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Panel discusses depiction of autism in media

| Tuesday, May 1, 2018

To promote dialogue about how individuals with autism are portrayed in the media, the Master of Autism Studies Program at Saint Mary’s hosted a panel on the subject Monday night in the Duncan Student Center.

Dr. Michael Waddell, director of the Master of Autism Studies program, opened the panel with a discussion about the 1988 film, “Rain Man.” The film was among the first to feature an autistic protagonist, Waddell said.

“At that time, most people hadn’t even heard of autism, much less met someone who was on the spectrum,” he said.

Rosie LoVoi | The Observer
Experts speak on a Monday panel hosted by Saint Mary’s Master of Autism Studies Program about the portrayal autistic individuals in the media. Panelists emphasized the importance of avoiding stereotypes.

Waddell said while “Rain Man” helped introduce the public to autism, it popularized unrealistic stereotypes about the lives of people on the spectrum. After the film’s release, he said, autistic individuals were typecast as “savants” who were incapable of functioning in normal society.

“[Rain Man] was the image of autism for many years,” he said.

Waddell added that recent media portrayals of autistic individuals have challenged some, but not all, of these stereotypes. He advised individuals to be mindful of how the disorder is depicted in film and television.

“It’s very good for us to be reflective about the ways in which images of autism in the popular media are shaping all of our imaginations of what autism is,” he said.

Dr. Nancy Turner, chairperson of the Department of Education at Saint Mary’s, said documentaries play a particularly important role in educating the public about the disorder. She added that documentaries that feature the voices of autistic individuals are especially valuable.

“It highlights their views, that they’re fine, just the way they are,” she said. “That they don’t need to be fixed.”

Fictional works, she said, can also help combat social stigma by offering a more intimate view into of the lives of those on the spectrum. However, she added, individuals ought to be wary of how accurately the disorder is portrayed.

“While, again, there’s much that can be learned about autism from these shows, I think the viewer has to be cognizant of possible stereotypical portrayals,” she said.

Dr. Susan Latham, director of the Master of Science in Speech Language Pathology program at Saint Mary’s, said the media can help individuals without autism understand the daily struggles those with autism face, such as navigating social situations.

She said while watching the television show “The Good Doctor,” she noted that the protagonist, a physician with autism, is often portrayed as isolated from others.

“It always seems as though he is separate from the other group,” she said.

Latham noted that depicting such issues through film and television can help promote greater public empathy for those with autism.

Dr. Joshua Diehl, chief strategy officer for LOGAN Autism Services, said he worries that past portrayals of autism in the media media has focused too heavily on the disorder itself rather than on the individuals who have it.

“It’s very hard to find art that exists in which for that character, the autism isn’t the prominent thing in that story,” he said.

Instead, he said, the media ought to tell stories that represent autistic individuals holistically.

Dr. Juhi Kaboski, a faculty fellow for the Master of Autism Studies program, said it is important to remember the chief motivation behind producing a work of media is profit.

“All these movies are, at least a lot of the times, for profit,” she said. “They want to be entertaining.”

Kaboski added that this can often unintentionally cause misguided or insensitive portrayals of autism.

“[Media is] made to entertain,” she said. “In the process of doing that, I think they forget that people with autism are watching them.”

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About Mary Steurer

Mary is a senior sociology major and journalism minor from St. Louis. An aspiring religion reporter, Mary has spent the last year covering conversations about the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis at Notre Dame.

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