‘You can’t judge a person by their looks. But once you know the other person’s inner self, both of you can be that much closer. From your point of view, the world of autism must look like a deeply mysterious place. So please, spare a little time to listen to what I have to say. And have a nice trip through our world.’ ~ The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida
Asperger’s & Me (BBC, YouTube) and Inside Our Autistic Minds, Chris Packham (BBC)
Since receiving his autism diagnosis in his 40s, Chris Packham has gone on to do two documentaries that I must say are both brilliant. His first documentary in 2017 called Aspergers & Me looks at his own experience of autism as well as delving into the topic of autism itself which takes him on a journey to America. There he witnesses some therapies, a school and businesses that are aimed at including autistic individuals. Some of these establishments are positive such as the companies offering career opportunities and are helping lead the way to a world equipped for both autistic and neurotypical people equally, whereas places like the school have some very problematic outlooks, despite their intentions to care for children. This documentary helped open my eyes and played a big part in me researching autism more, plucking up the courage to get a diagnosis myself, so I will always be very grateful to have seen it.
His second and most recent documentary that aired on the BBC called Inside Our Autistic Minds is a two-part series following the lives of four autistic adults, all of whom experience autism in a way that is individual to themselves. Each person takes part in creating a film to share with their family, friends and peers, communicating their reality of being autistic to help others better understand their daily lives and how they experience the world around them. From focusing on areas such as masking, being non-speaking, experiencing sensory overload, social isolation and the need for routine, the show covers some vital areas when discussing autism. I love that the show is so inclusive and diverse – something that is much needed in general and especially when talking about autism, as so often autism is portrayed as a condition that stereotypically effects white males. The show delves right into the world of autism in a way that is wonderfully unmasked and honest.
[If you’d like to watch Chris’s first documentary I think it’s now only available on YouTube, and the link to his recent documentary on BBC iPlayer is here]
The Reason I Jump, directed by Jerry Rothwell
In the movie adaptation of the book by the same title, The Reason I Jump mixes documentary with storytelling to bring to the big screen the experiences of 5 autistic young adults from across the world, all of whom are non-speaking. One individual is from India, another from Africa, two are from the United States and one is from the UK. The film follows the individuals and their families against the backdrop of their culture and society which was amazing to see – so often autism is represented purely in western and white culture so to see the diversity represented isn’t just wonderful in itself, but also so very important. All of the 5 individuals have their own unique experiences of being autistic and the film is both honest of their challenges as well as celebratory of all their strengths. It’s a breathtakingly good documentary, just as the book it is based on is. Vitally important and wonderful, this is a beautiful film
[To watch ‘The Reason I Jump’ you can find it streamed on Disney+ and it’s also available to buy individually. To hear more about the Naoki Higashida’s book, click here]
Life, Animated directed by Roger Ross Williams
This beautifully filmed documentary follows the life of Owen Suskin, a 26-year-old (at the time of filming) autistic young man who’s making his first steps into independent living after his graduation. From a young age Owen found that the only way that he could really make sense of this confusing and often scary world was by watching his beloved Disney films with his family. After having not spoken for over a year as a toddler, his first words to his parents was a line from The Little Mermaid. From then on he gradually learned to communicate through the dialogue of the Disney movies that he loved so much, with the unwavering support of his family. He has since faced many challenges, especially with school and bullying, but he has met these difficult times with courage and has used his rich world of Disney characters to help through. Owen is a wonderful human being with a kind spirit, vivid imagination and determination to live independently. Owen and his family’s story is one that I’m sure will help many other family’s of autistic children see that despite fears, autistic children can have a life that is not only full but also successful and happy too!
The documentary is very emotive in places and has some stunning animation to go alongside Owen’s story. Filled with a whole lot of heart and leaving you feeling uplifted, Life, Animated is simply beautiful.
Temple Grandin, directed by Mick Jackson
Portraying the life of Temple Grandin, the biographical movie of which she is the name sake of, focuses on Temple Grandin’s younger life. Predominantly focusing on her years as a teenager and young adult, with flashbacks to her childhood scattered throughout, the movie starts with a summer spent at her aunt and uncles ranch before leaving for college, which is where she discovers her love of cattle and how to care for them, unknowingly changing the trajectory of her life forever. We witness her experiences of college and her first steps in the working world of agriculture, as well as the defining bonds she developed including her relationship with her loving mother, her teacher-come-friend Professor Carlock and her college friend Alice who has a sight impairment.
Temple Grandin is played by Claire Danes who does a great job of representing Temple’s experiences as a young autistic woman with empathy and skill. The film gives a good sense of how Temple Grandin experiences and interacts with the world, with the use of many visual and sensory examples throughout the film. It also shows how much the world had changed since her young life in the 1960s and 70s and reminds us of how far we still have to go.
The fact that this film is based not on fiction but on an actual real life human being makes its impact even greater. Here is an autistic woman who has broken down barriers, overcome many, many challenges in her life (both regarding her neurodiversity as well as her experiences of making her own way in the male-lead industry of 1970s agriculture) and become not only a highly regarded academic in her field of work but also an author, agriculturist, animal behaviourist and autism advocate. I think she should be acknowledged as not only a great role model for neurodiverse people but for everyone. I think we could all learn from her actions of endurance, determination and of her unique understandings of the world.
I really enjoyed this biographical movie of Temple Grandin’s life. She’s living proof of how, with he right support and understanding, neurodiverse people can not only excel the limitations that society has for too long put on people who are a bit different, but that neurodiversity (and diversity in all it’s wonderful ways) should be accepted and celebrated, not just tolerated. Think of all of the neurodiverse people that could live more fulfilling, healthy, happy, full lives if society gave them the chance, not to mention the universal benefits for all thanks to the unique skills and ways of thinking that is common in neurodiverse minds. The film left me with an overwhelming feeling of optimism and pride in embracing my autistic brain. (And I defy anyone not to get a little watery-eye by the end!)
Love on the Spectrum, Netflix series directed by Cian O’Clery
Love on the Spectrum is an Australian Netflix series (with a US series now out) about relationships and dating when (as the title suggests) you’re on the autism spectrum. I first discovered this show whilst I was awaiting my diagnostic assessments and I can’t tell you how much comfort it gave me. It’s the first show that I’ve come across of its kind. Autism isn’t a taboo subject nor being studied as a serious topic, it’s simply just part of the show, just as much as being a single parent is part of the Gilmore Girls and how time-travel is part of Dr Who; it simply just is and for that I love it. It gave me a great feeling of ‘normalising’ autism for want of a better word; a safe space where disabilities are accepted and the people involved aren’t treated any differently from their peers. And it’s such a happy show, I think it’s near impossible to watch it without having a smile on your face.
The show brings awareness to what life can be like as an autistic adult, taking away stereotypes of ‘what autism looks like’ and celebrating the diversity of the autism community. It follows the lives of an array of people who are looking to enter the dating world as well as a few autistic couples who are in relationships already. I love that you also get to witness the cast in their home-life with their family and friends and how the show bursts lots of generalisations which many people assume of autistic folk like not being able to be independent, enjoy a social life, hold down a job or want a relationship. It was one of the first times I felt like I found a tribe of people that I could identify with. Some of the quirks, awkwardnesses, challenges and interests that I have were reflected in these people and the show made me feel a whole lot less alone. Jodi Rodgers, the specialist on hand to support the individuals with their dating experiences, also makes the show even lovelier (to be honest, I think everyone could do with a Jodi in their lives)! The makers of the programme that you hear talking to the cast also sound really lovely too; the acceptance and understanding that encompasses the show is really great and feels quite special.
I think the show gives people who have a disability a real confidence boost that if you want one, you can have a relationship and that your right to live the life you want is just as equal as anyone else, and needless to say, possible too. It also hopefully breaks down barriers for neurotypcial people as well, showing that although us autistic folk may be a little different from the majority, we’ve all got much more in common than you might think. All in all, this is such a joyful show – funny, entertaining and relatable, it’s hard not to watch an episode without feeling better by the end. I’m personally a fan of the original Australian series (I’ve lost count how many times I’ve watched it), I didn’t gel quite as much with the American series, however I still enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to seeing season 2 of the US edition which will hopefully be out fairly soon.
[If you enjoy Love on the Spectrum I’d highly recommend finding Jodi Rodgers on her Instagram/Facebook page (she’s also brining a book out containing essays on autism which I’m really looking forward to). Also the brilliant Michael Theo (better known as Mr A+) who features in the series has a podcast which is just as entertaining as his appearances in the show!]
Our Family & Autism and Unmasking my Autism by Christine McGuinness & Paddy McGuinness (BBC)
Christine McGuinness recently found out at the age of 33 that she’s autistic. Like many parents of neurodiverse children, after going through their child’s diagnostic process, traits within themselves also become clear. She filmed a documentary Our Family & Autism with her ex-husband Paddy McGuiness about their children’s diagnosis’s to raise awareness of autism. Through this procedure Christines neurodiversity became apparent. In her latest documentary Unmasking my Autism she goes on a journey to better understand her own autism as well as to delve into the world of autism and females. There has historically been sparse research in this area of autism, with decades of thought being that autism was a predominantly male condition. However in recent years the balance of looking into how autism affects woman and girls has been on the increase, as has the number of females getting diagnosed. Her documentary covers some very important and lesser spoken about topics, highlighting some of the darker side of living life undiagnosed, within a system and society that has little awareness of the presentation of autism in women and girls resulting in higher rates of mental health conditions, eating disorders, abuse and suicide. Although these topics are hard to contemplate, the reality for people living with these hardships are even greater, so talking about them is vital in helping spread awareness and support for those going through these lived experiences.
Both documentaries are great to watch for both people with neurodiversity as well as for others to simply learn and be more aware of autism itself. Having programmes such as these aired on mainstream television is nothing short of life changing for many. They go to help create a society that is more supportive and accepting of conditions and disabilities, creating a better place to live for everybody.
[Christine McGuinness has also written a children’s picture book about autism which you can read about by clicking here]
The A Word, created by Peter Bowker (BBC)
Originally adapted from the Israeli series Yellow Peppers, this BBC drama follows the life of a family whose youngest child Joe, undergoes an autism diagnosis. Set against the rugged and beautiful landscape of Cumbria and the Lake District, The A Word realistically portrays some of the ups and downs of autism and the effects it can have on the people supporting an autistic individual. The series however doesn’t orbit solely around the theme of autism but has many storylines weaving throughout the characters lives and makes for an entertaining and plausible reflection of modern-day family life. With a good hubbub of characters this family drama is a really good watch both as a series in itself as well as showing the audience some of the lesser talked about daily joys, strengths and challenges that can be faced as a family with an autistic member, as well as for the individual themselves. It breaks stigmas and doesn’t hold back from some difficult topics but also has lighthearted moments and good character development throughout the series. I love the familial love that’s seen in abundance between the characters despite their flaws and the fact that it doesn’t sugar-coat autism or skim over details. And bonus, it also has a killer soundtrack!
[If you enjoy ‘The A Word’ there’s a spin-off series called ‘Ralph & Katie’ following the lives of a couple from the series who both have Downes Syndrome. I’ve yet to watch it as I’ve only recently discovered it but I can’t wait to start watching!]
Little Voice, Apple series created by Sara Bareilles & Jessie Nelson
Set in New York Little Voice follows Bess, a young woman who’s struggling to successfully break through in a career as a singer-songwriter whilst supporting herself, her autistic brother and their father at the same time. Living with her best friend Prisha and her loyal labrador, Bess works several jobs ranging from bar tending to dog-walking, teaching music lessons to kids and singing in a retirement home, but after a chance meeting after a clumsy and spontaneous performance, she crosses paths with another musician who teams up with her, starting her bumpy journey into the music industry. But she feels split between her dreams and the responsibility she feels for her family. With her mother absent, she has formed the deepest of connections with her brother and father and feels an overwhelming responsibility towards them, especially when life gets tough (and life hasn’t been all that kind to them). With her dad struggling to keep afloat and her brother Louie finding his feet to live independently, Bess’s world is split in two and she struggles to balance them both as well as navigate the messy tangle that is her love life.
Bess’s brother Louie who is played by autistic actor Kevin Valdez is a main character in this Apple series. The relationship between himself and Bess I felt is both realistic and so loving. The bond between the two is beautiful and is honest in showing the difficulties and positives that can come with the territory of autism. I really love that there is finally an autistic main character in a show that’s played by an autistic actor – something which hasn’t occurred much before, yet is so needed. The show is also another trailblazer in terms of representation as the character Louie is mixed race and comes from a split family background who are struggling economically, which again, isn’t historically the norm when representing autism in the media. So often autism is represented as cis white male characters from middle to upper classes but this doesn’t reflect the diversity of the autistic community; there needs to be way more representation in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socio-backgrounds and co-disabilities within the autism representation and I think Little Voice does a great job starting that.
Alongside the great way autism is handled in this show, the programme also includes many important topics ranging from diverse cultures, racism, friendships and family as well as supporting the conversation of the Lgbtq+ experience, sexism in the working world and other equally important experiences. However all of this is done in a subtle and well handled way that perfectly weaves these elements into the story without making the show serious or hard-going. The show is filled with beauty – of music, of film, of scenery, of storyline and the characters themselves. Emotive, hopeful, funny and real Little Voice is one of my all-time favourite shows.
[If you don’t have access to Apple TV but you want to listen to the soundtrack written by Sara Bareilles, you can hear it on iTunes and Spotify – it’s soo good!]
Atypical, Netflix series created by Robia Rashid
Atypical is a Netflix show and one that kept me company throughout the first lockdown here in the UK. This comedy drama centres around Sam, an autistic high-schooler who loves the antarctic, penguins, biology and art and who works part-time in an electrical appliance store with his best friend Zahid. The series follows his home and school life, interspersed with his therapy sessions, creating a dynamic multi-layered series with the central theme of Sam’s bid to find a girlfriend and his independence at the heart of it.
Actor Keir Gilchrist who plays Sam does a very good job of representing what an autistic experience can be like and despite there not being much autistic influence in terms of the creation of the show, there are several autistic cast members which is awesome. The program shows some of the high-highs and low-lows that comes with being an autistic person as well as for those supporting them, but always with heart, humour and a dash of quirky not very far away.
The show’s creator manages to weave a vast amount of topics throughout the series which many people experience through life. That’s one of the things that I love most about this show – it’s really funny but it also explores real-life situations very well. From dealing with family dynamics to developing relationships, school life, sexualities, friendships and general moments of growing pains that we all go through, the show deals with some important topics witnessed from multiple characters points of view. It opens up the conversation for many aspects of life but also brings a lot of entertainment with it. I didn’t enjoy the last season quite as much but the first three I loved. It’s well worth a watch.
As We See It, Amazon series created by Jason Katims
As We See It is an American sit-com following the lives of three autistic adults who share a flat together with their aid Mandy. All three main characters are vastly different to one another (and sidetone – they’re all played by actual autistic actors!). You have Harrison who finds leaving their flat very difficult indeed due to sensory overload. Violet who works at a diner, longs for a relationship and has a turbulent relationship with her brother Van who is now her only living family. And finally there is Jack, a very intelligent guy who’s trying to keep down his job at the same time as dealing with discovering his father ill health. All of them experience autism in different ways and I love that it shows some of the diversity of autism, dispelling the myth that all autistic people are the same, and if not, then they can’t be autistic.
The show is funny and entertaining; it covers many good topics – some universal to most peoples lives, others more specific to autistic lives. It also deals with scenarios that many people don’t have to think about or experience, but which many autistic individuals have to navigate frequently, sometimes daily. The show views autism from many sides including the family, friends and co-workers of the three main characters as well as love interests, the general public and their support aid Mandy. It doesn’t shy away from the realities that come with the territory of being autistic (both the deep lows and sky-highs that autistic people can often experience). It explores some more of the taboo topics of being an adult on the spectrum too including meltdowns and the impact of social faux pas. I love that it sets scenes of real-life situations too for the audience to see. It helps people recognise and be more aware of how autism may present itself in adults, as so often people tend associate autism with children and forget that those kids grow up into adults. The show also includes several storylines that highlight some dangers that, although can happen to anyone, can have a much higher risk of happening and severity of outcome for autistic individuals – something that’s important for neurotypical people to be aware of to help lessen the chances of such circumstances happening and for neurodiverse people to understand the signs of being in a dangerous situation.
The creator of the show Jason Katims who also created Parenthood is said to have been inspired to write this series because he himself has an autistic adult son and he realised that there isn’t much representation of autistic adults in the media. The actor who plays Jack’s dad also has an autistic child, so I think all of this, alongside the three main cast members being autistic themselves has made for a well-rounded, thoughtful and realistic representation of different peoples experiences with autism. Sadly the series isn’t coming back for a second season but if you have access to Amazon Prime, please do check this series out, it’s well worth a watch!
All the Small Things, BBC series
Staring Sarah Lancashire as the main character Esther, All the Small Things follows her characters life as it unfolds from comfortably predictable family life to a muddle of unraveling scenarios as her husband leaves her for another woman – a young and beautiful new singer in their choir which results in the demise of the original choir. In spite of her current turmoil, Esther’s fierce loyalty to her children and community, alongside her determination to not let her world fall completely apart, she finds herself banding together with her friends from their now non-existent choir, together in a battle of the bands style competition against others from all over the country, including her separated husbands new choir. All the while finding that maybe she has more to offer and to discover in life than she first thought.
The show has a diverse cast creating a wonderful array of characters. From a new immigrant couple settling into their new community to a grandfather trying to help his granddaughter find her way in the world as a young mixed race woman to several characters who have different disabilities including Esthers eldest son Kyle who is autistic. Kyle struggles socially but has a real passion and talent for music. He has many admiring eyes on him from girls despite being bullied and excluded by others including his brothers peers. The show doesn’t portray a perfect family nor downplay the dynamics that can occur between siblings, let alone with the added layer of autism on top, but it creates a realistic resemblance of a modern family with highs, lows and all the muddily in-between bits too, whilst brining a feeling of warmth and lightness to each episode, creating a real feel-good show.
The characters are all really well developed and their individual stories intertwine to give the show a real feel of community and togetherness. It also has some awesome songs throughout including some from Kyles favourite band Blink-182. I mean, a series that has both Sarah Lancashire in it and Blink-182 songs – who can’t not love that?!
In this rom-com we are introduced to the life of Adam, a 29-year-old guy from New York who is just starting to learn to live completely independently after the loss of his father. Adam likes a life of routine, is passionate about astronomy and finds social interaction often baffling. But Adams world is changing and it’s not until he bumps into his new neighbour Beth do things really start to spin out of his usual orbit.
Adam isn’t the most amazing film in the world but nor is it not worth a watch either. There’s all the ingredients for a good rom-com and if I’m honest, it’s just kinda cool seeing a neurodiverse character as the protagonist of a movie, even if it’s not Oscar worthy. It didn’t quite hit all the right notes for me in terms of representation and storyline, but I’ll definitely be giving it another watch someday soon.
Generation A: Portraits of Autism and the Arts, directed by Barry Shils
This documentary focuses on art schemes that are developed to help young autistic individuals in America. From dance classes to computer animation, music to painting and sculpturing the documentary delves into the topic of the benefits that can occur when autistic folk engage in an art form. Despite the movie being a little outdated (and with the briefest of mention of vaccines from one of the autistic participants), it was nonetheless quite an interesting watch. Seeing so many young neurodiverse people excel in art and their special interests was so great to witness. Whether they are children learning how to make sense of the world around them, are young adults getting ready for the working world or already in it, the film shows just how beneficial art, in all it’s forms can be.
The documentary goes to show just how integral it is to support autistic individuals with understanding and equality, to ensure that everyone, whether disabled or not, has the right to a happy and fulfilling life with the opportunity for employment in areas of their passions and strengths.
Newt Scamander – Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them & Scorpious Malfoy – The Cursed Child
Now this is just my own opinion so it’s definitely not for certain but I’ve always felt that Newt Scamander from Fantastic Beasts is on the spectrum. He struggles with socialising, has an intense interest (his love for magical creatures), an unflinching sense of what he feels is right and wrong (and sticks to it no matter if his opinion is unpopular); has a disregard of social norms, is rather honest and avoids major eye contact; he seems to experience hyper-focus, appears a bit odd to most people and finds friendships difficult, however the friendships that he does have, he holds in the highest regard. Although these qualities are definitely not solely autistic traits, the combination of these characteristics can be quite common in someone who is autistic.
I saw Fantastic Beasts when it first came out, and even before I had seriously contemplated getting a diagnosis, I remember having an immediate connection to Newts character, noticing so much of his quirks and the way he interacts with the world and others, in myself. It was as if he embodied much of how I feel internally and how I would most likely act if I had the gumption and skill to not mask as much.
I know these films aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, if only for the fact of the controversies that surround a couple of ex-cast members and issues with J.K. Rowling herself (which I completely understand as I wholeheartedly don’t agree with the views she’s made very clear in recent years), but I do hope that Newt continues to be a force for good. To read a blog that’s way more articulate than my own, you can click here to take you to another autistic bloggers post about his thoughts on Newt being autistic.
Another character that I believe may be autistic from the Wizarding World is Scorpious Malfoy from The Cursed Child. He’s a great character and I when I was lucky enough to see the play recently, his traits all pointed to autistic for me and my mum, who both came to the same conclusions as soon as we started to discuss the show in the intermission. Two other characters that I also think may be autistic from Hogwarts is Luna Lovegood and Hermione Granger. There’s some really interesting videos that you can watch that go into these topics more if you’re a geek on Harry Potter like myself.
Other tv/movies I ran out of time to ramble about…
Heartbreak High (Netflix series)
Hannah Gadsby: Nannette (Netflix)
Check out Autistic & Unapologetic post about more shows and movies (for kids and adults) that are about autism. There are so many on here that I’ve discovered and can’t wait to watch!
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog on autistic tv shows, movies and characters. I hope you have enjoyed it and that you enjoy watching them, if you choose 🙂 If you’d like recommendations about autistic books and more then click here. Thank you and as ever, happy reading 🙂
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