Autism in Movies and TV Shows: What to Know Before Watching

April 25, 2024

For audiences seeking better representation of autism in film, diversity initiatives have finally arrived in Hollywood. Historically, award-winning films like Rain Man (1988) and Temple Grandin (2010) introduced autism spectrum disorders into stories, however, they also sparked debates about the ethics of using autism as a plot device. In recent years, there has been a greater emphasis on authenticity and diversity in autism representation, with filmmakers consulting individuals with autism and their families to ensure accurate portrayals.

There have also been greater opportunities for autistic actors, with films like Champions (2023) casting autistic actors, as well as actors with disabilities. It has also been long speculated that many Star Trek characters are autistic, such as Spock and the Vulcans, but this has never been confirmed. 

autism in movies and TV shows
The cast of Champions via Rotten Tomatoes.

While recent films like The Accountant (2016) and Music (2021), have faced criticism for their portrayal of autism, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of accurate representation in film, both in terms of raising awareness about autism and promoting acceptance and understanding of individuals on the spectrum. 

Autism in Movies and TV Shows: What to Know Before Watching

While representation of autism has improved over the years, it’s important for audiences to understand that not every portrayal of autism will be accurate. Some of the best-known films depicting autistic characters use actors who do not have autism, and regardless of any consultants or training they may use to prepare for a role, it does not mean they can fully encompass the experience of being autistic. 

Here is a balance of films featuring autistic actors, characters, and stories of autism.

How to Dance in Ohio (2015) and (2023)

The documentary How to Dance in Ohio (2015) tells the story of a group of autistic students preparing for their Spring Formal. Throughout their preparation, they practice their social skills and dancing. The film was adapted into a Broadway play and ran on Broadway from  2023-2024.

The show featured performers with autism, including Amelia Fei, Desmond Luis Edwards, Madison Kopec, NYFA Musical Theatre alum Conor Tague, Ashley Wool, Imani Russell, and Liam Pearce. Tague also performed in the iconic Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade!

Being Michelle (2022)

Being Michelle is a feature documentary about a deaf and autistic woman who was incarcerated, and had to navigate an unaccommodating justice system. The award-winning film, co-produced by film instructor Denise Hamilton, screened at the 6th annual ReelAbilities Film Festival in Los Angeles on May 4th.

Today’s Man (2006)

Today’s Man describes the journey of Nicky Gottlieb, once hailed as a child prodigy, who receives a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome at the age of 21. The hit documentary film shows how Nicky struggles to step outside the safety of his family and find his place in the world, and explores Nicky’s day-to-day life. The film was directed by NYFA Documentary instructor Lizzie Gottlieb.

The Reason I Jump (2020)

Based on the novel and directed by Jerry Rothwell, The Reason I Jump tells the story of nonverbal autistic people all over the globe. The documentary film brings the audience right into their day-to-day experiences, providing a one-of-a-kind insight. Winning the 2020 Sundance World Cinema award in the Documentary category, the story encapsulates what it’s like for someone who is nonverbal to find alternative forms of communication and expression. 

Rain Man (1988)

Rain Man was one of the earliest films to have a character with autism. The film doesn’t represent everyone with autism, it did help audiences understand autism better and helped shift the stigma about it. In the film, Tom Cruise plays Charlie Babbitt, who finds out his estranged brother Raymond has inherited their father’s fortune. Dustin Hoffman, who is not autistic, played Raymond, a man with savant syndrome. Hoffman was widely praised for the performance and won the 1989 Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Autism: The Musical (2007)

Autism: The Musical (2007) is the story of five autistic children making and performing in their own musical production. The Emmy-award-winning documentary, directed by Tricia Regan, gives a real glimpse into what it’s like to have autism while celebrating autistic performers. In 2020, a sequel, titled Autism: The Sequel, was released. The story revisited the original performers more than ten years later. 

The Horse Boy (2009)

The Horse Boy, based on the autobiographical book, is a documentary feature film about an autistic boy, Rowan, and his strong connection to horses. Upon realizing that Rowan is soothed by horses, his father, Rupert Isaacson, and mother, Kristen, decide to bring him through Mongolia for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Along the way, the family finds healing and inspiration, departing the journey stronger than ever. 

As We See It (2022)

The Amazon series As We See It (2022) featured lead actors all on the spectrum, all playing characters who also have autism. “Everybody has their own deficiencies and strengths, and this show does a really honest job capturing that,” said star Rick Glassman. To Glassman’s point, the series showcases how everyone with autism experiences it differently. 

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011)

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) told the story of Oskar, a nine-year-old autistic child who lost his father in the September 11th attacks. While the actor portraying Oskar, Thomas Horn, was not autistic, he was applauded for his acting. Notably, he had relatively no acting experience. Based on and adapted from the novel, the film is a heartbreaking and bittersweet journey through a child’s experience with a tremendous loss. 

I Am Greta (2020)

The 2020 documentary film I Am Greta follows iconic environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Thunberg is open about her diagnosis and in addition to advocating to fight climate change, she also considers it to be a “superpower”, challenging critics. 

Greta Thunberg, via The Washington Post

“When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning!” she wrote on her Twitter/X account in 2019. “I have Aspergers and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances- being different is a superpower.”

Atypical (2017 – 2021)

The hit television show Atypical followed Sam, a young adult on the spectrum who seeks independence. Wanting to find a girlfriend and assert his individuality, Sam sets out on his own on a quest for self-discovery, changing his family dynamic along the way. Starring Keir Gilchrist, who is not autistic, the series received some criticism for its portrayal of autism. The series did cast autistic actors throughout its run after audiences noticed the lack of representation in season one. 

Jack of the Red Hearts (2015)

Directed by the executive producer of Autism: The Musical, Jack of the Red Hearts follows Jack (AnnaSophia Robb), a teenage con artist, who talks her way into becoming the caretaker of a young autistic woman (Taylor Richardson). Richardson is not autistic but was hand-picked by director Janet Grillo, who was determined to find a young actor who could accurately portray the autistic experience. While not based on a true story, Jennifer Deaton wrote the script based on the experiences of her autistic brother and niece. 

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (2013)

This film from acclaimed director Sam Fleischner followed an autistic teen lost in New York City, fighting a ticking clock as Hurricane Sandy approaches New York. Played by an autistic actor,  Jesus Sanchez-Velez, the film was called “terrifically conceived and executed” by Variety, and nominated for several awards. 

Cha Cha Real Smooth (2022)

Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson star in the Apple TV film Cha Cha Real Smooth. The film follows a Bar Mitzvah party host stuck in arrested development, Andrew, who meets a young woman, Domino (Johnson), and her daughter, Lola, who is autistic. After being hired as Lola’s babysitter, Andrew forms a bond with her and her mother, leading him to question his future and life path. 

Temple Grandin (2010)

Starring actress Claire Danes as the titular character, Temple Grandin (2010) is about the famous autistic scientist and animal behavioral expert. The TV movie won five Primetime Emmys including Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie for Danes. As one of the only biopics about someone with autism, the film told the story of Grandin’s successes going beyond solely her diagnosis. 

Love on the Spectrum (2019)

This Netflix reality dating show, following in the footsteps of shows like The Bachelor and Love is Blind, focuses on participants on the spectrum looking for love. In lieu of the regular reality show drama is a focus on each person’s individual experience with life on the spectrum. The heartwarming show has resulted in long-term partnerships with some of the participants and has helped audiences get a better understanding of autism. 

Life Animated (2016)

This documentary explores the world of a young man, Owen, with a love of animated films, mainly Disney movies. Written by Owen’s father, the film shows how his family connected with Owen through his passion, using animation as a catalyst for communication. The film is based on his father’s book, Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism.

SparkShort’s “Loop” (2020)

Pixar made history with the short film Loop, released in their SparkShorts series. The episode introduced their first character with autism and told a beautiful story of friendship and understanding.

A scene from Loop via IMDB.

Following the success of shorts such as Out, Pixar continues to prioritize diversity in its content, ensuring that storytelling is for everyone. 

Additional Examples of Autism in Movies and TV Shows

There are a number of films and television shows with depictions of autistic characters and stories. While this is not an exhaustive list, here is a range of additional inclusive entertainment. Please note that some items on the list may have varying representations of autism. 

Mary and Max (2009)
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
After Thomas (2006)
Please Stand By (2017)
The Story of Luke (2012)
Citizen Autistic (2013)
The Good Doctor (2017)
I Am Sam (2001)
Mercury Rising (1988)
Adam (2009)
Snow Cake (2006)
Mozart and the Whale (2005)
The Black Balloon (2008)
A Boy Called Po (2006)
Dina (2017)
Asperger’s Are Us (2016)
The Drummer and the Keeper (2017)
Hannah Gadsby: Douglas (2020)

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