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An elementary school boy sits in front of a computer in his special education school while holding up a page of autographs.



Autism in Entertainment: 10 Shows That Show Up for Honest Inclusion

Autism in Entertainment:  10 Shows That Show Up for Honest Inclusion

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Television is the great escape.  We get to live vicariously and feel all the feels: joy, sadness, frustration, friendship, love, heartbreak, growing pains, success, failure, and perseverance. We experience life through someone else’s lens, all from the comfort of our own homes, seeing a bit of ourselves in the characters we watch. We relate to their frustrations. We root for them, we laugh and cry with them, and we want them to be happy in the end.

This is why inclusion in entertainment is so important. We all need characters we can relate to - characters that are like us - like someone in our family, neighborhood, or school. Including honest depictions of autism in television helps us all. It helps educate those with limited knowledge or understanding of autism, so that they will hopefully interact with acceptance and compassion when they encounter people who may think or behave differently than they do. It also helps those on the spectrum themselves to see that they are not alone. They have characters that they can root for, and see that the obstacles and successes they encounter may not be so different from their own.

While there is always a degree of drama and exaggeration in entertainment, this list highlights ten shows that attempt to include autism from an honest and authentic viewpoint. We have tried to exclude shows that are overly stereotypical in their portrayal of people on the spectrum, as many shows of that nature have been criticized by advocates of the autistic community for doing more harm than good. Our list is ordered from younger to more mature audiences. We hope you enjoy these shows as much as we do.

1. Pablo

This is an animated children’s comedy that is perfect for even the youngest of viewers. It features a 5-year-old boy on the autism spectrum, named Pablo, who uses his crayons to draw imaginary friends that spring to life. His friends go on adventures with him and help him overcome situations that make him feel anxious. The main cast of actors of this series are all on the autism spectrum and have even co-written some of the scripts. You can’t get much more authentic than that! “Pablo” can be seen on YouTube.

2. Sesame Street 

It’s no secret that “Sesame Street” is committed to educating kids about the value of our differences, and autism is no exception. In April of 2017 (Episode 4,715), the classic show introduced their first muppet with autism, named Julia. Julia is part of the show’s “See Amazing in All Children” initiative, which aims to celebrate and support kids with autism, as well as kids of all kinds. Check it out and learn more at Sesame Workshop.

3. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood 

As an animated children’s show modeled after the legendary “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” stands on a foundation of loving and understanding everyone just the way they are. In 2021 (Season 5, Episode 24) the show added a new character named Max. Max likes bugs, numbers, and buses. Sometimes he plays with others, but other times he prefers to play alone. He has a tough time with loud noises, flashing lights, and certain fabrics. Max is also on the autism spectrum. You can watch this darling show on PBS Kids.

4. Hero Elementary

This animated children’s show centers around four young superheroes who use their powers of science to solve all sorts of problems. One of these heroes, known as AJ Gadgets, is on the autism spectrum. The great thing about AJ is that his autism is not the focal point of his character. AJ is just one of the crew, and he happens to have autism. His autism is not directly mentioned all that often, but AJ does exhibit some characteristics, such as hand flapping when he’s excited, wearing noise-canceling headphones when he needs them, or not liking when his clothing gets wet. His friends are supportive and accept him exactly as he is. What a great message for 5-8 year olds. You can watch Hero Elementary on PBS Kids.

5. The A Word

This is a British family drama series centering around Paul and Allison Hughes, whose son Joe is on the autism spectrum. Season two of this show also introduces a young man named Mark, who is on the spectrum. Mark is played by Travis George Smith, an actor with autism. When interviewed about his role in the series, Travis said, “I love the realism of the show, I was a fan before I became a cast member. I remember watching it and thinking, ‘finally, somebody is telling my story’.” You can watch “The A Word” rated for ages 7+, on BBC One.

6. Parenthood 

This series, which revolves around the Braverman family, is a heartwarming drama with plenty of laughs and life lessons. While it can be viewed by the whole family, it does tackle some mature themes, so prescreening for young ones is a good idea. In the first season of this show, a young character named Max is diagnosed with Asperger’s. Much of the plot for Max’s family centers around how they begin to understand and navigate his diagnosis, as well as how it affects all of their lives. Max helps bring compassion and understanding to the often misunderstood behaviors of those on the spectrum. Check out this show, rated for ages 13+ on Peacock or Hulu.

7. Atypical 

This family comedy-drama centers around Sam Gardner, a teenager on the autism spectrum. Rather than being a show about autism itself, the show is about Sam, his family, his life, and his relationships. Sam is very intelligent and excels at his studies, but sometimes struggles with hyperfixation, interpersonal interactions, and changes in routine. While this show has received some criticism for Sam being played by a neurotypical actor and the content tending to lean toward more stereotypical depictions of autism, many agree that it also gets many things right. This show does explore some themes of a coming-of-age teenager transitioning into adulthood, so pre-screening is recommended for younger audiences. You can watch “Atypical” rated for ages 13+ on Netflix.

8. Love on the Spectrum

This reality show takes a close look at the romance, love, and dating lives of autistic individuals. Unlike many other dating reality shows, this show has a truly genuine, wholesome, nonjudgmental quality.  It shines a light on both the ups and downs that anyone can face in the dating world, while also highlighting the unique qualities and challenges of those on the autism spectrum. You can watch “Love On the Spectrum” rated for ages 14+ on Netflix.

9. Everything’s Gonna Be Okay

This hilarious, heartwarming, semi-dark “dramedy” centers around the life of a college student who suddenly becomes guardian of his two teenage half-sisters after their father dies of cancer. One of the sisters is Matilda, a young teen on the autism spectrum, Matilda is a gifted composer who has challenges with social cues and sharing information with complete honesty, even when it’s not always socially acceptable. She is played by actress Kayla Cromer, who also has autism. Furthermore, Josh Thomas, who created and stars in the show, is also on the spectrum. This show, rated 14+, is recommended for teens and young adults, as it does explore some content around sexuality. You can watch it on Hulu.

10. As We See It

This comedy-drama follows three Los Angeles roommates in their twenties who are all on the autism spectrum. While the show tackles very real and serious challenges that can affect people with autism, it is done in a way that is smart and truly hilarious. What’s more, all three lead characters are played by actors who are on the autism spectrum themselves. This show does an excellent job of depicting that no two people with autism are alike, and uses humor (sometimes dark humor) to foster true awareness and support. “As We See It” has a 16+ rating and contains mature content. You can watch it on Amazon Prime

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