A call for authentic neurodiverse representation

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In 2007, I was introduced to autism. I was a huge “America’s Next Top Model” fan, and I watched the show religiously nearly every Wednesday night, starting with the season “Cycle 9.” Instantly, my favorite participant of the season was Heather, an awkward 21-year-old on the autism spectrum with long black hair and a quiet demeanor, which, considering the participants that season, was a good thing (anyone who watched “Cycle 9” remembers how much personality there was in that cast). The irony was, at first, she was my favorite only because she had long black hair as I did. Little did I know, Heather had a lot more in common with me than I realized.

Flash forward to 2012: I’m a freshman in high school sitting in my annual Individualized Education Plan meeting. I ask them about the paperwork they handed me, and they tell me the truth: I have pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, or PDD-NOS. Of course, now all autistic diagnoses are reduced to being called “on the autism spectrum,” but for the sake of the article, it’s PDD-NOS. When I looked up PDD-NOS online, I saw a list of symptoms, and suddenly everything made sense: I did use things such as pens and jewelry as toys, and I did talk to myself a lot. There wasn’t anything wrong with me; I just had this disability. Knowing this part of my identity helped me understand myself and also led me to think about how I could help other members of my community.

Even before I knew about my own autism identity, whenever I saw autism portrayed in the media, two things stayed consistent: The characters were male, and the actors portraying them were neurotypical. Since 1988, with Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” this representation has dominated portrayals of autism. From “Parenthood” to “Atypical” to “The Good Doctor,” characters with autism have been predominantly white cisgender males who are seen as super-geniuses. Not only does this neglect the majority of the community, but it creates the false idea that people with autism aren’t really humans.

Having neurotypical people represent neurodiverse roles feels belittling to me. It reduces something so complicated, so nuanced, so weird and beautiful, into a personality trait. Suggesting that autism is a definitive personality trait that anyone can portray, even if they aren’t autistic, isn’t authentic representation. Especially when the media just shows male neurodiverse characters, it feels like I’m not being seen; it feels like I, along with many neurodiverse women, don’t matter in the bigger picture. But we exist; we’ve always existed. You’ve just never bothered to look for us.

Proper neurodiverse representation is even more important for people who are unfamiliar with the autism community. I am familiar with the community because, with my brother being on the spectrum too and my father being a parental ally, I was surrounded by its members. But not everyone is going to be under these same circumstances. Until the end of high school, somebody’s only exposure to the community might be students in their classroom. Some people may never form relationships with people on the autism spectrum. Some people may never meet neurodiverse individuals at all. They can only go off what they see in the media. And so, neurodiverse characters need to be as complex and developed as neurotypical representations are.

In 2019, things started to look up. As I was writing my senior thesis on activists with autism such as Greta Thunberg, I was informed of the Freeform show “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay.” The show itself I didn’t give much thought to, but one character piqued my interest. Kayla Cromer was to play one of the main characters, Matilda. And for the first time in my life, I got to see not only a female neurodiverse character but one that is portrayed by an actually autistic actress. Naturally, I was ecstatic. I was finally going to have some representation that was coming from a source of authenticity. It didn’t feel insincere. And the show does make the effort to create a balance between addressing the nuances of her having autism and making Matilda’s personality be more than just her autism. Matilda just wants to have a normal life and pursue her interests, just like many other neurodiverse women do.

Yet, characters such as Matilda are only a start. Cromer can’t become the default token neurodiverse actress in Hollywood, far from it. She is a cisgender white woman and only represents one part of the spectrum. Despite the slim pickings of Hollywood in the last 30 years, autism is intersectional. There are women of color who have autism, LGBTQ+ women who have autism, Muslim women with autism, women with autism who also have other disabilities, both physical and mental. Neurodiverse representation will not be complete until it is fully intersectional — until there are neurodiverse characters in all forms of media who represent the broader spectrum and are portrayed by neurodiverse actors.

What I hope is that, thanks to Thunberg and Cromer, female neurodiverse representation will start to become more mainstream. I hope that the entertainment industry will start to show the neurodiverse community as humans. And it isn’t just for me; it’s for the future generations of neurodiverse members who will want to see themselves in the media as well. It is time we got to see ourselves as ourselves, no filters whatsoever.

Anna Bernick is a UC Berkeley graduate, advocate for disability rights and champion of neurodiverse representation.