Autism in Media: The Importance of an Accurate Portrayal

The topic of non-minority actors playing characters that come from a minority is certainly a controversial one. My personal opinions on it are mixed. Of course a white person playing a person of colour in this current climate is nothing but racist. Other than this, there are times, however, in my opinion, where this can work. Eddie Redmayne gave a fantastic performance in The Theory of Everything, where he plays Stephen Hawking who famously suffered from Motor Neurone Disease and had to use a wheelchair. This is an instance where I personally find it acceptable for an abled-bodied man to play someone who is disabled, simply because the whole point the film is to demonstrate the progression of the disease, which would be physically impossible with a disabled actor. There are other instances, however, when I feel that this is not the case.

Many people seeing the title of this article will think that I intend to write an article about Sia’s new film Music, where neurotypical dancer and up-and-coming actress, Maddie Ziegler plays a non-verbal Autistic character in a performance that many critics have labelled offensive. Although the release of the film has definitely inspired me to write an article on this topic, I will not discuss the film specifically. My reasoning for this, is that this would mean I would actually have to give up some time to watch the film, which in Sixth Year when free time is precious and should be treated as such, is not something I am prepared to do. Instead, I want to discuss the benefits of accurately portraying Autism in media and the positive effects this might have.

Probably the most practical benefit of casting Autistic actors is that it increases employment rates among Autistic people. Current statistics suggest that unemployment is rife amongst Autistic people. According to an article from the Law Society Gazette, in the US, a whopping 85% of Autistic college graduates are unemployed. In the UK, only 32% of Autistic adults have some form of paid work, with 16% of this being full-time. One Autistic person playing an Autistic character, is one more Autistic person earning money and paying taxes. From that viewpoint casting Autistic actors as Autistic characters is beneficial to the economy. Before someone points it out, don’t worry about the neurotypical actor who suddenly cannot play a part, he can play one of the dozens of neurotypical characters in the film.

When people discuss acting as an artform, they often make the point that actors should be able to portray whomever they please, that the whole point of acting is that you are playing someone who is not yourself. This is idea began in Ancient Greece where where actors used to wear masks to portray whomever the script needed them to portray. In essence, I agree with this stance and I feel that sometimes it can work really well. There is a sad truth, however, that even in the modern age, actors are often typecast even if they are not playing minorities. Take Robert de Niro, for example, an actor who despite trying to break into comedy films, has only ever received critical plaudits when he is portraying Italian-American men in dramatic roles. Of course this is not true of all actors, yet it is so common, that the actor who receives praise in a performance where they are finally playing against type ala Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, is becoming a stereotype within itself. Maybe, one day we will all live in a Utopia, where the likes of Morgan Freeman playing Donald Trump in a biopic will make perfect sense. Until then, however, I see no problem with hiring minorities to portray minorities. Acting is all about empathy, an actor must empathise with their character and understand them to give a truly great performance. Coming from a similar background as their character, naturally allows an actor to empathise with their character more. In other words, an Autistic actor portraying an Autistic character only guarantees a more authentic performance.

I think people who are not minorities, do not truly understand the importance of an accurate portrayal in film and screen. For a long time, I also struggled to come to terms with it. When I was diagnosed as Autistic, I really did not know a lot about the condition. I believed wrongly that mainly boys were Autistic and that Autistic people were good at Maths. I wasn’t aware of the emotional issues that come with Autism. I wasn’t aware of the eating issues that come with Autism. I wrongly believed that all Autistic people were like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, I believed that it was overall a negative thing, with few positives. Of course this only served to increase the isolation and loneliness I was feeling at the time. I felt like I had a part of myself that was so intrinsic to who I was, but I didn’t understand it. Social media improved this for me. I learnt the reality of being Autistic, that we are diverse group, that like any other cohort, we all have different experiences that shape who we are. Of course, it is hard to portray such a diverse group accurately on screen. Yet at least if an Autistic actor and even an Autistic writer are working on the film, the portrayal will be accurate to their reality of being Autistic. One of the most important things to understand about Autistic people, is that no two Autistic people are a like. An accurate portrayal of Autism in the media would have really helped me understand that at an earlier age.

Before I finish this article, I would like to emphasise the point that I am fully aware that plenty of people will disagree with me, this article is purely intended as an opinion piece. I would like however, for anyone who has got this far to consider this. Imagine this article was not about Autistic people in media, but Irish people in media. Take the recent film Wild Mountain Thyme, starring Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan. Both of them have atrocious Irish accents and many critics agree that the stereotypes portrayed in the film were genuinely offensive. I cannot comment from personal experience, this is yet another film I have not given my precious time to. In my opinion, however the outrage about this film, is the same as the outrage about Music. You simply have to swap Autistic people for Irish people. When you look at it in that context, you can understand why Autistic people want better representation. I am not suggesting that the answer to this is to boycott these films, all art has a right to exist and be seen by those who wish to see it. If you do wish to see it, however, you should be aware that the portrayal of a minority is not necessarily accurate and should not form your idea of what this minority is like.

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