Contrary to popular belief, autistic characters in TV and film are nothing new. The first instance of an autistic person being portrayed o-screen is popularly believed to be Amanda from the 1969 crime drama Change of Habit, starring Elvis Presley and Tyler Moore. Initially, the little girl is believed to be deaf, but is later diagnosed and stated outright to be autistic – a common misdiagnosis of the time and even today (Berke, 2021). While incredibly dated by modern standards, including long, uncomfortable scenes of Amanda’s “treatment,” the film has been praised for its accurate portrayal of what was known about autism at the time.
Despite the first on-screen autistic being a girl, however, recent discussions of autistic representation in TV and film – much like research into autism in general – is almost entirely dominated by male characters. Literature, both academic and otherwise, is saturated with discussions of Rain Man’s Raymond Babbit or The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper; male mathematical savants with poor social skills, whose traits portray them as “autistic enough to laugh at, but not autistic enough to represent the autistic community” (Gaeke-Franz, 2022, p.9). And while progress towards more positive representation is being made, there is still very little in regard to autistic women and girls and their experience on the spectrum.
The number of autistic characters in media is small and, when you consider the fraction of those that are female, autistic women rarely have opportunities to see themselves on-screen. This drought of representation has led many neurodiverse fans to take matters into their own hands; labelling characters as autistic themselves, regardless of official input. This practice is referred to online as “headcanonning” – creating an individual interpretation of a pre-existing piece of media, including its characters and overall story (Fanlore, 2022). The reasons for headcanonning a character as autistic can vary from explicit reasons, such as the characters behaviour, subtext, or simply their “vibes” (autisticheadcanons, 2022). Regardless of a fan’s reasoning however, autistic headcanons can allow neurodiverse audiences to further identify with their favorite characters, as well as feel more represented by the media they consume.
But this begs the question: how do actually autistic female characters compare to the characters audiences have claimed as autistic?
In 2022, I conducted a content analysis of eight female characters from a variety of movies and TV shows; four being confirmed autistic, four being popularly believed to be autistic:
- Isabelle (Mozart and the Whale, 2005)
- Renee (Loop, 2020)
- Entrapta (She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, 2018-2020)
- Julia (Sesame Street, 2016-present)
- Ponyo (Ponyo, 2008)
- Amelie (Amelie, 2001)
- Tina Belcher (Bob’s Burgers, 2011-present)
- Dr Temperance “Bones” Brennan (Bones, 2005-2017)
The characters’ behaviour, and how they are portrayed in general, was analyzed using diagnostic criteria from the DSM-5, as well as concepts from the Female Autism Phenotype (FAP) Theory – a recently developed model that aims to explain why autism manifests differently in women and girls. These include higher levels of masking (Hull et al, 2020); more “socially acceptable” special interests (Grove et al, 2018); and less notable social issues, usually as a result of the previous factors (Hiller et al, 2014). As the analysis continued, trends were identified amongst the sample, such as the presence of the savant stereotype, issues of morality, and romantic and sexual storylines.
From this, four key themes were identified: gendered autistic behaviour; sociability and relationships; empathy; and female autism as eccentricity. Each of which gave valuable insight into the differences between actually autistic and headcanonned autistic characters, as well as how autistic women are portrayed on a broader scale.
Looking at the findings, it would initially be safe to conclude that autistic females are portrayed in a primarily positive light. Each of the characters were shown to be highly empathetic, socially apt and display a variety of interests, careers, and personalities, aligning with FAP Theory. Upon first glance, this suggests that autistic females are not only portrayed positively, but are also accurate to real-life women on the spectrum. However, the characters present somewhat of a double-edged sword when looked at a little deeper.
In short, characters headcanonned to be autistic by fans reflected more of the autistic experience than characters intentionally written to be autistic.
For example, while all of the characters were portrayed to be social, only the headcanonned characters, such as Bones and Amelie, were shown to have difficulty with making friends and generally connecting with people. Confirmed autistic characters, Entrapta and Isabelle, discuss having social difficulties, but their troubles are not shown directly to the audience. While the FAP Theory does address autistic females being better socially, it also acknowledges the trouble they have maintaining and starting friendships (Hiller et al, 2014). By not explicitly displaying these characters’ social issues, creators limit the extent to which neurodiverse audiences can identify with them.
Similarly, the headcanonned autistic female characters were shown to openly display more autistic behaviours. Three out of the four confirmed autistic characters did not mention a special interest and, while the majority of the sample were shown to stim, the headcanonned characters displayed a wider variety of explicit self-stimulating behaviour, such as Tina’s iconic groaning and Ponyo’s bouncing.
The only exceptions to this were Renee and Julia, which raises its own unique point of discussion. There is something to be said about how the only characters to display explicit autistic behaviours were created for awareness. This, paired with how they are both shown to have higher care needs, perpetuates the idea that autism in females is mostly invisible and should only receive support if it manifests in an obvious fashion. On the other hand, there was a distinct lack of representation of females with higher care needs across both groups, which also reinforces the idea that autistic women are inherently “higher functioning.”
It was also difficult to determine whether the way female autistic characters were portrayed reflected how women are expected to behave by wider society. While a majority of the characters being in romantic relationships does subvert stereotypes of those on the spectrum being asexual, it could be argued that this is more to do with the characters being women. Romance is a frequently cited area of difficulty for those with autism (Slocombe, 2022) and, while characters like Isabelle and Amelie have exes or turbulent romantic pasts, a majority are in relationships by the end of their respective stories – even children like Ponyo. Mass media often prioritizes a woman’s marital or relationship status over other aspects of life (Signorielli, 1982). Thus, these relationships could be read as an expectation, not a subversion. As such, while media should not imply that those with autism are more likely to be alone, female autistic characters should be allowed to experience difficulty without expectations of their gender overriding their place on the spectrum.
Many conclusions could be drawn from my findings, but I believe the most important is how contemporary media’s small selection of autistic female characters is failing to representing real-life women and girls on the spectrum. While crumbs of accurate, authentic representation are there, it ironically comes from characters who aren’t technically on the spectrum, who grow to be beloved members of the community. TV and film seem to be afraid of allowing their female characters to outwardly display autistic traits, almost as if they are choosing between depicting them as a woman or someone on the spectrum, as if they are mutually exclusive.
It is near impossible for the representation of a particular group to be perfect. What may be classed as good representation to one person may be completely different to another. However, when the numbers are so small, when it is so hard to find yourself in the media you enjoy, the expectations for the characters that are supposed to be like you become much higher. Perhaps those in the media industry should start taking more notice of who their audiences are diagnosing.
Ly Stewart is a British BA(Hons) Broadcast Journalism and MSc Media Psychology graduate with 25+ bylines to their name. Ly’s mix of creative and analytical backgrounds have given them a passion for research, especially in regard to autism, media, and internet culture. Ly can be reached at email@example.com.
autisticheadcanons (2022) A blog for autistic headcanons, of course! Please read our links before submitting or otherwise interacting with the blog. Submissions… Tumblr. Retrieved from: https://autisticheadcanons.tumblr.com/
Berke, J. (2021) Autism and Hearing Loss in Children. Verywell Health. Retrieved from: https://www.verywellhealth.com/deaf-people-with-autism-1046724
Fanlore (2022) Headcanon. Fanlore.org. Retrieved from: https://fanlore.org/wiki/Headcanon
Gaeke-Franze, B. (2022) Rejection or Celebration? Autistic Representation in Sitcom Television. Studies in Social Justice, 16(2), 308-322. https://doi.org/10.26522/ssj.v16i2.2590
Grove, R., Hoekstra, R.A., Wierda, M. & Bergeer, S. (2018) Special interests and subjective wellbeing in autistic adults. Autism Research, 11(5), 766-755. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.1931
Hiller, R.M., Young, R.L. & Weber, N. (2014) Sex Differences in Autism Spectrum Disorder based on DSM-5 Criteria: Evidence from Clinician and Teacher Reporting. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 42, 1381–1393. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-014-9881-x
Hull, L., Petrides, K.V. & Mandy, W. (2020) The Female Autism Phenotype and Camouflaging: a Narrative Review. Rev Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 7, 306–317 https://doi.org/10.1007/s40489-020-00197-9
Signorielli, N. (1982). Marital status in television drama: A case of reduced options. Journal of Broadcasting, 26(2), 585–597. https://doi.org/10.1080/08838158209364027
Slocombe, A. (2022) How Autism Affects Romantic Relationships. Exceptional Individuals. Retrieved from: https://exceptionalindividuals.com/about-us/blog/how-autism-affects-relationships-what-to-expect/