These days, the entertainment industry seems to be more diverse than ever and, by proxy, working to include better examples of cultural representation in movies, literature, and, especially, television. This also includes those who are on the autistic spectrum, which many TV characters, from today or yesteryear alike, serve as an admirable reflection of.
While there are many widely discussed characters who are merely implied to be on the spectrum – such as both Jim Parsons’ Sheldon Cooper and Mayim Bialik as Amy Farrah-Fowler on The Big Bang Theory – we want to focus specifically on TV characters whose diagnosis is confirmed and also important to their role on the series they originate from. In honor of Autism Awareness Month occurring in April, we put together a list of our favorite characters of the like.
Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist) - Atypical
Creator Robia Rashad’s Atypical is considered to be one of the best dramedy TV shows on Netflix for its refreshingly authentic depiction of the life of a teen on the spectrum. It Follows star Keir Gilchrist – who also starred on a dramedy that focused on the topic of Dissociative Identity Disorder called The United States of Tara – gives one of his most acclaimed performances on the four-season series as Sam, whose struggles to better navigate his social life amid his autism has a profound effect on his family.
J.J. Jones (Ollie Barbieri) - Skins
Another great depiction of how having autism affects the lives of teens is portrayed by Ollie Barbieri, who joined the Skins cast as J.J. Jones in the third season of the acclaimed, British coming-of-age series. Despite his social awkwardness and tendency to suffer from angry outbursts on occasion, J.J. is one of the show's most endearing central characters and becomes one of great aspirational value for youths on the spectrum as his confidence grows and goals for social interaction and romance are achieved over time.
Billy (Richard Steven Horvitz), Mandy (Grey Griffin), And Grim (Greg Eagles) - The Grim Adventures Of Billy And Mandy
Some fans of this bizarre Cartoon Network original may not have suspected that its three titular characters are ones that even younger people on the spectrum could identify with as it is never explicitly stated in the series. However, The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy creator Maxwell Atoms confirmed on his personal Tumblr blog that the cynical Mandy, the care-free Billy, and Grim (being the “moral mediator between the two”) each represent a different facet of his Asperger's, which he was diagnosed with late in life.
Woo Young-woo (Park Eun-bin) - Extraordinary Attorney Woo
This Netflix exclusive South Korean import follows Park Eun-bin as the title character of Extraordinary Attorney Woo, whose autism makes it difficult for her to relate to her peers. However, she also has a 164-point I.Q., an outstanding memory, and unique creative process that earns her the trust and respect of her clients. It is a refreshingly charming and inventive legal drama TV show unlike any other that you may have seen.
Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore) - The Good Doctor
This character is both groundbreaking for representation of people on the spectrum and those in the medical field. British actor Freddie Highmore followed up Bates Motel with his Golden Globe-nominated role as Dr. Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor – a Fox drama following an autistic savant’s journey to be accepted by his peers after he is hired as a surgeon. The decision initially proves to be controversial to some employees at St. Bonaventure Hospital, who eventually see Murphy for the good that his genius-level intellect is capable of.
Max Braverman (Max Burkholder) - Parenthood
One of the most praised TV characters for their authentic portrayal of Asperger’s is Max Braverman. Played by The Purge star Max Burkholder, the young son of Adam (Peter Krause) and Kristina Braverman (Monica Potter) sees as many highs as he does see lows for his disorder on the popular NBC dramedy Parenthood. Max has been subjected to ignorant ridicule and prone to uncontrollable tantrums, but he would later refer to his disorder as one of his greatest strengths when he made a bid for his school’s student council president, acting as an inspiration for his classmates in the series and students like him in the real world.
Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) - Community
Prior to the introduction of Max Braverman, another beloved NBC series saw an especially unique representation of the spectrum from one lovable Greendale Community College student. Instead of obsessions based on science or mathematics, Danny Pudi’s portrayal of Abed Nadir on Dan Harmon’s Community is fixated on movies and television, which is, more or less, his primary form of communication. This aspect of the character was the focus of one of the most heartfelt Season 1 episodes, in which Abed is able to finally connect with his stubborn father (Iqbal Theba) through his own autobiographical, experimental student film.
Entrapta (Christine Woods) - She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power
Perhaps one of the most infectious and entertaining characters on TV who is also on the autistic spectrum is Entrapta, voiced by Christine Woods on She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power. On the Netflix update of the similarly titled 1980s animated fantasy series, Entrapta becomes part of the Resistance against her former employers, the Horde. In addition to her bubbly, energetic personality, above average strength, and larger than life purple pigtails, the Etherian is a scientist and mechanical engineer of genius ability, which often comes in handy on adventures with the Princess Alliance, even when they cannot seem to follow her highly sophisticated technical jargon.
Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) - Criminal Minds
There is a character of almost that exact description (minus the engineering and pigtails, of course) on a show that is most definitely not for children, which was recently revived as a Paramount+ exclusive. Matthew Gray Gubler is one of a mere few series regulars who lasted the entire original run of popular crime procedural Criminal Minds, during which he played the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit’s walking encyclopedia/calculator hybrid Spencer Reid, who is actually an especially unique case for representation of mental health on television. While his Asperger’s has proven undeniably effective in solving crimes, Reid also has a history of schizophrenia, which he inherited from his equally brilliant mother, played by Jane Lynch.
Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) - The Bridge
Like Spencer Reid, Sonya Cross is another character whose Asperger’s syndrome is a powerful tool when investigating heinous crimes, but is also a bit of a barrier in the realm of social interaction. The latter proves to be a comparatively greater hurdle for the El Paso-based detective – played by Inglourious Basterds actress Diane Kruger on FX’s North American-remake of European thriller The Bridge – who is prone to inappropriate comments and failing to show empathy. It is not the most endearing portrayal of the spectrum, but one of raw honesty that makes Det. Cross one of the boldest characters on television in recent memory.
Julia (Stacey Gordon) - Sesame Street
The 4-year-old, red-headed Muppet Julia on Sesame Street – voiced by Stacey Gordon – was introduced to the iconic children’s program in 2017 for an episode that aims to teach young viewers – and even Big Bird, too – about what it means to have autism. The episode immediately takes notice of Julia’s unique talents with her impressively advanced skills in painting and invention of a refreshing and fun way to play tag. Yet, it is also keen to point out her own struggles with being shy around new friends and an unsettled reaction to police sirens, in a well-rounded and endearing effort to make more people aware of the spectrum.
It is inspiring to know that we live in a time when there is a larger effort to make more people aware of the spectrum with greater representation on television. Be sure to tune into the stories of some of these wonderful TV characters this Autism Awareness Month or any other time of the year.
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Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in almost any article about Batman.