Television characters with autism have come a long way over the years. When I was a kid, there was very little representation of children on the autism spectrum. Most autistic characters were resented as savants who could do almost anything.
While there is a broader representation today with more autistic traits being shown, the entertainment industry still has a long way to go to represent the autism community truly. Still, we will look at ten TV characters who help provide some representation for the autism community.
Julia – Sesame Street
Julia may be many children’s first introduction to an autistic TV character. Introduced in a Sesame Street comic in 2015, Julia quickly leaped to the television screen and was quickly identified to audiences as the first autistic character in the show’s history. On her debut episode, she demonstrated sensitivity to loud noises, and Big Bird had to be taught how to interact with her. When my wife and I first watched her debut with our older son, Jeremy, he quickly said Julia acted much like his younger brother, Joey. This was important because her television debut was not long after Joey was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and we were looking for a way to explain the situation to Jeremy. Julia and Sesame Street provided that way for us.
Abed Nadir – Community
Abed Nadir is a character who is not officially identified with Asperger’s syndrome. Still, in the pilot episode, a fellow character lashes out at him and tells him he has it. Throughout the rest of the series, it is heavily implied that Abed is autistic in some ways. Abed demonstrates echolalia as he often repeats the word “cool” between three to five times when he approves something. He also has difficulty with change. One episode shows two of his friends keeping him calm while a janitor adjusts the time for Daylight Savings Time. He also demonstrates an affinity for television and pop culture that extends beyond appreciation and almost into obsession. However, many episodes demonstrate that he uses pop culture to help him relate because he has difficulty understanding subtle emotional expressions.
Max Braverman – Parenthood
This has been praised as one of the better representations of the autistic community on television. Executive Producer Jason Katsims based this character on his experiences with his son. Throughout the show, Max demonstrates limited eye contact and honest and insightful looks at the world surrounding him. Many of his scenes are considered heart-wrenching because of how realistic they are for parents of children on the autism spectrum. The show also expands as the character ages, including the struggles of dating for autistic teenagers. It’s widely considered one of the most well-rounded representations of autism ever on television.
Dr. Isidore Latham – Chicago Med
Introduced in the second season of the long-running medical drama, Dr. Latham is eventually revealed to be autistic. While certainly brilliant in the clinical aspects of medicine, he often struggles with the social interactions known as “bedside manner.” His diagnosis allows the show’s creators to explore how someone can be adept at one aspect of their job while struggling so much with something others may find simple. One episode even tackles a controversial therapy to allow those on the autism spectrum to understand human emotions with which they may struggle temporarily. It opens up a lot of moral questions on the show, but it can also open up a lot of conversations for parents to have with their children, who may also struggle with human emotion.
Dr. Sheldon Cooper – The Big Bang Theory
Dr. Sheldon Cooper does not have an official diagnosis of autism, but he demonstrates many traits associated with autism spectrum disorder, specifically the outdated diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. In the show, he says he’s “not crazy,” and his mother had him tested. At the same time, many may see that as making fun of the autistic community; he has provided a sense of representation for some on the autism spectrum. Most notably, my oldest son, Jeremy, who has a formal diagnosis, sees much of himself in Sheldon.
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Dr. Shaun Murphy – The Good Doctor
Dr. Shaun Murphy is a surgeon identified as autistic on the hit ABC television show The Good Doctor. He is a gifted surgeon, but much like many other doctors presented as autistic characters, he struggles with social interaction. He has an eidetic memory, similar to Sheldon Cooper, and can remember minute details the most others wouldn’t catch. He’s somewhat of an example of television’s propensity to show autistic characters with savant syndrome, but he still provided positive representation for many on the spectrum.
Sam Gardner – Atypical
As the main character of the Netflix show Atypical, Sam Gardner represents an 18-year-old boy on the autism spectrum in this attempt at a coming-of-age series. While the show focuses on his entire family, it tackles numerous topics related to autism throughout the show. While the actor who plays Sam is not on the autism spectrum, and the show’s first season was heavily criticized for lacking autistic actors and writers, the show incorporated more actors and writers on the spectrum as it continued to ensure a more authentic story being told.
Jerry Espenson – Boston Legal
This autistic character presented a bit of a challenge to the autism community. Presented in a time when there wasn’t much representation on television, the character of Jerry Espenson had some moments on Boston Legal that demonstrated textbook autistic traits and some that were clearly exaggerated for dramatic effect. Jerry struggled with eye contact and social interaction but also focused intensely. Still, on the show, he also demonstrated moments of intense rage that aren’t consistent with what is known about most people on the spectrum. It was great to see someone on the spectrum as a lawyer for its time, but there have been better representations in the years since.
Dr. Spencer Reid – Criminal Minds
Another case of a heavily implied autistic character demonstrating what’s viewed as savant syndrome, Dr. Reid, was considered the group’s genius on the show Criminal Minds. While he’s never actually confirmed to be on the autism spectrum on the show, Matthew Gray Gubler has self-diagnosed the character with autism and other neurodivergences. Besides being very intelligent, Dr. Reid is also very blunt, often a trait connected to autism.
Sherlock Holmes – Sherlock
Often identified as the “world’s greatest detective,” Sherlock Holmes is known for his attention to detail, allowing him to solve almost any case. In the BBC series, “Sherlock,” it’s the first time the character is ever outright said to have some form of autism, with Watson identifying him as having Asperger’s syndrome. Sherlock actually described himself as a high-functioning sociopath, but he is hyper-focused and demonstrates many social insecurities consistent with people on the spectrum.
Autistic representation on television has come a long way, especially in the last decade. This list features everything from boys and young men coming of age to doctors, scientists, detectives, and lawyers. Some are good representations that will stand the test of time. Some were good at the moment but may not be looked upon as fondly as time passed. Still, they are a part of the growth the autism community needs and deserve to receive true acceptance. Television goes a long way and the evolution of autistic TV characters is an important step on that journey.