies which depict characters with ASD.

  • Provide a descriptive history of autism as it is catalogued in these movies.

  • Describe the socio-epidemiologic and clinical traits.

  • Critically analyse any emerging historical themes.

Methods A standard database (Internet Movie Database, IMDB) was searched using keywords ‘autism’, ‘autistic’ and ‘Asperger's syndrome’. The same keywords along with ‘movies’, ‘film’ or ‘cinema’ were entered into two leading search engines. The results of these searches were combined and filtered for relevant movies. The plot synopsis and reviews were analysed. A MEDLINE search revealed minimal previous work on this subject.

Results 89 movies were identified, the earliest being in 1962. Nearly half of these were released in the last decade. The genres were predominantly drama (69%) and thriller (21%). The characters were mostly children (47%) and adolescents (11%). The male: female ratio was 2:1.

The movie categories were:

  • ‘Cure’ of autism

  • Being abused by society and finally finding redemption

  • Portrayed as a ‘freak’

  • Brilliance in selected areas

  • Liability to others causing them suffering

  • No central role in the plot

Many movies have concentrated on the extreme features of autism, with severe co-morbidities, thus reinforcing negative stereotypes. The parents are frequently shown as being unable to cope with the diagnosis. High functioning forms of autism (‘savants’) are given undue prominence. Some movies depict autistic characters being ridiculed and discriminated. A surprisingly large number, portray autistic children in the background of horror and gore.

Management of autism in movies has often centred on unconventional treatments particularly in the older movies. Parents are shown as being frustrated with the medical establishment. The multi-disciplinary approach to the care of autistic children is notable by its absence.

Conclusions There has been an increase in the number of movies depicting ASD. Our ‘historical’ review reveals that the depiction of ASD in movies is generally inaccurate, thus misinforming the public and reinforcing myths and stereotypes surrounding this condition.

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