With more characters with autism appearing in film and on television, a new study is questioning whether such representations are good or bad for people with the developmental disorder.

In an analysis of fictional characters from 26 films and four TV shows, researchers found that portrayals of autism are often unrealistic, sticking too closely to textbook descriptions of the condition.

The study published in the journal Psychiatry Research looked at on-screen representations of characters with a stated autism diagnosis like in the movies “Adam” or “Mozart and the Whale” as well as characters such as Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory” who the public generally believes to be on the spectrum.

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Researchers assessed the characters using the criteria for autism in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Most of the characters had at least nine out of 12 characteristics of the disorder, the study found, even though such a high level of alignment with the DSM is unusual in real-world applications.

Meanwhile, about half of the characters were shown to be geniuses or have a special skill like in the movie “Rain Man” despite only about 1 in 3 people with autism actually having such abilities, researchers said.

Seeing characters with autism can help increase public awareness, those behind the study noted, but the narrow portrayals may reinforce stereotypes.

“To deepen public understanding of autism spectrum disorders, we need more autistic characters on our screens,” said Sue Fletcher-Watson of the University of Edinburgh who worked on the study. “These characters should reflect the diversity we see in real life, rather than being artificially built from a textbook diagnosis of somebody with autism.”

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