TV’s Best Depictions of Asperger’s
The world is more aware and understanding of autistic spectrum disorders than ever — and we have great television to thank.
Growing up, TV was the closest thing my family had to church. We ritualistically gathered around our garish 90s television to watch all ten seasons of Stargate: SG1 and every episode of Xena together. With the arrival of Amazon, I knew another season of our favorite show had arrived when I saw my brother running home from our rural post office with a package, tearing through our yard at full speed.
It was TV that first made me notice something was different about my brother. He could rattle off a complex quote from a show, then say the season, episode, and scene it came from — he could even remember what disc of the DVD box set that episode appeared on. And he would talk about TV in an obsessive way, listing characters and plots despite the bored body language around the dinner table. He didn’t understand why we got upset when he watched ahead of the rest of the family; he couldn’t grasp our frustration when he gave away the ending to the episode we were watching; he prattled through our frequent, frantic “shhhhhh”s.
My brother has Asperger’s Syndrome. He is on the mildest end of the autistic spectrum, but still has obsessive tendencies, struggles with noticing social cues, and is sensitive to his environment. He is also — in a word — brilliant. When my brother and I were growing up, Asperger’s was a rare word. Now, I hear or see the it mentioned everyday: in casual conversation, during podcasts, in articles, but especially on television.
In the mid-aughts, television saw a rise in Asperger’s TV characters. By the 2010s, shows were not only showing ASD characters, but making them complex, compelling protagonists, with storylines both about and aside from their autism. (Not that there haven’t been terrible depictions of ASD before — check out this glorious take down of those depictions by TV critic who actually has Asperger’s.)
As a kid from an Asperger’s family — my dad and brother are both on the spectrum — I cannot understate the importance of seeing Asperger’s characters on the small screen. For Aspies (as some with Asperger’s affectionately self-brand), media representation not only teaches the general public about the syndrome, but it also allows them to see how and why neurotypical folks respond to them the ways they do. This is helps those with Asperger’s learn social cues that help them survive and thrive. For people who are not Asperger’s but grow up with them or are married to them, it teaches compassion, patience, and coping mechanisms for day-to-day living with someone neuro-atypical. For the general neurotypical public who have never encountered Asperger’s, television can be an important introduction. That’s why these four characters are truly invaluable:
4. Virginia Dixon, Grey’s Anatomy (2009)
Dr. Dixon arrived at Seattle Grace Hospital as a genius cardiothoracic surgeon, only to discover that her fellow doctors were ill-equipped to understand or work with her idiosyncrasies. Dixon exhibited an Asperger’s aversion to touch and obliviousness to social nuance, but also showed other ASD traits less frequently shown on TV, including a fondness for an repetition of certain clothing (a red beret and coat).
Dixon also introduced TV audiences to the “pressure wrap,” a technique popularized by Temple Grandin — a famous animal scientist and autistic woman (who was once played by Claire Danes in a 2010 film dramatizing her life and achievements). The pressure wrap calms people with sensory processing disorders like autism by squeezing them deeply to suppress the nervous system.
After other surgeons mocked her odd behavior and aversion to touch, Dixon delivered one of TV’s best on-screen explanations of Asperger’s and biting commentaries on how cruel neurotypical people can be to those they don’t understand:
3. Spencer Reid, Criminal Minds (2005–present)
Dr. Spencer Reid has never been diagnosed with Asperger’s onscreen in Criminal Minds, but the actor who portrays him, Matthew Gray Gubler, has noted that Reid is “an eccentric genius, with hints of schizophrenia and minor autism, Asperger’s Syndrome.”
Reid’s character is an important milestone in autism and mental illness representation because of this diagnosis: Reid and his mother are both schizophrenic, which speaks to the frequency that autism spectrum disorders develop co-morbidly with other psychological disorders like schizophrenia.
Reid is an integral part of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of serial killers and statistics — but his Asperger’s fixations also include a passionate love for Doctor Who:
Notably, in the sixth season episode, “Coda,” Reid shares a connection and understanding with a mostly nonverbal autistic child. Not many shows write autism with this kind of diverse range, or allow an ASD character be the hero of the story.
Reid’s existence shows that a someone living with Asperger’s and schizophrenia can still be a functioning, brilliant, funny, and endearing person. Relatedly, Reid is a total dreamboat — reminding audiences everywhere that people with Asperger’s are 100% dateable.
2. Max Braverman, Parenthood (2010–2015)
When I started watching Parenthood, I was just jonesing for a family sitcom like Gilmore Girls — I did not expect to see a mirror image of my childhood. In the first season, Adam and Kristina Braverman have two kids: a teenaged daughter and a nine year old son, Max. Immediately, Max appears different from the other Braverman grandkids. Within the first season, Max is diagnosed with Asperger’s.
Max avoids eye contact, throws tantrums, and talks incessantly about insects. He only wants to wear a pirate costume to school. He takes everything literally, like this exchange at the beginning of the season one episode “Team Braverman” that made me laugh with recognition:
Adam: That’s using the old noodle!
Max: What noodle?
Adam: The noodle in your head.
Max: There’s no noodle in my head, just my brain.
Adam: … You are correct.
Throughout Parenthood’s six seasons, we watch Max and his family fight, struggle with, accept, and come to love that diagnosis. It is a joy to watch a series devote narrative energy to the daily minutiae of living with Asperger’s, because this is the unseen reality of many families. Adam has the hardest time with his son’s syndrome, but we see him — much like the culture at large — slowly let go of the stigma surrounding ASD, and join his son in full pirate regalia.
- Abed Nadir, Community (2009–2015)
Abed Nadir is a character on one of the best sitcoms in recent memory, Community, which chronicles the endless shenanigans of a ragtag Spanish study group at a dysfunctional community college. Not only is Abed one of the best Asperger’s characters on TV, he’s one of the best television characters ever. Abed ranks highly on this list because he flips the script on Asperger’s humor: Abed delivers the show’s best punchlines, but he is never the punchline.
Abed has avid fixations on filmmaking and pop culture — but especially television. In one of Abed’s most-Aspergersy, best run-on dialogues, he ignores being hit on at a bar for the rare opportunity to talk about the obscure (but amazing) sci-fi series Farscape:
The show itself is known for being incredibly self-aware and postmodern, but it is Abed who provides this meta-commentary and trope-mocking humor. (Whether you have seen the show or not, you should watch this gorgeous work of YouTube media criticism, “Is Community A Postmodern Masterpiece?”). In true postmodern fashion, Abed watches the happenings of Greendale Community College like a TV show, understanding and learning about the world with the help of what he knows about television. Abed is the die-hard TV fan starring in a TV show, and in some ways, a corporeal love letter to fans and fandoms.
Abed’s character then becomes, strangely, a stand-in for the audience. That Community’s audience surrogate — the character an audience will understand the show through, see themselves in, feel the deepest empathy and hope for — has Asperger’s is what makes the show revolutionary, and earns Abed the top spot on this list.
If you ever find yourself covered in Chinese take out and chocolate after a bad Netflix binge and, full of self-disgust, wonder why you just wasted a whole day watching TV — or if you ever here someone slam TV as pedestrian and pointless — this is why television is important and beautiful. It is the great normalizer. TV is the reason my brother and I can sit down to watch Sense8 and find a common language to talk about our problems. The reason my brother navigated complex social interactions in high school, because something like it happened once in Buffy. Television is the reason that when my brother says he has Asperger’s, people actually know that means.
This post is part of #tvtuesdays (but sometimes the author decides to make a custom header from scratch and it takes so long for her to teach herself Photoshop, it becomes #tvthursdays), a weekly series about television old and new. You can find more posts here.