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Autistic people are not framed well in the media: Why?

When we think about autism in the Autistic community, an infinite number of moving points coalesce to create countless individuals with a shared experience. One might argue that to be Autistic is to meet a certain set of limited criteria, but many of us understand that autism is more than a simple diagnosis. You can then understand our frustration with how our existence is framed in the media. From news outlets to Hollywood movies, our lives are interpreted in less than favourable terms time and time again.

Understanding the Autistic performance

Titchkovsky (2007) discusses disability as something we do. In this context, we not only are disabled; we do disability. Being Autistic can be viewed in much the same way. We do autism, we perform autistically. In my book A Treatise on Chaos I explore the Self as a moving a fluid entity. To belong to the Autistic community is to embody the Self in an Autistic way.

This means that to perform an Autistic embodiment, we are not constrained by another’s idea of what being Autistic is. We define autism as much as autism defines us. There is no wrong or right way to be Autistic.

How does the media undermine the Autistic performance?

“They finally knew what was wrong with their shy, diffident son who would one day shoot and kill 20 children and six adults…”

McCoy (2014)

The above quote is from a Washington Post article linking autism to mass murder. I wish I could say such stories are rare, but sadly the media is full of them. It seems that every time a mass atrocity is committed, there is a rush to pin the blame on neurodevelopmental differences or mental health issues.

This sensationalist and reductive approach to Autistic people strips us of our humanity. It not only others us, it creates a level of fear and stigma surrounding our existence. Media reporting like this makes us a potential threat to be contained by society rather than free agents with the potential to contribute to our world.

Why does the media portray Autistic people in this way?

The world fears inhuman acts. When atrocities happen, it is easy to look for a way to distance ourselves from them. One need never fear becoming a monster if what we see as monstrous is fundamentally different to us. Historically, autism has been a diagnosis for the improper human; thus, if Autistic people are the ones committing monstrous acts, then the every day person can rest in the knowledge that they will never become one.

There is more to it, though. Autistic, as an identifier, has gone through a sort of pejoration as our community fights for equitable rights. As we become more vocal, those with privilege slowly guide the consensus on the meaning of autism to become less human, less than human, inhuman. If we can be made into monsters, it is less likely that our rights will become undeniable.

How do Autistic people take back the meaning of autism?

Autistic people must seek to subvert pejorative ideas by demonstrating their undeniably human lives. We must work to restructure the foundations of our society so that the every day Autistic person can be openly Autistic in defiance of dehumanisation of our existence. We must show those fluid and moving parts of ourselves in a way that annunciates our inability to be contained by stigma and hatred.

More than anything, we must perform our Autistic performance in such a way that we reverse the pejoration of our identity.

Has TikTok become a modern day version of the freak show?

If you are active in disability communities, you have almost inevitably come across disability TikTok. Providing brief insights into the lives of disabled people, it is the fastest growing platform available for the dissemination of information, but is there a darker side to the virality of video’s relating to disability?

From Autism, to ADHD, to Tourettes. We are giving people our emotional label to see the world through our neurodivergent eyes; for no longer than 10 minutes at a time.

For many of us, it is a place to relate to one another and feel less alone, but what of those that watch us as “entertainment”? I myself use TikTok, and have been surprised at the number of people who clearly aren’t there to learn. I stay for those who are, but itakes me uncomfortable.

Our lives are not your entertainment.

We are real, human people, worthy of dignity and respect. Our attempts to show you this should not be fetishized and mocked. If you come to disabled TikTok purely to laugh at us; you are the problem.

I don’t exist purely to make you feel better about you’re own identity. I’m not your inspiration, and I’m not a museum exhibit in a cabinet of curiosities. My life has value, a value that can’t be measured in the monetisation of followers, or the number of people that use my struggles to inflate their sense of superiority.


If you come into disabled spaces sans disability, you need to be willing to sit and listen. My struggles are not an invitation for you to voice how grateful you are that you are not me. My strengths are not a source of income, or fuel for your secret desire that superheroes exist.

I’m not the concept of disability that you have in your head. I’m not a fucking concept at all. I’m a real person with a real life.

If you can’t treat me with dignity, then kindly stay out of our spaces.

Autistic representations in the media: The wider conversation

If Sia’s film did any good for the autistic community, it opened up a wider conversation about how autistic people are represented and portrayed in popular media. There are very few, if any, perfect representations. One could argue that this is an impossibility anyway, given the diverse nature of autistic presentations.

This has opened up the wider conversation of disability representation in general. One might think that in the “enlightened” 2020s, disabled actors have ample opportunity to portray their own disabilities on screen. Sadly, the vast majority of disabled roles are given to non-disabled folk.

My personal opinion on this, is that it comes from a place of ableism. The people in charge of casting assume that we won’t be able to handle the pressure of working in the media. To put it another way, they believe that non-disabled people are more capable of portraying us. Our capability is always in question.

This also highlights a greater issue. Media representations don’t care if their portrayal is authentic.

Autistic people especially have to sit through unrelatable characters, with what is usually rather offensive stereotyping. The people on charge of these projects don’t seem to do any more research other than the bare minimum. They don’t care if their portrayal is accurate, as long as it is entertaining.

We need to continue to put pressure on production companies to put disabled actors in disabled roles. We have the right to tell our own stories. Autistic people have cried out #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs for years. And it’s time that the world started listening.

Autistic people are not a stereotype. They are a beautifully diverse tapestry of human experience, and we as Autistics have a right to decide how that tapestry is shown to the world.

Nothing more, nothing less. We certainly won’t settle for less.

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