Characters with Autism Featured in Popular Culture
There are a variety of shows that have evolved to be more inclusive by including neurodiverse characters. These shows specifically feature extraordinary characters with autism that are positive and more importantly, accurate representations of people with autism. The characters portrayed in these shows can make friends, solve problems, learn something new and teach others about their likes and dislikes.
Neurodiverse characters are a tangible, physical representation of how neurodiverse children can participate, engage, and expand their worlds. They also help to teach neurotypical children how to interact and play with peers and friends that may experience life and situations a little bit differently than they do. These shows and characters have been thoughtfully designed to educate and benefit children (and adults) of all ages.
To help prioritize how to spend screen time, we’ve compiled a list of outstanding shows featuring a character with autism that you may be interested in watching soon.
Julia, Sesame Street
When Julia was introduced to Sesame Street in 2017, she was their first new character in ten years. Julia has demonstrated to her friends how things are a little bit different for her. She’s really smart, but sometimes doesn’t respond to questions the first time that they’re asked and can have a hard time making eye contact with people. Julia has also shared that sometimes loud noises can be unpleasant for her. She’s really talented at spotting patterns and has made huge strides in making friends. Julia has helped her friends and viewers learn about differences and acceptance.
Max, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood was inspired by Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, and uses musical stories to teach viewers important lessons. The show follows Daniel Tiger and his friends as they learn and develop new skills. Max is a four year-old boy who has autism, and is even voiced by an actor with autism! The show creators even crafted Max after him to present a more authentic character that was reflective of him in real life. He shares with his friends that he doesn’t like loud noises or lights that are too bright. Max also takes some extra time to reply to questions. In one episode, Max and his aunt create a book with pictures of a classroom before he went to school, so that he would know what to expect once he got there. Scenarios such as this are reflective of the day-to-day experience of a child with autism.
AJ Gadgets, Hero Elementary
Hero Elementary follows a group of students who all have superpowers. AJ Gadgets, one of those students, has the special power of projection. This allows him to visualize his own thought processes which makes him a great addition to the student team with strategizing and solving problems. Like Julia in Sesame Street, AJ Gadgets doesn’t like loud noises, and he also really dislikes wet clothing. He’s very attached to his backpack – once, when he misplaced it, he displayed that he was overwhelmed by flapping his hands, a response seen in some children with autism. It’s wonderful to see AJ Gadgets be included in such a smart, talented, and problem-solving group of students.
Bruno the Brake Car, Thomas and Friends
Thomas and Friends is the most recent show to announce the addition of a character with autism by introducing Bruno the Brake Car this past September. The show creators went to great lengths to ensure Bruno’s portrayal was accurate, working with Autism Self-Advocacy Network, a non-profit organization that is run by individuals with autism. There’s an intentional emphasis put on Bruno’s strengths – that he enjoys structure, such as knowing all of the train schedules and where each train track leads to. The show aims to portray a positive role model who is a critical part of a team.
Ben, Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum
Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum is a show filled with adventures that follows Xavier, Yadina, and Brad. In each episode, they go to the Secret Museum and time travel to learn from key historical figures. After they’ve learned a lesson, they return to the present day to apply these lessons in real life. In one episode, they travel back in time to visit Temple Grandin, a world-renowned professor, author, and autism activist who is also an individual with autism herself. She teaches the group that she does things differently than they do. Temple likes to communicate with soft words and have people speak one at a time. She also doesn’t like loud noises and does things like fly a kite in her own way. When they travel back to present day, they use these skills to befriend a new student, Ben, who has autism. They were prepared with information to approach and include him, thanks to Temple’s guidance.
For Parents or Older Children
Dr. Shaun Murphy, The Good Doctor
The Good Doctor follows a surgical resident with autism, Dr. Shaun Murphy, while he works to prove himself at St. Bonaventure Hospital. Dr. Murphy has extraordinary medical gifts and talents and has to show his colleagues that his methods will indeed save lives. He also sees and thinks in pictures, which are helpfully visualized with the addition of graphics throughout the episodes. The Good Doctor dives into the challenges that individuals with autism face in the workplace with their colleagues, bosses, and clients. It also touches on the fact that many individuals with autism have difficulty expressing empathy and the obstacles that he faces when speaking with patients and their families in the hospital. Further characteristics that he demonstrates are difficulty keeping eye contact, playing with his hands when he’s stressed or overwhelmed, and social awkwardness. Dr. Murphy is a multi-faceted representation of an individual with autism successfully navigating life as an adult, specifically in the workplace.
Max Braverman, Parenthood
Parenthood follows the very large, extended Braverman family. Throughout the series, we follow Max, who is an individual with autism, as he navigates life from a child to a teenager with his parents, siblings, classmates, and friends. The actor who portrays Max would meet with a doctor who specializes in working with children with autism to discuss mannerisms, reactions, and physical responses to different scenarios to ensure that the representation was both accurate and positive. Max is highly intelligent, makes astute observations, blunt in his matter-of-fact way of speaking, and experiences social awkwardness. The show dives deep into his development as a teenager, wanting to be like other kids while knowing that he’s different, and the frustration this creates for himself and those around him. Parenthood displays how a child with autism affects and impacts not just the nuclear family, but also extended family and friends, and how support and understanding is needed from everyone – not just family.