Adults with Autism Gaining More Visibility in Media, Study Finds

There has been a push in recent years to have films and television shows be better representative of the society in which we live. For people with autism, media representation has traditionally focused on children, rather than adults. However, a new analysis finds that this may be changing.

Researchers at University of California Santa Cruz decided to follow up on the 2011 paper “Infantilizing Autism,” which found that characters with autism in books, films, and other media were overwhelmingly children, leaving out the stories of adults on the spectrum. The UCSC paper, published in the journal Autism in Adulthood, found that there have been small improvements in representation in film, television, books, media coverage, and advocacy organization websites. Changes like this may prove helpful in bringing awareness to the challenges faced by adults with autism.


Nameera Akhtar, lead researcher and UCSC psychology professor, says, “This is an important issue to track, because autistic adults often say it’s very annoying to them that autism is almost always depicted as having to do with children, and it’s like that is making them invisible. They talk about how it’s like they fall off a cliff when they turn 18, because there are very few resources available for them after that. But, of course, you don’t stop being autistic and needing accommodations when you become an adult.”

To gauge shifts in representation since the 2011 paper was published, the UCSC team looked at the websites of autism advocacy and charity organizations, as well as TV shows, movies, books, and news stories featuring people with autism. They found that among 49 state and regional chapters of the Autism Society of America, 20% of photographs on their websites of people with autism were adults in 2019, up from the 5% listed in the earlier paper. Additionally, 80% had resources or content for adults on the spectrum. The results were similar when the team examined the websites of 16 more organizations.

Among 124 movies and TV shows featuring characters with autism from 2010 to 2019, 58% were children, down from 68% in 2011. The team said this could be attributed to an increased effort by production crews to bring in more autism consultants.


There was also a slight improvement in books, though the numbers were still heavily skewed toward children. An analysis of 484 novels with autistic characters released between 2010 and 2017 found that 81% were children, a decrease from 91% in the prior review. The figures were slightly better when it came to books specifically for adults, with only 67% of the autistic characters being children.

In news, there was a more substantial improvement. When the team examined 90 print, television, and radio stories between April and May of 2020, 58% featured children. That was down significantly from 79% in 2011. However, the team did note that of the stories featuring adults, about a third mentioned the person’s parents.

Though the study found improvements in representation of adults with autism, the authors note that more work needs to be done.


Janette Dinishak, co-author and associate professor of philosophy at UCSC, says, “We need to see a continued increase in the number of representations of autistic adults, along with an improvement in the manner of that representation to reflect the heterogeneity of how autism manifests across a person’s lifespan. Autistic people need to be part of the conversation on how to improve that representation, and they also need to be given space to represent themselves.”

She says she also hopes to see more attention paid to the connections between autism and gender, race, ethnicity, and other social identities.

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