Hollywood Autism

In Real Life, autism is a complex neurological condition that can impair the autistic individual's social skills among other areas, as detailed in our Useful Notes for Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism. While there are more males than females diagnosed with autism, there are plenty of autistic women and girls out there, with some research showing that autism rates in both sexes are about the same. Also, autism affects adults as well as children and many autistic adults are verbal, work, go to college, or live on their own. Furthermore, autistic people in Real Life are, well, actually real autistic people.

In contrast, the pop cultural representation of autism, called Hollywood Autism, which is most likely to be portrayed as male and by a non-autistic person, especially in Live-Action TV and Film. It is most common for an autistic character to be a child and if he is an adult, he's most likely to be The Rain Man or the Idiot Savant or otherwise totally unable to live what most people would call a normal life. They are also portrayed by actors, ones who probably weren't picked for an experience of living with Autism.

Most controversially, their lives are rarely depicted as being as fulfilling or as much of a life as that of someone who is not autistic, although there have been more examples of autistic adults in media whose lives are depicted as non-tragic and even find romance and have children, but they are still far rarer than examples of children and adults whose autism is shown as tragic. Finally, due to the overwhelming attitude that autism is automatically a tragedy in all cases rather than a different way of being or a disability that can be lived with and managed, it is common for an autistic character to miraculously be cured of his autism, usually through Applied Phlebotinum. Real-life autism is much more complex than how this trope portrays it, making this trope's Truth in Television status too questionable for real life examples.

Characters with Hollywood Autism are commonly Literal-Minded and may be Insufferable Geniuses. Not only do they get really into their interests, but these interests tend to be something no neurotypical/allistic person would ever be interested in, like naming every piece of a train-engine. This character may also be a Cloudcuckoolander. Expect him to be Inspirationally Disadvantaged or for his Hollywood Autism to be a Disability Superpower. If the exact disorder the character has is not explicitly spelled out, see Ambiguous Disorder.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • With the Light focuses on a mother raising her autistic son, Hikaru, in modern-day Japan. However, far from being an unrealistic portrayal, this is a massive aversion of Hollywood autism. Hikaru develops different talents such as cooking, mixing colors, and memorizing train schedules, and goes to a regular school. However, he is still clearly disabled by his autism, such as that he is unable to cope with loud noises and is in the special education program at school. The author's ultimate goal for the story was for Hikaru to realize his parents' hopes for him to be "a cheerful working adult"; sadly, Author Existence Failure meant that it ended as he was adjusting to junior high.

    Comic Books 
  • Black Manta of the Aquaman series is stated in #8 to have been an autistic orphan who was placed in Arkham Asylum. Because the attendants didn't know how to deal with autism, they restrained him to his bed, to which he would struggle and scream because he felt comfortable in freezing cold water, but found cotton sheets to be excruciatingly painful. Later on, Aquaman rewired Black Manta's autistic brain, but it didn't make him any less violent or sociopathic.
  • Johnny Do in Psi-Force is stated to be autistic in-story. He is nonverbal, can barely communicate, and is cared for by Thomas Boyd. However, his difficulties and Woobie status are attributed more to his history of abuse in Soviet mental institutions and the research center he was transferred to upon gaining his pyrokinetic powers due to The White Event. In fact, the way he entered Thomas Boyd's care was that Thomas Boyd learned of Johnny's presence and scheduled lobotomy and rescued him.
  • NYX: Bobby Soul's brother, Lil' Bro, is severely autistic, and virtually non-responsive to anyone around him. He's also an incredibly powerful telepath, whom it is revealed in the ending of the first series that he has been communicating with Kiden Nixon's dead father and helping coordinate the ghost's efforts to send her on her Fetch Quest to collect her Ragtag Bunch of Misfits, if not projecting the spirit himself.

    Fan Works 
  • Averted with Nepeta Leijon from Brainbent, who is clearly stated as autistic and having sensory processing disorder. While she definitely has her quirks, like despising purple and pretending to be a Cat Girl, she's one of the more popular and well-liked characters for being the Only Sane Woman and just for being adorable, and is capable of forming strong friendships with people, provided they understand her and aren't mean to her.
  • Averted in Tammy Billingham's series of Emergency! fics. John Gage is portrayed as mildly Asperger's, but though he has some classic symptoms (even in show canon, really), he still functions fine as a paramedic. His problem is that a traumatic childhood does cause him to withdraw when he experiences severe trauma as he often does here. Roy uses rage reduction and touch therapy to help him at times.
  • Riko Tasogare from Twilight Pretty Cure is very clearly stated and shown to be autistic. She doesn't like loud noise such as people yelling, cries when she's overwhelmed, is shy around new people, doesn't always understand what's appropriate to say and do and what isn't, and sometimes doesn't have tact. But she's arguably one of the nicest, kindest, and bravest members of the cast, very capable of holding conversations with people, can function just fine in society, is passionate about her interests, loves cats and Moomins, and loves her friends and family dearly and can kick just as much butt as her friends can. She's also the most popular, according to the poll on the author's Fanfiction.net account. One of her biggest problems is continual fixation on bad memories from her traumatic childhood involving bullies, both kids and an adult.

  • Simon Lynch is outright stated to be autistic in Mercury Rising. He deciphers a code published in a puzzle magazine and calls the phone number it reveals. Unfortunately it's the NSA, which targets the boy and his parents for termination. Special Agent Jeffries (Bruce Willis) protects the child.
    Jeffries. Autism... does that mean nothing gets through?
    Nurse. No. It means everything gets through.
  • Adam Raki, the eponymous character of Adam, is clearly stated to be autistic and a major part of the plot is his adjusting to living on his own after his parents have died.
  • In Mozart and the Whale, both Donald and Isabelle are stated to be autistic and have a romantic relationship. Donald is slightly more neurotypical, with Isabelle as a sort of Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
  • Linda in Snow Cake. She has done well enough that she ended up having a daughter and living on her own, but due to her mania for cleanliness, she needs someone else to take out her garbage.
  • Eric in The Boy Who Could Fly, who is stated to be autistic in-story. He has been nonverbal for his whole life, doesn't like to be around people, and has bizarre flying-related behaviors. Milly, the main character, works with Eric, and the progress he makes with her as well as his ability to fly makes him a type A Magical Differently Abled Person.
  • In the 1993 film House of Cards, a child becomes autistic (complete with savant-like abilities) after being traumatized by the death of her father. The recently acquired autism vanishes just as easily.
  • Raymond in Rain Man is autistic, stated to be in the movie, and the knowledge that he is autistic is well-known if you haven't been living in a cave for the past 20 years. Raymond is the Trope Namer for The Rain Man. Though he has savant-like abilities, he is unable to care for himself to the point where he is in an institution and Charlie acts as The Caretaker for Raymond. The whole focus of the story is on how Raymond teaches Charlie to care about other people and to not be such a jerk through The Power of Love. It should be noted though that Hoffman's performance has been praised by many as being very close to how many people with low-functioning autism act. High-functioning types (who can usually take care of themselves, for starters) often find the character and movie to be a bit of an albatross around their necks, though.
  • The short documentary Autism Every Day, produced by Autism Speaks, has footage of misbehaving autistic children and their parents talking about how terrible their lives are with their autistic children. There is so much said about autistic children making life difficult for the parents that it is hard to come up with a standout quote to put here. One thing especially notable about this piece, though, is the mother who says that she was sitting in a car for 15 minutes and had contemplated driving off a bridge, killing herself and her autistic daughter, but didn't because she had a non-autistic child, and said it with barely any significant emotion. In the clip you can see her seven-year-old autistic daughter in the background, and if you pay attention you can see that the girl's movements correspond to the mother's words in such a way that you know she understands what's being said (about as well as any seven-year-old would). Even more notable in that apparently nobody called CPS on her, and she left Autism Speaks after this.
    • Another thing is that the parents in the film were told to discontinue any medications and therapy for several weeks prior to filming, to "show what it's 'really' like". Given how the children struggle, this is clearly child abuse.
  • The Autism Speaks video I Am Autism, directed by Alfonso Cuarón and posted on YouTube in September 2009 after having been screened at the World Focus on Autism event. It depicts footage of autistic children while the dark scary voice of "AUTISM!!" gloats about the terrors he would wreak on children and their families. It went over as well as one would expect: the autism rights activists who found out about it (and who even saw it) did not take it well, and there were even some people that previously supported them who called them out online. Autism Speaks took the video down after a while, but it continues to be re-uploaded (and here's this transcript if it's taken down again).
    • It has much in common with the 1948 short The Crippler, wherein Polio is personified as the Grim Reaper. This used to get shown at Saturday matinees and then the March of Dimes can would be passed through the audience of terrified children to collect their popcorn money.
  • According to Thierry Zéno, the human from Vase de Noces was highly autistic, which bears eyebrow-raising implications, considering his actions throughout the film.
  • In Alien Abduction (2014), 11-year-old Riley is stated to be autistic by both the opening title cards and his own family, and exhibits a number of quirks such as reciting his observations in a monotone and vastly preferring to view the world through his camcorder. At one point he gets very upset when another character tries to take his camera away, after a terrifying encounter with the aliens.
  • The entire movie Ben X is built around this trope, showing how patients with Asperger's supposedly can't function without a minute-to-minute schedule, have extremely vivid hallucinations, are incapable of something as simple as taking a train, and can't interact with other human beings at all. The film was praised for its "accuracy".

  • Seth Garin in The Regulators is stated to be autistic in-story, nonverbal, has magical powers, and is obsessed with a particular show. This obsession starts the major conflict of the book.
  • Rory in Wicked Good by Joanne Lewis. From what has been written about the book, this character definitely seems to be Inspirationally Disadvantaged.
  • Ian in Ian's Walk is clearly stated to be autistic. He is nonverbal, prefers to sniff bricks rather than flowers, and loves lying down on the ground to look at rocks, staring at overhead fans, and ringing the bell in the park. Additionally, he would rather eat cereal that he has brought with him than try the pizza that his two sisters have bought for him.
  • The unpleasant Osden in Ursula K. Le Guin's Hainish novella "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow" is identified as "the only cured case of Render's Syndrome" (a Shout-Out to Roger Zelazny's He Who Shapes), which is supposed to be a form of autism. This leads to the exchange "Cured?" "Yes, he is certainly not autistic."
  • Jacob in House Rules is really good at crime scene know-how, but will have a meltdown if his routine is interrupted in any way. He is clearly stated to be autistic by multiple characters in the story, including himself and it is mentioned repeatedly that Jacob's mother has tried many treatments for Jacob such as a GFCF diet and vitamin B12 supplements.note  Jacob's brother Theo complains about the effect Jacob has on his life including a transparently metaphorical example of them both being under an upside-down boat and Jacob breathing in all the oxygen. In fact, the title House Rules refers to the list of house rules that Theo and Jacob's mother has set for the family to follow, most of them having something to do with Jacob's special needs. Despite Jacob's intelligence and fascination with forensic analysis, he is portrayed as being a burden on his family. Rather than being Inspirationally Disadvantaged or just different, the book focuses on whether or not Jacob murdered his social-skills tutor, which is left ambiguous but is pushed more of the side of "yes" by the family's push for an Insanity Defense and Theo's narrating quote: "My mother will tell you Jacob's not violent, but I am living proof that she's kidding herself."
    • To make matters worse, Jacob isn't portrayed consistently, but instead switches from low-functioning to aspie-ish symptoms. Although it's artistic license there really are "high functioning" or "Aspie type" autistics who can at times appear "low functioning" and vice versa, depending on amount of sensory overload and a variety of other factors, and many autistics today question the "high" and "low" business.
      • Autistic individuals can have "high" and "low" functioning from one day or one hour to the next, depending on many factors, making the "high/low" stuff meaningless.
  • Darryl McAllister in A Wizard Alone, who is stated to be autistic in-story. He is shown to be nonverbal, inclined to bang his head, and go to a special-needs school. Additionally, anyone who hears that Darryl is autistic automatically says something along the lines of, "That's terrible" and it's portrayed as nothing but a tragedy that Darryl is autistic. Diane Duane also takes a lot of artistic license with autism. Within the story, Kit acquires some of Darryl's autistic traits through overexposure to Darryl's mind and Darryl gets rid of his autism by using it to create a trap for The Lone Power. In 2012, new editions of the books got published, this included. The author actually fixed the problems with Darryl's autism and drastically improved the book entirely, with much better reception.
  • Caitlin Smith in Mockingbird seems to be somewhat aware of the fact that she has Asperger's and displays many traits such as having above average intelligence, being Literal-Minded and Sarcasm-Blind, and has a bit of a tendency to say and do things that get taken the wrong way by others despite her best intentions (and other times not best intentions. She tends to be a little narrow-minded and even selfish, claiming she's good at something when it's clear she doesn't know the first thing of what she's trying to do, not that she can be blamed for this because none of the authority figures in the book really "teach" her what she needs to do). However, she doesn't understand that Autism and Asperger's Syndrome are the same thingnote  and adamantly claims she's not autistic, as another classmate of hers has Autism, but her definition of autism is, according to the behaviors she's seen her classmate display, being non-verbal, eating dirt, and screaming when he's mad.
  • The The Baby-Sitters Club book Kristy and the Secret of Susan is rather infamous among snark communities for this. First of all, Kristy's baby-sitting charge Susan displays every single autistic symptom known to medicine, which is actually unheard-of in real life. On top of that, she has all kinds of impossible super-abilities, such as being able replay any piece of music she hears on the piano, regardless of what instruments were used in the original; she can also sing the lyrics, regardless of the language, after hearing them only once (despite the fact that she is otherwise non-verbal); and can tell you what day of the week any given date falls on.
  • Christian author Karen Kingsbury's novel Unlocked is a straight example of this trope — high school senior Holden's autism is portrayed as a complete tragedy that robbed his family of a wonderful, loving boy when it manifested itself when he was three, as he is now completely non-communicative despite a great deal of therapy. The only thing he reacts much to is music, and when he re-encounters once-best friend Ella when she's cast as the lead in the School Play of Beauty and the Beast — he's drawn to the music from the rehearsal room — it sets everyone on a path towards getting him out of his "prison" (and teaching everyone at his school about the evils of bullying on the side) and making his and her families whole again, with music and their faith in God accomplishing what treatment could not. Autism Speaks is namedropped in a positive light, and though it was written in 2010, it suggests that vaccines may have been the reason he was afflicted in the first place — a thoroughly debunked theory.
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time has a main character (Christopher) who is Autistic, but the writer did no research on autism and jammed together a bunch of cliches and stereotypes such as vocal stimming, difficulty reading facial expressions, a seemingly (to allistics) illogical dislike for certain colors, and aversion to touch.
  • C.L. Friedman's massive novel This Alien Shore describes descendants of Earth colonies who were mutated in various ways by their alien environments. They restructure their societies around their new characteristics. On the most powerful colony world the mutations were all "mental illnesses", which they call kaja and designate with symbolic face paint. A prominent character is iru, autistic, and makes a strong case for not "curing" his or others' conditions.
  • In Die Last by Tony Parsons, the protagonist DC Max Wolfe visits a residential hospital upon learning that the local retired crime lord has a son there. When he asks a nurse if the son is autistic, she corrects him and says that he has Asperger's Syndrome, describing it as difficulty communicating with others. However, his difficulties come across as far more severe, and more befitting of this trope - the son, who is now in his fifties, is non-verbal, has no concept of personal space, swallows things he shouldn't, and is generally incapable of independence. Other characters, including the aforementioned crime lord, who dotes on his son and has a very positive relationship with him, call him a retard several times, with his only reaction being to jerk his head in recognition of someone saying his name, and even DC Wolfe describes him as a man-boy in his internal monologue. His parents institutionalized him at birth, so it's possible that he could have had a more independent, fulfilling life had he been raised outside the hospital environment, but instead he's gone native.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Karla on Waterloo Road is a genius, but clearly needs a support teacher and medication to get by in everyday life.
  • There is a visiting heart surgeon who is stated to have Asperger's syndrome in an episode of Grey's Anatomy.
  • In an episode of House, the patient of the week is a child named Adam who is stated to be autistic. In fact, his autism becomes a major conversational topic. He is nonverbal, screams because of pain in his eye and seeing squiggly things that turn out to be worms that he got from eating sand in the sandbox he plays in at home. It is mentioned in the episode that both his parents quit their jobs to enable them to stay at home and care for their son.
  • CSI had an episode where an autistic man was the only witness to the death of the episode's victim. His autism was mostly shown by having him stutter while talking, having difficulty explaining things in words that most people would use (he said the victim had 'water running into her eyes', meaning that she was sweating) and having actions that seem coupled with OCD, like keeping his mail in specific order of what needs to be paid next and saying that some of the books in the library he worked in 'felt wrong'. He was suspected as the killer, due to being the only witness. He wasn't, the woman had been poisoning the salt in the shaker of her boss and some of the poison landed on her pen, which she had a habit of chewing on while thinking. And his saying the books felt wrong gave reveal to the fact that the woman and her boss had a forging business going on with the old books.
  • Gary Bell, one of the eponymous characters of Alphas, is a Cloudcuckoolander who is Literal-Minded and Hates Being Touched. His autism makes him immune to Nina's Compelling Voice and renders another Alpha's ability to detect lies through facial expressions useless. It should be noted that, while Gary's idiosyncrasies are close to Hollywood Autism stereotype, he is a much more nuanced and three-dimensional character than is usual and has been praised by autistic fans as a realistic and thoughtful depiction of a fairly socially-functional autistic person.
  • In one episode of Cold Case, an autistic boy helps to piece together his parents' murder with his photographic memory and inability to lie.
  • Sugar on Glee claims to have Asperger's Syndrome and exhibits practically every negative characteristic of the condition. Supposedly, since she mentions she's self-diagnosed, so she's less a negative portrayal of Asperger's and more of a Take That! to real people that self diagnose themselves with the disorder because they think it'll let them get away with bad behavior
  • A similar character is Bryce introduced in season 3 of Younger who is a parody of young tech entrepreneurs. He constantly interjects that he's "on the spectrum" but it seems to be an excuse for rude behavior. There is never any confirmation that he's actually autistic beyond him saying it. He is portrayed as analytical and practical with an indifference to other people's feelings, which he claims to be unable to interpret. However, he also has a fragile ego and seems aware of when he has offended someone because he usually responds by saying he's "on the spectrum."
  • Kevin on Eureka was autistic. After Allison, Jack Carter, Henry, Jo, and Fargo go back in time and disrupt the time stream, Kevin is ‘cured’ of his autism.
  • Fiona from Elementary is stated to be unable to lie due to being on the autism spectrum.
  • Julia from Sesame Street, an Anything Muppet, is designed to subvert this trope, starting with the fact that she's female. In the episode "Meet Julia", her friends Elmo and Abby Cadabby introduce her to Big Bird and help him understand that although she interacts with others in different ways than most and has sensitivities that need to be acknowledged — she hates loud noises and panics upon hearing a fire engine sirennote , and Big Bird touching her shoulder in an attempt to help makes matters worse, whereupon Alan takes her aside to calm down — she is a happy person and a great friend. She's also performed by a Muppeteer who has an autistic son.
    • One autistic kid, hearing about the advent of Julia, told his mom that there was already an autistic Muppet: Fozzie Bear. He perseverates (repeats words or phrases), has little actual sense for humor (or timing!), and tends to take everything overly literally and seriously.

    Video Games 
  • The eponymous AMY has elements of real autism and this trope. She's mute and has superpowers, but she also needs the protagonist Lana as a Living Emotional Crutch and frequently gets bored if you leave her in the same place for a long time.

    Web Original 
  • Largely averted in F*** Kayfabe: Wrestling With Labels whose subject is a wrestler with Asperger Syndrome. He has gone on to live a relatively normal life and formed strong friendships with people. The film barely even focuses on his condition and it's only talked about in the first three minutes, apart from him mentioning he was terrified of what his friends would say when they found out. They were fine with it.

    Web Comics 
  • Daisy Archanis in Last Res0rt is an autistic adult who also happens to be one of the smarter members of the cast, having both managed to figure out that Jigsaw was a vampire (and managed to inform Jigsaw of that fact before Jigsaw could accidentally out herself). It's not a true portrayal of autism, however. In-universe, mental diagnoses like autism and schizophrenia are considered symptoms of being "Light Children" — people who have similar abilities to the Celeste, but lacking the same access to training and education (and thus causing their powers to manifest differently).
  • Jiro Sasaki from Ruby Nation is a deliberate deconstruction. His physical and cognitive abilities have been greatly advanced by nanomachines, but his social skills remain arrested. He doesn't relate well to people, and the world he lives in gives him no reasons to like them. He finds love with Ruby and companionship with her other friends, but he still has difficulty with more subtle, emotional interactions. It's clear he cares about people (especially Ruby), defying many of the stereotypes of autistic people, but he's not good at expressing it, and is prone to unexpected emotional outbursts.

    Western Animation 
  • Carl from Arthur. Carl has Asperger's syndrome, a form of Autism spectrum disorder which makes him have problems with social interaction when being around people. He loves trains and can point out every detail of them with incredible accuracy and attention to detail. As well as trains, he likes to assemble jigsaws and can draw rather good lions all by hand. He can get somewhat anxious around situations that are unfamiliar to him, but can often find a rational solution to a problem whenever it presents itself. He likes apple juice in a box, not a bottle. His favorite color is blue, but he dislikes the color brown.