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Autism gaining greater visibility in films, TV

The film “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’’ features a protagonist, Oskar Schell, who exhibits mildly autistic traits. Associated Press

Premiering tonight on Fox TV is “Touch,’’ a drama centered on a mute, emotionally withdrawn 10-year-old named Jake who possesses genius-level math skills. Just released, meanwhile, is the film “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,’’ whose 10-year protagonist, Oskar Schell, exhibits mildly autistic traits. It earned an Oscar nomination for best picture yesterday.

Even as the American Psychiatric Association announced last week that it may restrict its definition of autism, a wave of movies, television dramas, and best-selling books is drawing pop culture attention to the mannerisms and behavior associated with the disorder. Whether the effect will prove beneficial - or trivializing and exploitative - is a matter of some discussion.


“To me, it’s wonderful - as long as it’s done correctly,’’ says Lori Shery president of the Asperger Syndrome Education Network, speaking of autism’s increasing visibility. As more content creators discover a personal connection to Asperger’s, for instance, they’re more likely to incorporate autistic characters into their story lines, Shery said.

People with autism typically lack social skills and have a hard time communicating. The condition is classified as a spectrum disorder, with those on the low end the most functionally impaired. Asperger’s syndrome, meanwhile, is a high-functioning form of autism.

In tonight’s episode of “Touch,’’ autism is only briefly mentioned, and the show’s creators maintain that the show is not about autism but about Jake’s supernatural abilities to “see’’ connections others do not. Still, the boy’s lack of social skills suggests he falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, which affects about 1.5 million Americans.

“Extremely Loud’’ - based on the 2005 Jonathan Safran Foer novel - makes no explicit connection to autism, either. Unlike the novel on which it’s based, however, it does contain a scene in which Oskar reveals he was tested for Asperger’s but never diagnosed with it.


Another TV series, NBC’s “Parenthood,’’ features an 11-year old boy with Asperger’s. His family’s struggles to help him adjust to daily life constitute a recurring theme on the two-year-old show. Characters with Asperger’s have also shown up in “The Big Bang Theory,’’ “Grey’s Anatomy,’’ and HBO’s feature “Temple Grandin.’’

Besides “Extremely Loud,’’ “Mozart and the Whale’’ (2005) and “Adam’’ (2009) are among recent movies with a story line involving Asperger’s. Novels such as Jodi Picoult’s “House Rules’’ have added to the overall picture as well, as have first-person accounts like David Finch’s new book “The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband.’’

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, it is perhaps fitting that these portrayals and others reflect a broad range of approaches to the subject. Since “Rain Man,’’ a 1988 film depicting an autistic adult with savant-like qualities, audiences and readers have been exposed to autism through many prisms, some fictional.

“It’s good to bring awareness out there, when 1 in 110 are diagnosed’’ with some form of the disorder, Finch said this week. But while autism has become “a hot-button issue’’ in pop culture, he added, not all depictions are deserving of applause. “You don’t want the quirkiness blown out of proportion.’’

According to Finch, it’s not exploitation if the intentions behind using a character with autism are good ones. As a device to jack up ratings, though? “That’s lame,’’ he declared. There’s room for seeing humor in the subject, he added, “but it has to be balanced with gravity, too. The bottom line is, we desperately want those human relationships’’ that are difficult to navigate for someone with Asperger’s.


Shery and others caution that no one approach is guaranteed to satisfy everyone, and that when characterization lapses into caricature, no one should applaud. Parents whose children are lower-functioning may not feel the way an Asperger’s parent might, she notes. To the former, “autism isn’t quirky or funny,’’ she said, whereas the latter are more apt to see depictions of Asperger’s as generally accurate.

Can a movie, TV drama, or novel not “be’’ about autism yet connect with audiences on that level? “Touch’’ and “Extremely Loud’’ may provide answers as they gain wider exposure.

For his part, Foer said he never thought of Oskar as autistic. “Which is not to say he isn’t - it’s really up for readers to decide,’’ wrote Foer by e-mail. “It’s not to say that plenty of descriptions of him wouldn’t be fitting, only that I didn’t have them in mind at the time.’’

Speaking with television writers in Los Angeles, “Touch’’ creator Tim Kring said that in creating Jake, he deliberately wanted the boy “cut off from the rest of humanity, someone who could neither speak nor be touched.’’ Kring acknowledged that these character traits “look a lot like a diagnosis of autism,’’ even if they weren’t meant to imply one.

Peter Bell is president of the advocacy group Autism Speaks and parent of an autistic teenager. The big change in public awareness has occurred over the past five years, according to Bell, when shows like “Parenthood’’ came along. “Most depictions have been pretty good,’’ said Bell. “And I think most families enjoy seeing autism depicted, as long as the focus is on the more positive aspects.’’


John Scott Holman, a blogger for Autism Speaks and Wrong Planet, likewise gives “Parenthood’’ high marks. He is exploring the topic of “pop autism,’’ as he puts it. Now that Holman, who lives in Kansas, has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, “it seems contagious,’’ he quipped. “It’s practically become trendy, a pop culture buzzword.’’

With that come potential benefits and problems, however. The more educated people are, the more likely they’ll see someone like himself not as “a label’’ but as a human being with real limitations, he notes. But if the portrayal is inaccurate, “People will bring preconceived notions of what I’m capable of. It objectifies me. And that’s frustrating.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.