For years, film & TV show characters with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were almost always played by a neurotypical actor. Meanwhile, a number of actors and actresses with (often undiagnosed) autism pursued the craft they loved playing neurotypical characters, and only later received an autism diagnosis after facing challenges in their off screen lives.
Now casting is going through a new era, with directors and casting directors making an effort to find genuine neurodiverse talent for screen characters with autism, we will hopefully see more actors and actresses with autism playing these parts. But we should also see a steady stream of new performers with ASD playing characters without disability too, because talented individuals often just need space and understanding to reach great heights.
So let’s hear how some of the successful actors and actresses with autism spectrum disorder have used their talents and overcome the challenges in their lives and careers to play some of the most memorable characters on screen.
As a boy, Dan Akroyd was expelled from two schools and an analyst identified mild Tourette syndrome.
In the 1980s, Dan Aykroyd was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome following his wife’s suggestion that he sought an assessment.
The Academy Award-nominated American comedic actor is known for his roles in Ghostbusters and The Blues Brothers. He strongly feels that drawing on his special interests in law enforcement and the ghost hunter Hans Holzer played an important part in his acting for the Ghostbusters films.
Credit – Strombo: Dan Aykroyd Talks Mental Health And Acting
Daryl Hannah was a child when she received a diagnosis of autism, following concerns about her repetitive rocking and social difficulties. Thankfully, her mother, who was a schoolteacher, rejected the medication and institutionalisation offered by doctors in an age when autism was largely misunderstood.
Fascinated by movies, she focussed on acting, winning roles in Blade Runner, Splash, Wall Street, Steel Magnolias, and Kill Bill. But she later revealed that she was reluctant to do talk shows and movie premieres, because she was frightened of the social interaction required. In later life she has found ways to actively participate in the climate protest movement, despite feeling uncomfortable at big events.
Credit – ABC News: Daryl Hannah Reveals Her Autism to Hollywood
Sir Anthony Hopkins
Like many famous actors with autism, Sir Anthony Hopkins seems to have obtained his Aspergers diagnosis late in life. He revealed the diagnosis in an interview with The Desert Sun, published in January 2017.
The Welsh actor, film director, and film producer was playing leading roles in movies by his early 30s, and his work includes The Elephant Man, Howards End, The Remains of the Day, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, Meet Joe Black, several Thor films, and Transformers: The Last Knight.
He describes himself as being very insecure, but recognising this is part of being human. He is also comfortable with his reclusive nature, and seems happy to have no craving for close personal friends.
Credit – Larry King: If You Only Knew : Anthony Hopkins | Larry King Now
In 2020, Princeton graduate and star of the long-running Prison Break series revealed he’d been recently diagnosed with autism. He included thanks to those people who had given him an extra bit of grace and space over the years.
Credit – The Hollywood Reporter: ‘Prison Break’ Star Wentworth Miller Reveals He Has Autism | THR News
English actor, director, screenwriter, and musician Paddy Constantine has appeared in dozens of films and TV series including Hot Fuzz and Peaky Blinders.
In 2011 Paddy Constantine was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. He had struggled for years with eye contact, intrusive thoughts, and other atypical social behaviours. He was also diagnosed with Irlen Syndrome, which affects the way the brain processes light and is common amongst people with autism.
He had gained a reputation as a difficult subject for journalist interviews, but diagnosis meant a change in other people’s expectations and attitudes, and the actor now gives confident and relaxed interviews.
Credit – Lorraine: Paddy Considine on His Asperger’s Diagnosis | Lorraine
Australian comedian, writer and actor Hannah Gadsby is an ambassador for Yellow Ladybugs, which aims to improve support for women and girls with autism.
Screen credits include The Librarians, Underbelly, Please Like Me and Hitpig, but it was Nannette which made her internationally well known.
Hannah’s diagnosis came in adulthood, as the way autism presents for many girls and women is only now becoming better understood. She finds some everyday experiences, such as going to the supermarket, very difficult and even frightening. Understanding her diagnoses means she has been able to evaluate ways to adapt her environment.
Credit – Skavlan: Hannah Gadsby on getting diagnosed with autism: – It really made a lot of sense | SVT/TV 2/Skavlan
British autistic actor Jules Robertson was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of three. Known for playing autistic character Jason Haynes in Holby City, Jules enjoyed drama classes and got his break into the industry after completing a year long training course with the Access All Areas theatre company.
Jules has a superb long term memory and the drive to pursue a lot of passions. He has worked hard to overcome the stress and exhaustion of working on set, and also convinced others on set that disabled people are the right choice for playing diabled characters on set.
Credit – Scope – Equality for disabled people: 30 Under 30 – Interview with Holby City Actor Jules Robertson
Welsh actor Travis Smith was just a teenager when he filmed series 2 and 3 of the A Word.
He received his autism and Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis during his primary school years. As an autistic child and teenager, high anxiety levels caused a lot of disruption to his education.
But working on the A Word and then for Able Radio has helped the young actor grow, develop, learn to overcome challenges, and enjoy good mental health.
Credit – Able Tv: “The A Word” – Meet Mark (Travis Smith)
While Chris Packham is a TV presenter and wildlife campaigner rather than an actor, he has been on British TV screens for more than 30 years.
For many years, Chris Packham did not want to be different, so he was in his 40s before he received his Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis. However, his willingness to talk on TV and radio about his autism diagnosis has greatly increased autism awareness across the UK.
Credit – BBC Stories: “Why I wouldn’t change my Asperger’s” Chris Packham – BBC Stories
Anne Hegerty is a British television presenter and not an actress, but she’s a celebrity with autism who has excelled in her field.
Anne was almost 46 when she received her Asperger’s diagnoses in 2005. It was a 2003 documentary on TV which made her first question whether she should seek an assessment, because she recognised some of her own autistic traits some of the scenes she watched.
Credit – Loose Women: Anne Hegerty on Living and Working With Asperger’s | Loose Women
Oska Bright Film Festival
The Oska Bright Film Festival is a leading festival for films made by, or featuring, people with learning disabilities or autism.
So whether you are a filmmaker working with actors with autism, or an aspiring ASD film director, the Oska Bright Film Festival may be a good destination to get your films seen.
We haven’t included many famous people who claim an informal autism diagnosis based on personal awareness of their autistic traits, but instead concentrated on those who are confirmed by experts to be on the autistic spectrum.
Some people in the autism community know how to adeptly mask, so playing a non autistic person on stage or screen is, for many, an extension of everyday life. And in some ways it’s even easier than real life social situations, as the script, direction and rehearsals can be a liberating form of social interaction.
So it is perhaps not surprising that some famous people with autism spectrum disorder chose an acting or TV presenting career, even though a job around people and cameras may seem incompatible with someone who hates social interaction, noise, lights and uncertainty.
With increased autism awareness, perhaps we’ll have more film sets and routines slightly adapted to help get the best performance and personal well being from actors in the autism community.
The more we have directors, producers and casting directors who welcome actors with disability to our screens, the more our screen stories will include autism representation and better reflect the world we all live in.