As fans on TikTok have pointed out, schoolteacher Gregory Eddie, played by Tyler James Williams, shows certain traits common to people who have ASD, like meticulously planning, making blunt statements that his peers consider socially inappropriate, having a blank expression, having a aversion to certain foods, and standing up against illogical and unjust social conventions. Regardless of whether Gregory actually has ASD (viewers, of course, cannot diagnosis him), it's important that none of these traits are presented in a negative light. Some experts say this is helpful for normalizing the lived experience of people who have autism.
- Alyssa Jean Salter, neurodiversity and disability specialist
- Anjali Ferguson, PhD, clinical psychologist based in Richmond, VA
- Chelsea Wages, MFTC, marriage and family therapist based in Colorado Springs
- Corrie Goldberg, PhD, clinical psychologist based in Chicago
- Michelle Hunt, LMHC, licensed therapist with Empower Your Mind Therapy
- Robyn Linscott, policy manager for The Arc of the United States
Developing a character with traits common to someone with autism without labeling them as having the disability is known as “autistic coding,” says Corrie Goldberg, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago who works with people with ASD. Autistic coding can be useful because it allows for the character in question to be well-rounded and multidimensional, rather than being defined by their autism. “Autistic-coded characters tend to be represented with a broader range of personality traits, skills, idiosyncrasies, and complexities than characters who are explicitly written as autistic,” she says.
As an autistic person myself, I am hopeful that a broader range of characters in media with traits in line with autism can help all people view ASD with increasingly less stigma. The truth is that as many as one in 44 Americans have ASD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and many people know someone with autism without even realizing it.
How autistic coding in Abbott Elementary is a representation win
In addition to Gregory's character not revolving around any potential diagnosis, it's also beneficial for people with autism to see his portrayal as an example of not needing to disclose a disability. “Someone’s neurodivergence or diagnosis of autism is a personal decision of how or if they chose to identify with that lens—a decision that should remain the individual’s and not a descriptor for an observer,” says clinical psychologist Anjali Ferguson, PhD. By using autistic coding rather than explicit labeling, Abbott Elementary is backing up the reality that there's no need for anyone to broadcast any diagnosis should they prefer not to.
"One thing that is important about Gregory, for me, is that his differences and particularities are not the butts of the joke.” —Alyssa Jean Salter, a neurodiversity and disability specialist
Intersectionality is another positive component of the character of Gregory, in that he is both Black and coded with traits common to people with autism, giving a face to two historically under- and misrepresented communities. To the point of misrepresentation, it's key to note that some traits of Gregory’s that could be read as being hallmarks of autism are depicted as strengths. "One thing that is important about Gregory, for me, is that his differences and particularities are not the butts of the joke,” says Alyssa Jean Salter, a neurodiversity and disability specialist who has ASD herself. “He is loved and supported because he is respected and cared for by the other characters. They do not mock or abuse him for being different.”
This is great because common depictions of people with autism “lead to the impression that autism is only a struggle—something to be conquered or triumphed over—and does not show autistic people for who they are as human beings,” says Robyn Linscott, policy manager for The Arc of the United States, which works toward inclusion for people with disabilities.
Finally, given that adults with ASD are disproportionately unemployed, Abbott Elementary coding Gregory as a person who could have autism who is also accepted in his workplace is helpful for supporting the reality that people who are neurodiverse can be effective workers. “It also provides autistic viewers a chance to see people like them being meaningfully included in society and functioning in the world," Dr. Goldberg adds. Exclusively showing people with ASD struggling because of their disability contributes to the false narrative that having autism is a negative, always-debilitating thing, and Gregory's autistic coding helps turns that narrative on its head.
The room for improvement that still exists for on-screen portrayals of ASD
Despite her awareness of these benefits of autistic coding in Abbott Elementary and other media, Dr. Goldberg has mixed feelings about the fact that the word “autism” is never used on the show. “To only label certain portrayals of the autistic experience marginalizes autistic people who do not fit those often stereotyped examples,” she says. “Additionally, showing autistic characters without acknowledging them as autistic can reinforce messages of shame for neurological differences and create pressure for autistic people to ‘mask’ in order to be accepted.” It is possible, after all, for a character to identify as having autism without that diagnosis being central to their role or negative in spirit.
Michelle Hunt, LMHC, a licensed therapist with Empower Your Mind Therapy, agrees that it would be beneficial for the show to describe Gregory as autistic: “Naming it—and showing he can interact with others, hold a job, and form authentic bonds with children—shows that there is an overall misconception of autism in the world.” She adds that it wouldn’t be too late to bring this into the storyline, perhaps by starting a discussion about late diagnosis or masking of autistic symptoms.
Some people with ASD feel conflicted about the way that Gregory’s antics—similar to those of Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory, who some also believe to be coded as autistic—are used for humor (even if jokes are not blatantly at his expense). “It’s the fact that it made me laugh at the very outward, awkward, overly dramatized behaviors he exhibited that concerns me,” says Rose Lauren Hughes, a neurodiversity and disability specialist at Bened Life who has ASD.
As one idea to take autistic coding to another level of meaning for representation, Hughes says she’d like to see more characters with autism played by actors with autism—or at least developed with input from people with autism. She also believes there should be more female characters on-screen who have ASD.
Despite these areas for improvement, Abbott Elementary can serve as a good starting point for positive representation of ASD on-screen. It may inspire more creators in TV, movies, and other media to develop a diverse range of characters with ASD who possess many important qualities besides their diagnosis.
“Focusing on commonalities with peers, development of meaningful relationships, working through complex problems, and achievement of goals should be incorporated into the development of all characters in media, but especially characters with neurodivergence,” says Chelsea Wages, MFTC, a resident in counseling specializing in neurodivergence with Thriveworks. “We are more alike than we are different, and this is an opportunity for media to celebrate differences while also creating an inclusive environment.”
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