Arts & Culture

The Future of Autistic Representation in Popular Media

By Abigail A. ’23

In recent history, autistic characters in visual media have typically fallen into one of two categories: comedic relief (i.e. Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory), and one-dimensional characters meant to make the audience feel better about themselves and to help move the allistic (non-autistic) character’s story along (i.e. Music from Sia’s Music, Raymond from Rain Man). Behind the camera, directors and writers often don’t research the realities of being on the spectrum and will cast non-autistic actors to play autistic roles. Like many other marginalized groups, the autistic community has been unable to see genuine representation on screen. 

Recently, this has changed. In 2015, Sesame Street introduced an autistic character named Julia in one of its digital storybooks, and she made her on-screen debut in 2017. Julia dislikes loud noises, loves to sing, and interacts with the other muppets slightly differently than one might expect. Although the other muppets are thrown off by this when they first interact with her, an adult playing with them patiently explains that Julia isn’t being rude, she just interacts with things differently. Rather than being poked fun at, the muppets easily understand this and become incredibly supportive friends, providing a model for their young viewers. 

In 2020, Pixar released the short film Loop as part of their SparkShorts collection. In the short, allistic Marcus gets paired with nonverbal Reneé at canoe camp. Throughout the film, Reneé stims (seeks out sensory stimulation) in various ways; she reaches out her hands to touch reeds at the edge of the pond, will flap and rock when happy or stressed, and plays a special ringtone from her phone. Although Reneé and Marcus initially have trouble getting along because of their differing methods of communication, they begin to figure each other out and are good friends by the end of the short. 

So, what makes these pieces of media so good? Firstly, the involvement of actual autistic people in their creation. Although the directors of both are allistic, writers worked with groups such as the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) to portray autism as realistically as possible. In the words of Loop’s director, Erica Milsom, “There’s a movement in the disability community called ‘Nothing about us without us.’ What it means is that you shouldn’t tell stories about people with disabilities without including them in the process of making the story – and in a significant role.” In the case of Loop, Reneé was actually voiced by a nonverbal autistic woman, and the puppeteer for Julia has an autistic daughter. One interesting product of this is in Loop. In the short, perspective shifts back and forth between Marcus and Reneé. When in Reneé’s perspective, the metaphorical camera shifts around, and certain sounds are made disproportionately louder or quieter. For example, when Marcus is talking to Reneé, she instead shifts her attention to the sound of him placing his oar down, and the sound of Marcus talking fades out. This was designed to simulate for an allistic perspective what it feels like to have auditory processing difficulties, something many autistic people deal with. 

Additionally, both Reneé and Julia are signs of representation in more ways than one. Traditionally, autism has been seen as a boys-only condition, and rates of diagnosis among women and people of color are significantly lower than those for white men. By making their autistic characters women (one of whom is a woman of color), Sesame Street and the team on Pixar’s Loop create representation for an even less commonly represented group of autistic people. It is clear that the entertainment industry is, albeit slowly, beginning to move away from negative stereotypes of disabled individuals in media, and it’s exciting to think about what project may happen next. 

Loop is available to watch on Disney+, and Sesame Street can be found on both HBOMax and YouTube. 

Learn more:

The Making of Loop (YouTube)

Julia’s First Onscreen Appearance (YouTube)

Interview with Erica Milsom (Director of Loop)

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