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Autism and its portrayal in Media

Cinema has the ability to combine entertainment with communication of ideas. It has the potential appeal for its audience. It certainly leaves other media far behind in making such an appeal. As in literature, cinema has produced much which touches the innermost layers of the man. It mirrors the episodes in such a manner that leaves an impact on the coming generations. Cinema presents an image of the society in which it is born and the hopes, aspirations, frustration and contradictions present in any given social order. After all how people perceive autism is very cultural. And cinema is a major cultural instrument, which is known for its tendency to feature bizarre and extraordinary characters that exist on the margins of mainstream society.

My Name is Khan, I’m Special: My World Is Different and Closer have depicted autism with sensitivity, neither exploiting it for the purposes of the main character’s development nor turning it into a spectacle of compensatory super-ability. Closer, in particular, demonstrates the importance of the intentions of the filmmaker in including disability among notions of a diverse Indian culture. The move from a romantic representation in My Name is Khan to major characters that drive the narratives in Closer and I am Special: My World is Different indicates the changing attitude towards autism in Indian cinema. Where previously it served to flesh out other characters and complexities in the plot, it now warrants focus itself.

In addition to print and film, television is also an extremely powerful medium for spreading awareness about autism. In June 2009, an Indian television network with viewership in more than 120 countries reaching 500 million viewers globally launched a nightly serial called 'Aap Ki Antara'. The plot centred around a five-year old girl with autism. Each episode concluded with a three minute ‘testimonial’ from a family member of a person with autism, followed by the number of a telephone helpline and website for AFA. Aap Ki Antara was the first prime-time drama in a developing country, and perhaps in any country, to focus on a character with autism. The calls to the national helpline number suggest the potential power of a prime-time show to impact upon the awareness of autism amongst the general population and particularly amongst families of children with disabilities.

Public perception of autism is often based on these fictional portrayals in novels, biographies, movies, and TV series. These depictions of autism in media today are often made in a way that brings pity to the public and their concern of the topic, because their viewpoint is never actually shown, leaving the public without knowledge of autism and its diagnosis. Portrayals in the media of characters with a typical abilities may be misinterpreted by viewers as accurate portrayals of all autistic people and of autism itself. The portrayal of autism in media has indeed come a long way. But it has still further to go.