More autistic women on the screen could mean real changes in how autistic women are viewed.
By Stephenie Thorne
With more and more TV shows coming out featuring characters on the spectrum, it is seeming like we have made significant strides in Autism representation. Shows like The Good Doctor and Atypical both have autistic characters front and center of the show. So of course, it’s great that progress has been made autistic representation on TV. Seeing heroes and doctors who also happen to be on the spectrum is becoming quite common these days, and that’s a good thing. There’s only one problem: most of these characters are men.
Think back a couple years: when was the last time you saw an autistic woman on TV? There might have been a few, certainly not any characters that truly stood out. Furthermore, when was the last time you saw a woman on the spectrum who was a main character of the cast? My guess is you can only name one or two at most, maybe none if you don’t watch television often. For women on the spectrum like me, seeing ourselves represented on TV is next to impossible. We have to really seek out and search for TV shows that feature autistic women.
When looking for autistic female characters, there are few who have actually been confirmed to have been autistic in the actual show. Many have been stated to have been autistic by the writers, but as far as that being mentioned in the story or script it’s a rarity. Temperance “Bones” Brennan from Bones is believed by many to be autistic, but it’s never outright stated in the script itself. The actress who portrays Saga Noren from the Danish series Bron firmly believes her character is autistic, yet it’s never actually confirmed in the show. For those who don’t keep up with social media or cast interviews, they will have no idea these characters are supposed to be written as autistic. This lack of front and center autism representation for women can lead to some serious problems.
The “extreme male brain” theory for example, unfortunately still persists to this day despite being unproven. This belief that autism is a masculine diagnosis more common in men has led to autistic women being underdiagnosed and unsupported. Many autistic women do not get diagnosed later in life, thanks to stereotypes that autism is a male disorder or an oddity in women. The truth is autism in women is more common than we think, and it can actually manifest differently. So, what exactly does this all have to do with autistic representation?
For starters, the lack of autistic women on TV only helps reinforce the narrative that autism is a disorder for men. While we obviously should not rely on TV solely for our understanding of autism, unfortunately many of us still do. And if all the characters we see on TV are autistic men and never women, we might conclude that autistic women either do not exist or are a rarity. But we do exist. Plenty of women are on the spectrum and many more are undiagnosed.
The lack of awareness around autistic women has dire results. Many autistic women struggle with mental health issues like anxiety and depression. And since there is less understanding about women on the spectrum, many women are expected to hide their symptoms. This act of hiding our autism is often called “masking” or “camouflaging” can be harmful. It can lead to autistic women being ashamed of themselves and feeling out of place. With all these problems, it’s no wonder autistic women feel stigmatized and struggle to get a diagnosis.
But maybe TV can help change the culture around autistic women. If television writers start putting more autistic women on the screen, we might see more awareness about autistic women. We might even see more women seeing themselves in autistic characters and realizing they themselves might be on the spectrum. More autistic women on the screen could mean real changes in how autistic women are viewed. That’s why it’s so important that autistic representation of women increases.
It is crucial that autistic women see characters like themselves on TV, because it can affect how they see themselves. If young autistic girls saw more women on TV like themselves they might receive a boost in confidence and realize they are not alone. Furthermore, if these autistic characters are portrayed achieving success and making a difference in the world, it will show young girls on the spectrum that they too can accomplish great things. This sort of representation is crucial to helping young girls and women on the spectrum understand they are valued and able to succeed. Further, it helps debunk the myth that autistic women do not exist.
If we saw more autistic women on TV, it could transform how autistic women are viewed and seen. That’s why it would be revolutionary if we saw more autistic ladies on television. So, writers, if you’re considering writing a character on the spectrum, why not make them a woman? It would be something new, and it might just help autistic women have a better view of themselves. There are plenty of Shawn Murphys and Sam Gardners on TV, but few Saga Norens or Temperance Brennans out there.
Stephenie Thorne is an autistic student who currently resides in Denver, Colorado. She enjoys reading books and has a mild coffee addiction.