The entertainment industry is becoming more inclusive in its portrayals of neurodivergent characters.
Hollywood has made significant steps towards achieving greater diversity and inclusivity in recent years, but now producers and casting directors are breaking new ground in neurodiversity—an area that has historically been overlooked. Increasingly, audiences are recognizing a range of neurological abilities as just another variation of the ‘normal’ human experience. However, until recently, media portrayals of these conditions have been almost non-existent, and frequently inaccurate.
The previous void of neurodiverse onscreen talent reflects a broader workplace trend. Global data shows that unemployment rates for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which according to the CDC now affects about 1 in 54 children, are as high as 85 percent. Casting for the roles of characters with specific conditions has historically bypassed neurodiverse actors in favor of stars such as Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Of the 61 Oscar nominees and 27 winners playing a character with a disability in the history of the Academy Awards, only two were authentically depicted by an actor with a disability, according to an open letter signed by dozens of celebrities asking the entertainment industry to be more inclusive and work towards normalizing physical and neurological disabilities.
That’s starting to change. On July 10, comedy-drama Little Voice debuted on Apple TV depicting a character with autism, Louie King. King is played by actor Kevin Valdez, who is also on the spectrum. The show was co-created by Jessie Nelson, who wrote and directed the 2001 film I Am Sam, which featured Sean Penn playing a dad with an intellectual disability. Nelson told CNET News that at that time, he “was not allowed to cast an actor with a disability in the lead. I could barely get the movie made. It took me years and years and years to convince people that this was a story worth telling.”
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Netflix shook up its dating show line-up that same month with Love on the Spectrum, a documentary-style production that follows 11 young adults as they navigate the prizes and pitfalls of finding a partner. The show originally aired in November 2019 in Australia and was created by Cian O’Cleary, who, according to Fast Company, said he had the idea for the show after doing a docuseries on individuals with disabilities and their experiences with employment discrimination, when he discovered many had never been on a date before.
In the show, O’Cleary brings on a relationship coach who specializes in helping people with autism to guide the cast through the interpersonal and social rules of dating that many individuals with ASD would find challenging to varying degrees. He also makes numerous filming accommodations to cater to the needs of the cast—in one scene, a cast member breaks the fourth wall by signaling to the director she needs to take a break from a dinner date that was producing severe anxiety.
While Love on the Spectrum aims to educate viewers and eliminate stigma around autism, PBS’s new Hero Elementary gives neurodiverse young audiences a superhero role model to aspire to. The show focuses on a group of friends that includes AJ Gadgets, a fictional animated character with autism who embarks on science-driven adventures. The direction of the character was crafted in consultation with a 27-year-old with ASD, Dennis Taylor, who worked with the show’s Emmy-winning writer Christine Ferraro. (Ferraro also helped bring to life Julia, who, in 2017, became the first muppet with autism on Sesame Street.)
Earlier this month, Beacon College, a private university in Florida designed for neurodiverse students, launched A World of Difference on LakeFront TV. The show is designed to inspire, educate and raise awareness around the achievements and capabilities of those with differences in thinking and learning.
These efforts also extend beyond the world of television. In January, Universal Music in the UK published a handbook called Creative Differences which outlines what it’s like living with neurodiverse conditions and educates employers in the creative industries on integrating and supporting neurodiverse talent throughout all aspects of employment. The manual has a foreword by Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine, who is dyslexic, and is peppered with accounts of neurodiverse employees’ experiences in spaces ranging from museums to music. Designed to be accessible for everyone, Creative Differences features a muted color palette, larger fonts, and illustrations by Megan Rhiannon, who herself has autism.
“For too long we have only focused on what people with neurodiverse brains struggle with rather than their myriad strengths,” the UK’s Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said in a release. “Increasingly in the future we will need to harness what neurodiverse people tend to be good at: creativity, thinking laterally, and looking at problems differently. We will need these skills in abundance as the world of work changes and if we want to address major challenges like climate change.”
To that end, neurodiversity is also gaining ground thanks to a new generation of role models, from Billie Eilish to Greta Thunberg. These young icons are redefining what neurodiverse life and success looks like (Eilish has Tourette’s and Synesthesia, and Thunberg has Asperger’s). All of this points not only to a wider range of representation in the entertainment industry, but an increased awareness around neurodiverse individuals’ manifold talents and contributions beyond the trope of the rare savant.
Main image of Little Voices courtesy of Apple