Does anyone remember The Ringer? The movie stars Johnny Knoxville posing as an intellectually-disabled athlete in order to gain an advantage in the Special Olympics. It could have easily been one of the most offensive movies of all time, but instead, it actually gained the approval of the Special Olympics.
By contrasting Knoxville’s inaccurate, stereotypical portrayal of intellectual disability with the varied, nuanced personalities of the other athletes (played by neurodivergent actors!), the movie actually ended up being one of the most realistic and positive portrayals of intellectually-disabled adults on screen. What makes The Ringer special is that it doesn’t rely on tropes to define its characters; it recognizes that neurodivergence presents differently in each person.
Unfortunately, depictions of neurodiversity in Hollywood aren’t usually all that diverse. For every script that subverts our expectations, there’s a pile of others that portray the same few versions of neurodivergence we’ve seen before.
Autism gives you superpowers
We mostly have Rain Man to thank for this one. Despite being a wonderful film and opening the door for more realistic portrayals of autism, Rain Man ignited pop culture’s fascination with autistic people with savant syndrome.
The most visible recent example of this trope is ABC’s The Good Doctor in which a teenage autistic boy becomes a surgeon. While the show has received a lot of praise, its popularity comes with some negative implications for autism’s place in society.
Savant syndrome, while more common in autistic individuals than the general population, is not typical. It’s estimated that only 10% of people with an autism diagnosis are also savants, which means 90% of the autistic population does not have the special abilities that Hollywood and audiences seem to adore. In fact, it’s estimated that 31% of autistic individuals are actually intellectually disabled, meaning their IQ scores are lower than those of the average population.
The dissonance between the autism we see on our screens and the variety of manifestations that actually exist on the autism spectrum can have harmful effects on the real world. While I’m thrilled by the push to recruit autistic employees, I worry that pop culture’s emphasis on savant abilities creates unrealistic expectations for employers. Even in the 10% of the population with savant syndrome, the most common type of skills developed are splinter skills, which include things like learning obscure facts, a preoccupation with a certain topic, or even memorizing license plates. These skills may or may not be useful in a work environment.
Sometimes writers take this trope a step further and interpret savant syndrome into literal superpowers. We see this in Annie’s telekinetic abilities in Stephen King’s Rose Red and the title character’s flight in The Boy Who Could Fly. This iteration of the trope has the potential to further stigmatize and dehumanize autistic people; they cease to be human beings and are instead supernatural “others.”
Most insidious, though, is what the prevalence of these stories implies about society’s view of autistic people. This trend gives the impression that autistic individuals are only interesting or valuable if they have a special ability to compensate for their differences.
Tourette Syndrome = Uncontrollable Swearing
Next up, we have another disproportionately represented subsection of a neurominority: individuals with coprolalia. Coprolalia, the involuntary vocalization of obscene language, occurs in a relatively small percentage of Tourette cases, yet it is by far the most widely known symptom of the condition.
Because of portrayals like Dewey’s classmate on Malcolm in the Middle and the bartender in The Boondock Saints, people with Tourette syndrome and related tic disorders frequently have to explain that, no, we are not walking personifications of a George Carlin routine. On the flip side, I have even seen a person with coprolalia express that they suppress their tics (an act which is uncomfortable and often painful) in order to avoid perpetuating the stereotype.
The worst offenders in this trope, however, do more than breed ignorance— they encourage the audience to laugh at the characters’ tics. Some of the most egregious examples are Amy Poehler’s coprolalia in Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo and the cheerleader Sandy Sue in Not Another Teen Movie. These depictions diminish the social, emotional, and physical pain that can accompany Tourette syndrome and tic disorders and make them the butt of the joke. But, hey, I’m sure lots of people would find losing control of their own voice and movements hilarious and not at all terrifying.
Happy Pill Housewives
Being dismissed and mocked is nothing unique in the world of neurodivergence, as this next example demonstrates. Perhaps because it’s seen as kicking up, Hollywood loves to laugh at silly suburban women and their “little helpers”— medications like Zoloft, Prozac, and Xanax that treat anxiety and depression.
The motivation behind this trope is usually to show that, despite the “perfect” lives these women present— big smiles, nice houses, toned bodies, and happy families— they aren’t what they seem to be. The audience views the “happy pills” as evidence that the exterior is a facade and the woman in question is just as unhappy as the rest of us, or that her perfect life isn’t real because taking the pills is a form of cheating.
For example, in the American Housewife episode “The Blow-Up,” the main character’s neighbor reveals she takes pills to deal with her stepchildren and gleefully declares, “I don’t feel anything!” This one also comes up in This is 40. As Leslie Mann’s character’s father explains that his life is not as perfect as it seems, he cites his wife’s Zoloft use as proof.
The result is that the viewer gets to judge and feel superior to these characters. That is, of course, unless you happen to be one of the many women taking one of these prescriptions. Personally, I’ve been on Prozac, Zoloft, and Xanax at different points. I hated telling people what I had been prescribed and often used the generic names to disguise them. I cringe whenever these medications are used as a joke or a plot device because I have firsthand experience with how stigmatizing these portrayals can be. I did not want to be another entitled white woman from the suburbs who couldn’t handle her life.
But that attitude is itself one of the problems with this trope— it implies that housewives and women with privilege can’t possibly have any problems worthy of anxiety or depression, as if these issues have no biological basis and are merely manifestations of ungratefulness. Anyone can have mental health problems, and this trope trivializes that fact.
All OCD Looks the Same
While we’re on the subject of trivialized mental health conditions, let’s talk about OCD. Colloquially, we often use it to describe personal quirks and organizational habits (“I can’t work if my desk isn’t organized. I’m so OCD.”), but in reality, OCD can interfere with a person’s daily life and cause significant anxiety.
Fortunately, Hollywood is actually pretty good about showing that OCD can interfere with jobs and relationships. While not perfect portrayals (Seriously, this character bio is pretty messed up.), shows and films like Monk, Glee, American Housewife, Scrubs, and Matchstick Men have all explored the negative aspects of OCD in some form.
All of these titles have something else in common— they all depict similar manifestations of OCD. To start, all of these characters have issues with germs, but this is not a symptom that everyone with OCD experiences. TV and film usually cover two of the four major categories of OCD, Contamination and Washing and Symmetry and Arranging. The other two categories (Doubt and Harm and Unacceptable/Taboo Thoughts) are rarely depicted on screen, contributing to ignorance regarding the range of symptoms OCD can present.
These characters clean obsessively, wash their hands repeatedly, arrange and sort objects, perform actions a specific number of times, tap on objects— all things the audience can see. While the other two categories may be less obvious to a viewer, they can be just as disruptive to a person’s life as the more commonly depicted types.
The Doubt and Harm category and the Unacceptable/Taboo Thoughts category most closely match my own experiences with obsessive-compulsive anxiety. Fears of burning down the house or of losing loved ones are managed by repeating thoughts in my head or with obsessive research, not by performing an external ritual. My perception of OCD, however, was heavily influenced by pop culture, so I never considered I may have an OCD-related problem.
That’s the thing about tropes; on their own, these depictions are mostly harmless, but when they become too prevalent, they can shape the way society views an entire population. Some of these examples are well-written, mostly positive portrayals. Michael J. Fox’s guest starring role as Dr. Casey on Scrubs will always be a personal favorite, and I’ve binge-watched all four hours of Rose Red. The problem isn’t about quality; it’s about representation. What we need are more scripts showcasing the vast diversity of the human brain.
If you have a great idea for a movie about a germaphobic, pill-popping housewife with an autistic savant husband and their son with coprolalia, I’m not suggesting you throw it out the window. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these films and shows. But before you start pitching to studios, just ask yourself this question: Have I chosen these portrayals because they’re best for the story or is it because these tropes are familiar and palatable? If it’s the latter, it might be time for some research and a rewrite.