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Autistic Representation in Children’s Media

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Children like to see themselves represented on their favorite television shows, movies, and in other media. For most kids, that is done easily enough. It can be a little trickier for kids who are neurodivergent to find a likeness of themselves. Below are some autistic characters who have shown up over the years in a variety of children’s programming. Autistic children are sure to find a reflection of some of their personality traits in these characters.

Bruno from Thomas and Friends

Thomas the Tank Engine has been a staple of children’s media for decades, whether it be through television, movies, books, or toys.  Bruno Thomas and Friends first appearance came in series two. This made him both the first autistic character on the show, as well as the first caboose! 

While our first character here isn’t human, he still takes on human traits just like the other trains in the series. Bruno makes friends easily because of his good sense of humor and easy-going attitude. Because he is autistic, his character also has a focus on being detail-oriented and he loves his daily train routine. His train number is also 43, which is because autism was formally recognized in 1943.

Julia from Sesame Street

Julia is a muppet on Sesame Street who has many human characteristics, both physically and in her personality. Unlike some of the other muppets on the show, she looks more or less like a human. Her character is meant to portray a four-year-old girl who has recently been diagnosed with autism. Like Bruno, she is also the first official autistic character on this show, first appearing on Seasame Street in 2017.

Unlike Bruno, Julia’s autism is a main feature of her character. Her character is friends with many of the other muppets. Through her conversations with them, she tries to teach them about autistic children and how they are different/similar to children who do not have autism. So, while Julia might not be the best representation of what autistic children are really like, non-autistic children can learn a little more about their autistic peers by watching Julia’s episodes.

AJ Gadgets from Hero Elementary

Finally, we reach a human character, even if he is a cartoon character. AJ Gadgets is a young boy who attends an elementary school just for kids with superpowers or who otherwise want to become heroes. In a way, he is like a little Tony Stark/Ironman-type character. He saves the day using various gizmos and gadgets that he invents all by himself.

Unlike the other characters in this list, AJ is part of the cast of main characters in his show. He appears in every episode. While it is mentioned that he is autistic, it is not a main factor in the show– ie, it’s not mentioned all of the time. Instead, he is treated the same as the other characters. At the same time, he teaches his friends how to be more inclusive and understanding of kids with autism. He does this in little ways throughout each episode.

Max Braverman from Parenthood

While not entirely a kid’s show, Parenthood is a show about four adult siblings who are working together to raise their families. In the United States, the show is rated PG-14 due to some tough content, smoking, and mild language. Parents should watch the episodes first to decide if their child is old enough to watch the show.

One of the best parts about this show is that it is live-action. Even though the actor who plays Max, Max Burkholder, is not autistic, he did a considerable amount of research into autism and Aspburger’s to make sure he was portraying the character accurately. Because Parenthood is not strictly a children’s show, Max’s character isn’t trying to teach the audience or other characters a lesson. He is simply living as a young boy with autism.

It can be difficult to find autism represented well in children’s media. Try out some of these shows to see these characters for yourself. 

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Christopher Stern
Christopher Stern is a Washington-based reporter. Chris spent many years covering tech policy as a business reporter for renowned publications. He has extensive experience covering Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Federal Trade Commissions. He is a graduate of Middlebury College. Email:[email protected]

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