Once largely overlooked, adults with autism are gaining visibility

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Albert Rutecki, Rick Glassman and Sue Ann Pien — all with autism — play a group of housemates who are on the spectrum in “As We See It” on Amazon’s Prime Video. (Ali Goldstein/Amazon Studios)

While advocacy groups and the media have traditionally focused more on children with autism, new research reveals that the representation of adults on the spectrum is increasing.

In a new study, researchers have found that advocacy group websites increasingly portray or at least mention adults with autism. Portrayals of adults with developmental disabilities are also more common in movies, television, books and news reports.

“This is an important question to follow, because autistic adults often say it’s very annoying to them that autism is almost always portrayed as having to do with children, and it’s as if it makes them invisible. said Nameera Akhtar, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz who led the study published recently in the journal Autism in Adulthood.

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The researchers analyzed the homepages of 49 Autism Society chapters across the country as well as 16 other autism organizations. They also looked at 124 movies and TV shows released between 2010 and 2019 with characters on the spectrum and 484 fiction books released in English between 2010 and 2017 that featured an autistic character in the description. And, the study considered 90 print, TV, and radio stories in April and May 2020 that included people with autism.

The results were then compared to those of a similar study conducted in 2011, which concluded that “society’s overwhelming propensity to portray autism as a childhood disability constitutes a formidable barrier to dignity and well-being. -be autistic people of all ages”.

The latest study shows a fourfold increase in the use of photos of autistic adults on advocacy group websites since 2011 and noted that 80% of these sites now include at least mentions of adult needs. Meanwhile, the number of film and TV characters with autism portrayed as children has risen from 68% in 2011 to 58% more recently. A similar change has been noted in the books, although 81% of characters with autism in this medium continue to be children.

The review of news stories indicated that 58% featured children with autism in 2020, up from 79% in 2011. However, despite an increased representation of adults, the study highlights that news stories often portray these people in a childish way, with a third of stories featuring adults on the spectrum mention their parents.

A 2020 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 5.4 million American adults have autism. This number is likely to increase given that the prevalence rate among children has increased several times in recent years.

“We need to see a continued increase in the number of representations of autistic adults, as well as an improvement in the manner of that representation to reflect the heterogeneity of how autism manifests across a person’s lifetime. nobody,” said Janette Dinishak, associate professor of philosophy. at the University of California at Santa Cruz and co-author of the article. “People with autism need to be part of the conversation about how to improve that representation, and they also need to have space to represent themselves.”

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