Growing up with a younger brother with autism, it has always been disheartening catching the disapproving gazes of passersby whenever my sibling would have a meltdown from being overstimulated in a public space. Though he’s had autism for years, and my brother has now found coping mechanisms that work for him, a creeping anxiety about how he will manage in a new environment always lives in the back of my mind—no matter how old he is.
There is a prevailing issue of people with autism being severely misunderstood, from the myth that every autistic person has a niche talent to the perception that those on the spectrum have an inability to be independent. In an ideal world, I would hope for my brother’s mannerisms and speech patterns to be accepted by the people he meets, without a barrage of invasive questions about how he was raised, or whether or not he could eventually become ‘normal’.
A recent answer to my prayers came in the form of increased representation of people with autism in mainstream media. One example of this is the rising popularity of Korean legal drama Extraordinary Attorney Woo. The show’s protagonist is a delightful rookie lawyer, Woo Young-woo—a genius with a high IQ of 164 and who graduated summa cum laude from Seoul National University’s law school. However, she struggles daily with social interactions. Her experiences open up many doors of conversation about autism, providing a perspective that does not victimise people on the spectrum or perpetuate negative stereotypes. Instead, the episodes are focused on Woo’s tenacity and the power of a strong support system.
As wonderful as the series is, it captures only a fraction of what the autistic community experiences. Here, Vogue Singapore rounds up five other shows with diverse portrayals of characters with autism—each one with a unique story to tell.
1 / 5
The Good Doctor
Meet the bright-eyed and charming Shaun Murphy, an aspiring surgeon who joins San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital as a surgical resident. Murphy is autistic and has savant syndrome, making him exceptionally gifted in visualising complex medical problems. Thrust into the high-stakes world of a hospital emergency room, he finds himself having to work twice as hard to overcome the prejudices of the hospital board and sceptical colleagues—all while having to navigate a new environment since relocating from quiet country life.
Coupled with baggage from unresolved childhood trauma, Murphy’s journey to success with new friends by his side is truly fulfilling to watch. Fans of K-dramas can also delight in knowing that The Good Doctor is based on the original Korean series entitled Good Doctor, which provides similarly addictive storytelling.
Watch The Good Doctor here.
2 / 5
A heartwarming coming-of-age story, Atypical is led by Sam Gardner, a teen with autism who decides that he is ready to find love—much to the chagrin of his well-meaning but overprotective mother. What follows is a steep learning curve for both Gardner and his family, as the endearing protagonist goes through a series of challenges to gain more independence while his mother relooks her parenting methods to release her strong grip on the reigns of Gardner’s life. Placing character development at the forefront, Atypical shows the ups and downs of Gardner’s life as he navigates adolescence without defining him by his autism—a must-watch for all.
Watch Atypical here.
3 / 5
Move to Heaven
The memorabilia we collect over the years tell stories of the lives we have led, transcending our lifetimes. Exploring this phenomenon is Move to Heaven, a Korean series following Han Geu-ru, a young man with Asperger’s syndrome. As a trauma cleaner, Han cleans up the possessions of the recently deceased, packing them into yellow boxes which are then passed on to family members to provide them with closure. Together with his uncle, Han uncovers the stories of those who have passed—each one an enthralling tale. Keep a box of tissues on hand, as Geu-ru’s journey to finding himself after a severed relationship with his father is as heart-wrenching as the stories he encounters on the job.
Watch Move to Heaven here.
4 / 5
The Victims' Game
Asian crime films rarely disappoint, and The Victims’ Game is no different. Fang Yi-Jen is a forensic detective with Asperger’s syndrome unrelenting in his pursuit of the truth, often landing him in hot water with his colleagues or the powers that be. Still, Fang’s troubled relationship with fellow detectives is the least of his worries when he discovers a fingerprint from his estranged teenage daughter on the corpse of a murder victim. Fearing his daughter may be in grave danger, he sets out on a hunt, hoping evidence from the case will lead him to her. Packed with thrilling suspense and action, each episode of the series will have you on the edge of your seat.
Watch The Victims’ Game here.
5 / 5
An evergreen sitcom that was ahead of its time, Community is an ensemble-comedy that begins with disgraced ex-lawyer Jeff Winger joining Greendale Community College. There, he meets a chaotic study group full of zany characters who eventually become his best friends. Amongst the group is fan-favourite Abed Nadir, a methodical character who initially appears to be devoid of emotions, but is soon revealed to have lots of them.
Affectionately dubbed a lovable robot, Nadir’s character is a refreshing representation of autism, since he is not particularly gifted in any particular field and is yet an equal and valuable member of the group. If the show seems slow at the start, hold on till you get past the second episode, for the quirky characters, meta humour and stellar writing will surely have you invested by then.
Watch Community here.