Autistic women underepresented in Canadian media, say experts

by | Dec 4, 2020 | Headlines, News

Minni Ang, an ambassador with Autism Canada, would like to see something closer to her own reflection in media portrayals of girls and women on the autism spectrum.

“They always focus on the negative stuff about us, and not on the positive,” Ang said in an interview with Humber Et Cetera. “There’s lots of positive stuff and I think we should focus more on that.”

Katherine Gallagher, also an ambassador with Autism Canada, said the media only show savant traits, referring to individuals who show particularly high intelligence or skills within a certain area of expertise.

While some autistic individuals demonstrate such behaviour, it is certainly not typical.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behaviour.”

It is characterized by difficulty communicating and interacting with people and repetitive behaviours.

Severity in autism varies, with some people requiring considerable assistance and others whose symptoms are barely visible.

Though autism isn’t always easy to diagnose, a 2018 study by the Public Health Agency of Canada found one in 42 boys and one in 165 girls had been diagnosed with autism.

Sarah “SKB” Keelan-Bishop, a registered psychologist who specializes in autism, said the disorder is both less common and harder to diagnoses in girls.

The diagnosis ratio might explain why autistic women are so seldom portrayed in major media in the way men are in major projects like Rain Man or The Good Doctor.

In fact, Ang said the term “autism” was created in the early 1940s from studying only young boys.

Gallagher said autism is not well understood “and the way that they portray us in the media, it doesn’t serve us in a good way.

“It just becomes so much more real when you meet the actual person, versus somebody being portrayed,” she said. “There is a conceptual difference there and you know right away that that person is genuinely autistic, versus them just pretending they’re autistic.”

This problem came up recently for music artist Sia, who used dancer Maddie Ziegler from the show Dance Moms to play a non-verbal autistic character in the video for her song Music, from the upcoming film with the same title.

Both Ang and Keelan-Bishop say along with media companies needing to be open to hiring more autistic women to act, there needs to be more autistic writers, directors and producers showcasing more genuine autistic women.

“It’s like a two-way street,” Gallagher said. “It would help the actor, help the director, and they would be helping the media.”

Ang and Gallagher said Canadians should also spend more time with autistic individuals to better understand them.

Autism Canada, in partnership with the Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorder Association, is preparing a submission to the federal government on how it can support autism research so Canadians understand and know more about the disorder.

“Hopefully, the government will then form their new policies based on our input,” Ang said.