Representation in media is a powerful thing, especially for young kids who are developing their identities and understanding of how they fit into the world they’re growing up into. When we see people “like us”—whether that’s our gender, color of our skin, or a disability—in books, movies, and TV shows, we see them as examples of what we could be and what we can expect from the world.
By the same token, failing to see ourselves represented in media has a similarly powerful effect. It can lead kids to feel excluded or to think that there’s something wrong with them, that they don’t deserve the same starring roles in life as other kids.
A girl growing up watching Wonder Woman stand up for herself, kick butt, and save the day will feel empowered to dream bigger than a pretty dress and a happy ending. Likewise, a kid with autism watching a character on the spectrum navigating independence, romance, and self-discovery on screen like Sam does in Netflix’s Atypical will enter their teen years with much different expectations about what they can do and experience than a child who’s grown up without ever seeing a character “like them” portrayed on screen.
Simply put, the stories we tell and who we tell them about have power. Here are some TV shows and movies that you can watch on Netflix that give autism a starring role.
Atypical is a Netflix original coming-of-age comedy about Sam Gardner, a high school student on the autism spectrum who decides he wants to start dating. The eight-episode first season follows Sam as he begins to learn the social nuances of dating with the help of friends and family. The show also explores Sam’s relationship to his parents and sister, and how they each respond to Sam’s new independence.
The show’s writer and creator Robia Rashid worked with Michelle Dean, a professor at California State University who used to work at UCLA's Center for Autism Research and Treatment, to conduct research and achieve a more accurate portrayal of autism.
2. Asperger’s Are Us
A coming-of-age documentary, Asperger’s Are Us follows a comedy troupe of four friends on the autism spectrum as they prepare for a final performance. The real-life members of the troupe are outspoken advocates for autism rights activism. They have reunited their troupe following the breakup portrayed in the documentary, going on to perform more than 100 comedy shows in nine different countries.
Asperger’s Are Us is an honest and compelling portrayal of the challenges and triumphs of those on the spectrum that will inspire children with autism to see their uniqueness as a strength, not a weakness.
3. Louis Theroux: Extreme Love - Autism
Extreme Love - Autism is a documentary produced by the BBC that follows Louis Theroux (a British documentary filmmaker) as he visits the DLC Warren school in New Jersey, known as one of the best schools for autism in the country. During his visit, Louis meets students and their families to learn about how specialized intervention can change lives. In the process, he experiences the joys and struggles of living with autism. Spero families may especially enjoy getting a glimpse into a “day in the life” at another school for autism!
4. Wizard Mode
Funded by an Indiegogo campaign in 2016, Wizard Mode is a documentary about one of the best pinball players in the world—who also happens to have autism. In the film, Robert Gagno trains to master what is known in the pinball world as “Wizard Mode,” a hidden level deep within pinball machines that can only be unlocked by completing a series of lightning-speed challenges.
Meanwhile, Robert seeks to unlock his own personal “wizard mode” by seeking independence and learning how to balance his real-world responsibilities with the challenges of autism while maintaining his ranking as one of the top ten pinball players in the world.
The list of movies and TV shows that portray characters on the autism spectrum with accuracy, respect, and empowerment is still shorter than it should be. But it is growing, and this list is a good place to start.