Once Largely Overlooked, Adults With Autism Gain Visibility

by Shaun Heasley, Disability Scoop | August 26, 2022

Albert Rutecki, Rick Glassman and Sue Ann Pien — all of whom have autism — play a group of roommates who are on the spectrum in “As We See It” on Amazon’s Prime Video. (Ali Goldstein/Amazon Studios)

While advocacy groups and media have traditionally put greater focus on children with autism, new research finds that representation of adults on the spectrum is growing.

In a new study, researchers found that advocacy group websites are increasingly depicting or at least mentioning adults with autism. Portrayals of adults with the developmental disorder are also more common in movies, on television, in books and in news coverage.

“This is an important issue to track, because autistic adults often say it’s very annoying to them that autism is almost always depicted as having to do with children, and it’s like that is making them invisible,” said Nameera Akhtar, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz who led the study published recently in the journal Autism in Adulthood.

Researchers analyzed the homepages of 49 Autism Society chapters across the country as well as 16 other autism organizations. They also looked at 124 movies and television shows released between 2010 and 2019 with characters on the spectrum and 484 fiction books published in English between 2010 and 2017 that featured a character with autism in the description. And, the study factored 90 news stories from print, television and radio during April and May of 2020 that included people with autism.

The findings were then compared to those of a similar review conducted in 2011, which concluded that “society’s overwhelming proclivity for depicting autism as a disability of childhood poses a formidable barrier to the dignity and well-being of autistic people of all ages.”

The latest study shows a fourfold increase in the use of photos of adults with autism on advocacy group websites since 2011 and noted that 80% of these sites now at least include mentions of the needs of adults. Meanwhile, the number of movie and television characters with autism depicted as children decreased from 68% in 2011 to 58% more recently. A similar change was noted in books, though 81% of characters with autism in this medium continue to be children.

The review of news stories indicated that 58% featured children with autism in 2020 compared to 79% in 2011. However, despite increased representation of adults, the study points out that news stories often depict such individuals in a childlike way, with a third of stories featuring adults on the spectrum making mention of their parents.

2020 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that over 5.4 million U.S. adults have autism. That number is likely to grow given that the prevalence rate for children has increased repeatedly in recent years.

“We need to see a continued increase in the number of representations of autistic adults, along with an improvement in the manner of that representation to reflect the heterogeneity of how autism manifests across a person’s lifespan,” said Janette Dinishak, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz and a coauthor of the paper. “Autistic people need to be part of the conversation on how to improve that representation, and they also need to be given space to represent themselves.”

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