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Autism in pop culture: Famous characters with autism

Ahead of the release of Netflix show ‘Atypical’, we take a look at how the austism has been represented over the years

  • Mumbai: Taaha Shah during the Filmfare Glamour and Style Awards 2016 in Mumbai on Oct. 15, 2016. (Photo: IANS)Image Credit: IANS
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From Hollywood’s Rain Man to TV’s Sesame Street recently announcing a new autistic muppet, pop culture has had increasingly sensitive portrayals of characters with autism. We look at major characters from films and TV that have contributed to creating awareness about the condition.

HOLLYWOOD FILMS

Who: Raymond Babbitt

Film: Rain Man

Played by: Dustin Hoffman

About: One of the first films to explain or talk about autism, Rain Man was instrumental in educating filmgoers about the various tics associated with autism spectrum disorders. The film follows “autistic savant” Raymond Babbitt (famously portrayed by Hoffman) and his selfish brother Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) who must learn to get along after the death of their father.

Who: Luna Lovegood

Film: Harry Potter trilogy

Played by: Evanna Lynch

About: The eccentric Ravenclaw student and friend to titular character Harry Potter, Luna Lovegood, is looked up to by those in the autism community for her various positive and empowering qualities. She is often portrayed as someone who notices what others might typically miss, pointing to a quality that a lot of people on the autism spectrum possess: attention to detail.

Who: Billy Cranston

Film: Power Rangers

Played by: RJ Cyler

About: A major win for intersectional diversity, the rewriting of Blue Power Ranger Billy as a black kid on the autism spectrum was unanimously appreciated by fans and critics. While his unique traits such as his tendency to ramble off-topic or revealing deep and personal secrets in a non-intimate setting set him apart from the other Rangers, he was also portrayed to be the moral and emotional centre of the group.

Who: Christian Worlff

Film: The Accountant

Played by: Ben Affleck

About: Ben Affleck’s public accountant Christian Worlff is not only a genius number cruncher and assassin with military-level training, but is also autistic. The film was criticised for rehashing the autistic savant trope that Hollywood films love to revist. In reality, a relatively small number of people on the spectrum possess extraordinary abilities, so often shown in films like The Accountant.

BOLLYWOOD FILMS

Who: Jhilmil Chatterjee

Film: Barfi!

Played by: Priyanka Chopra

About: The film was praised for its efforts in mainstreaming people with disabilities since two out of three lead characters were differently abled — Jhilmil (autistic) and Barfi (deaf and dumb). The two are seen going on an adventure across cities and eventually fall in love and marry.

Who: Rizwan Khan

Film: My Name is Khan

Played by: Shah Rukh Khan

About: While Khan’s portrayal of an autistic middle-aged man was criticised as being too heavily caricatured, the film also went on to show him lead a normal life as a married man with an adopted son. He’s also shown travelling across the US by himself and eventually meeting with the US President.

Who: Buddhi Kumar

Film: Apna Asmaan

Played by: Dhruv Piyush Panjuani

About: Parents Ravi and Padmini are concerned about their son Buddhi’s slow learning. After an accident involving a miracle cure that backfires, Buddhi’s parents learn to accept their son for what he is. The film went a long way

in talking about acceptance and guidance of chidlren with developmental disorders.

TV SHOWS

Who: Abed

TV show: Community

Played by: Danny Pudi

About: Young film student Abed is heavily influenced by pop culture and compares his day-to-day activities and conversations to movies or TV shows to gain distance from his social awkwardness. Beyond a film buff, he’s also a clever observer who’s considered to be the smartest in the group.

Who: Max Braverman

TV show: Parenthood

Played by: Max Burkholder

About: Eight-year-old Max Braverman’s bluntness and funny observations often startle the Braverman family as he grows up. He does his best to present himself as a normal kid but his poor communication skills gets in the way. Yet, it doesn’t stop him from running for student council president elections in his school and eventually winning it.

Who: Sheldon Cooper

TV show: The Big Bang Theory

Played by: Jim Parsons

About: Although showrunners have categorically denied that Sheldon Cooper, a Caltec theoretical physicist, is on the spectrum, many of his characteristics (OCD, inability to grasp social customs and rigid timekeeping) are used as fodder for humour, for which the show has continually received backlash.

COMICS

Who: Rorschach

Comic: Watchmen (DC Comics)

About: Rorschach, an anti-hero detective who was part of the Watchmen, was described as a bright student in literature, math, political science and religious education. Willingness to take action by himself and having a black and white thinking about the world prevents him from revealing his identity.

Who: Reed Richards

Comics: Fantastic Four (Marvel)

About: What was previously only a fan theory became canon when Fantastic Four: Season One, released in 2012, showed Fantastic Four founder Reed Richards admitting that he ‘self-diagnosed a mild case of autism.’ This is followed by Richards working towards developing a cure for it. While a notable Marvel character admitting being on the spectrum has been applauded, the self-diagnosis has been seen by many as problematic.

—Viraj Asher is an intern at Gulf News.

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