Television on the Spectrum: The Best (and Worst) Depictions of Asperger Syndrome on TV


Asperger syndrome is no longer in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the DSM kids are calling it an autism spectrum disorder these days — but it’s still all over our television screens. It seems like no TV show is complete anymore without a charming and/or abrasive weirdo who has issues with social cues, eye contact, and the occasional hallucination involving deer antlers. (Although maybe that last one is Hannibal-specific.)

As both a person with Asperger’s and an obsessive television watcher, these characters are pretty serious business for me, and it’s important to me that writers and actors portray them as accurately and honestly as possible. As the latter, I also want to make sure they’re entertaining.

Using my mad meticulous and intensely focused spectral skills, I’ve assessed 15 of the small screen’s Aspergian, autistic, and “autistish” characters and ranked them from best to worst.

Maurice Moss, The IT Crowd

Moss has become a bit of an aspirational figure for people on the spectrum. We identify with him and his autistic-like qualities because we collect weird stuff like wires and suck at lying, too. We want to be him because most of us aren’t nearly as unapologetic and proud of those things as he is.

Abed Nadir, Community

Abed is the antithesis to some very tired and pervasive Asperger’s cliches. He’s obsessed with pop culture instead of math and science. He clearly has empathy and he’s capable of forming meaningful relationships. So it’s no surprise that he’s been embraced by the Aspie community despite the lack of official diagnosis. As great as Abed is, though, Community as a whole is even better. There’s something about the tone of the show, and the way that it explores friendship and family with a unique mix of distant cynicism and shy earnestness, that really captures what it’s like to be an adult with an ASD learning to function and thrive in this world. Creator and once and future showrunner Dan Harmon might have been surprised when he recently discovered that he himself was on the autism spectrum, but Aspie fans of the show had him pegged as one of us from the very first episodes.

Brick Heck, The Middle

If Community is about what it feels like to be on the spectrum, then The Middle is all about what it feels like to love someone on it. There’s so much accuracy and affection in the way that Brick (who has never been diagnosed with anything specific but is in an ASD-style social skills group) and his tics and foibles are written that I’m convinced someone involved in the show has an autistic kid. The episode where the typography-obsessed Brick and his football-loving dad bond over Super Bowl fonts is particularly realistic — and hilarious.

Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan, Bones

Although the titular Bones will never be diagnosed with Asperger’s, both actress Emily Deschanel and creator Hart Hanson are happy to say that she almost has it in interviews. “Almost Asperger’s” sounds like a bit of a cop out, but Bones’ more subtle symptoms are actually quite realistic given that women with Asperger’s are much harder to detect and diagnose than their male counterparts. Brennan’s lack of interest in social conventions, rudimentary understanding of sarcasm, and awkward but undeniable affection for her friends are all in keeping with the way an actual Aspergian woman of her intellect would appear.

Tina Belcher, Bob’s Burgers

Despite her parents’ insistence that she’s not autistic — and despite her inability to count toothpicks on the floor with Rain Man-style accuracy — 14-year-old Tina probably falls somewhere on the spectrum. She isn’t good with customers, and has both a terrible sense of what’s considered appropriate in polite conversation and a horse fixation. The sexually charged young lady also obsessively writes erotic fan-fiction (and friend-fiction), which makes her a refreshing change from all the asexual autistic characters on TV.

Max Braverman, Parenthood

Max is, without a doubt, the best researched and most meticulously written character with Asperger’s on TV. That’s thanks to the efforts of executive producer Jason Katims, who draws on research, expert opinions, and his own experiences with his son who has Asperger’s in an effort to represent the disorder as honestly and realistically as possible. The result sometimes borders on after-school special territory, but it’s hard to argue with the intent.

Will Graham, Hannibal

In Hannibal’s pilot episode, Will diagnoses himself as being “closer to Asperger’s and autistics than narcissists and sociopaths” and gives the most eloquent description of eye contact issues that has ever appeared in pop culture. Creator Bryan Fuller has since insisted that Will’s problem is a result of too much empathy, which he calls the opposite of Asperger’s. That statement is both inaccurate and a shame. Some recent studies have suggested that many people with Asperger’s do struggle with an overabundance of empathy, and Will — or at least pre-hallucination Will — really seemed like a fascinating take on that.

Sonya Cross, The Bridge

No one on the cross-border crime drama The Bridge has come out and and said that Detective Sonya Cross has Asperger’s — her coworkers prefer to simply call her crazy — but actress Diane Kruger hasn’t been shy about dropping the A-bomb in relation to her character. The challenge of playing someone with the syndrome was what inspired her to take the role, and it’s clear that she’s put a lot of work into her performance. It’s a little over the top and obvious. In real life, a woman of Sonya’s obvious intelligence would probably have learned to control her issues with eye contact, inappropriate behavior, and empathy expression a little better by her age. But it’s equally obvious that Kruger is committed to playing her like a human being, and that counts for a lot.

Dr. Sheldon Cooper, The Big Bang Theory

Much like autism itself, autistic opinion on Big Bang Theory’s favorite theoretical physicist exists on a spectrum. On one end, you have people who wear their “Bazinga” shirts with pride and claim Sheldon as one of their own even though he has never been identified as such (and the creators have no interest in giving him an official diagnosis). On the other, you have people who think that his over-the-top lack of social skills, problems with sarcasm, vanity, and rigidity are a cruel and reductive parody of people with Asperger’s. Personally, I’m more offended by the show’s weak attempts to represent anything resembling humor.

Crazy Eyes, Orange Is the New Black

There’s a high possibility that Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren would land somewhere on the autism spectrum, even if it is the least of her problems. It might explain the shy and awkward empathy that she showed to Piper in the first episodes. It would definitely account for the whole prison-wife misunderstanding and her complete inability to take any hint to the contrary. There’s something else going on with her violent outbursts and angry floor urination, though.

Kanye West, Keeping Up With the Kardashians

I’m not saying that rapper and plain-white-T-shirt designer Kanye West has an autism spectrum disorder, but his first appearance on his girlfriend’s show, in which he hid behind corners and seemed constantly overwhelmed by noise and activity, did sort of feel like an outtake from the Aspergian love-story flick Adam. And some sort of ASD issue would probably explain his sensory overload-driven mini-meltdown on The Today Show.

Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock

I love Sherlock, but I’m not sold on him as an ASD character. Watson refers to Sherlock’s Asperger’s in passing in “The Hounds of Baskerville,” but it was probably more of a cheap shot uttered in the midst of their lovers’ quarrel than a genuine observation on the part of the good doctor. Sherlock certainly has the intelligence, focus, and social issues of a man on the spectrum, but his movements are all off. Physically, people with ASD tend toward repetitive “stimming” and Sherlock’s tics are far too erratic and all over the place to resemble that in any meaningful way. Given the intense research and thought that Benedict Cumberbatch puts into his characters and his physical performances, I have to assume that was on purpose and that his Holmes really is just a brilliant dick with no extenuating circumstances.

Sugar Motta, Glee

The tone-deaf Sugar had some potential when she first arrived on Glee and announced, “I have self-diagnosed Asperger’s, so I can say whatever I want.” The all-too-common trend of people using fake ASD diagnoses to excuse their dickish behavior is ripe for satire. Unfortunately, Glee handled that issue with the same cluelessness, hackishness, and insensitively with which it handles pretty much everything, and Sugar became just another tired stereotype.

Jerry Espenson, Boston Legal

The writers of Boston Legal came so close to getting Asperger’s right with oddball lawyer Jerry “Hands” Espenson. The character, for the most part, comes across as a slightly exaggerated version of author and real-life Aspergian John Elder Robison, and Jerry’s social issues, lack of eye contact, and intensely focused interests are all textbook symptoms of the disorder. The part where he got upset and took a cake knife to his boss after he failed to make partner, though? Not so much. And the part where he escaped an attempted murder charge after being diagnosed? Well that’s just lazy sensationalism, even by David E. Kelley’s standards.

Dr. Virginia Dixon, Grey’s Anatomy

Seattle Grace’s resident Aspergian doctor, Dr. Virginia Dixon, was never a particularly great example of ASD on TV. There was always something a bit cartoonish or even childish about her absurdly rigid insistence on using proper medical terms, her special interest in the heart, and her endless fact spewing. Things hit a whole new low, though, when she had a panic attack and forced Bailey and Yang to hug her while she started babbling about autistic superstar Temple Grandin and hug machines. People on the spectrum like Dr. Grandin just fine, but we don’t spend nearly as much time talking about her as neurotypicals seem to think we do.