Stepping Out Of The Shadows Autism And Popular Culture

“AUTISM has become to disorders what Africa is to social issues, the celebrity cause du jour.”

This introduction to a recent New York Times article captures the tension inherent whenever popular culture embraces a new cause. There is the potential for increased awareness and incredible opportunities to raise much-needed funds. But there is also the very real risk that the version of the situation communicated by pop culture will not accurately reflect the reality of the people living in that situation, a development that can cause more harm than good. As educators, it is important to remain aware of the role of pop culture in our students' lives and the ways in which popular conceptions and misconceptions of disability can affect our disabled students.

The article details the recent explosion of autism-related programming. For a long time, autism was one of many disorders that existed in the shadows, a little-known, little-understood problem for "others." The movie "Rain Man" shed some light on autism, but only recently has it truly entered the mainstream consciousness. In recent months, Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, and the crew of "The View" have all dedicated entire episodes to autism. At least two recent feature films focus on autism: "Snow Cake," which stars Sigourney Weaver as an autistic woman, and "Mozart and the Whale," a true story of an autistic couple. Making their way through the film festival circuit are two documentaries about autism, "Autism Every Day" and (no joke) "Autism: The Musical."

The article attributes the increased visibility of autism to 3 factors:

  • Celebrity Clout. As in many cases with increased visibility, celebrities have paved the way. (See, e.g., Leonardo DiCaprio and global warming, or Bono and HIV/AIDS) In the case of autism, the singer Toni Braxton, the mother of an autistic child, has done a lot to publicize autism.
  • Increased Diagnoses. Perhaps the biggest reason more and more people are aware of and interested in autism is that there are many more diagnosed cases of autism now than in the past. According to a February study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 150 children now are diagnosed with some version of autism. This is a tenfold increase in rates from the 1980s. The result is that there are many more autistic people, many more people who know autistic people, and therefore many more "stakeholders" in the public discourse over autism. Additionally, the medical community has embraced a much broader definition of autism to include more mild incidences like Asperger's Syndrome.
  • Symbolic Appeal. The article's final proffered explanation for the increase in pop culture references to autism is that the disorder is great fodder for Hollywood's sensibilities, namely its penchant for turning a person with challenges into a victim who can then be saved by the hero of the movie. Movies with autistic characters tend to present them as quirky people with exaggerated emotional problems. According to the author, the movies emphasize that "they" are just like "us." Instead of helping the audience understand the reality of living with autism, the movies end up focusing more on the people around them. Inevitably, the "hero" of the movie breaks through the emotional walls surrounding many autistic people and forges an emotional connection that redeems the autistic character and allows for a happy, Hollywood ending. This is certainly true of "Rain Man." (A notable pop culture exception to this unfortunate trend is Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, whose story of a (most likely) autistic boy ends on a relatively happy note but without selling out the character's condition to achieve it. Christopher does not suddenly give his father a hug.)

This article and the ideas in it are relevant to teachers of autistic children because it is important to know how the disorder is portrayed in pop culture so that we can know how the other students in our class are likely to understand the disorder. Just as we plan for likely misconceptions when teaching a new concept like division, we must also plan how we will respond to the likely misunderstandings of autism and other highly visible disorders.

One helpful way of counteracting Hollywood's distortions is to expose students to real-life examples of autistic people. With the higher profile in pop culture, there will be more and more stories like this one about autistic brothers who have become accomplished track athletes and this in-depth study of the relationships between autistic children and their non-autistic siblings. Making these stories the focus of a lesson on autism will go far in injecting some reality to this complicated topic.


James, Caryn. “Hollywood Finds its Disorder Du Jour.” The New York Times. 4 April 2007. 27 August 2007. <>.

This page was created by Dan Gordon