Do’s and Don’ts of Neurodivergent representation


Lichen Fischer

Every time I hear about a new film revolving around or featuring a character with special needs, I am immediately skeptical. I have a sister with Down syndrome and I desperately want neurodivergent representation in Hollywood media.  

But let me be clear: I want good representation.

Throughout the years, I have watched movie studios humiliate themselves by disrespectfully representing special needs. While most of the time there is no harmful intent, there are still some instances where it’s obvious the film only included a neurodivergent person for popularity and tokenist benefits.

So how can movie studios represent neurodivergency properly and meaningfully?  Lucky for them, I have a few tips.

Don’t: Infantilize

Infantilization is treating someone like a little kid, even though they aren’t one. People seem to forget that those with disabilities aren’t ‘innocent,’ ‘cute’ or needing ‘protection.’ I believe wholeheartedly that the misconceptions of disability mainly stem from infantilization.

“Champions,” released March 10, 2023, did wonders in straying away from the Hollywood stereotype of infantilization. The plot revolves around the foreseeable sports redemption arc, neurodivergent edition. Although it’s predictable, what I appreciated from this movie is how they didn’t shy away from mature topics. In fact, they embraced it, providing unfiltered and natural talk from the players.

Do: Treat all characters equally

If there’s another fault of Hollywood films with neurodivergent characters, it’s the copy-paste personality: childish and seemingly stupid. Just because a character has a disability doesn’t mean it must be their whole personality. People with special needs are more than their diagnoses, my sister is more than her Down syndrome, and I’m sick of watching these characters’ personalities being dumbed down to simply their disabilities.

One of my favorite movies, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” (released in 2019), revolves around a man with Down syndrome escaping a residential nursing home in pursuit of his goal: becoming a pro wrestler. While his disability is relevant to the story, his qualities don’t solely orbit around it. Rather, his love for wrestling and hilarious stubbornness shines through.

Don’t: Cast a neurotypical actor for a neurodivergent role

While I thought this ‘don’t’ was obvious, it has unfortunately revealed itself as a problem.

In 2021, artist Sia released the horrid joke of a film called “Music.” Sia, in all her glory, decided to cast Maddie Ziegler as the autistic, non-verbal main character. Ziegler is a neurotypical actress mainly recognized for participating in the reality TV show Dance Moms. Ziegler being casted for this role is blatantly ableist. Rather than casting an actual actress with autism or any other disability, films like “Music” have favored the neurotypical. If a role involves a disability, cast someone who actually has that disability. When a neurotypical actor plays the part of a neurodivergent character, the misconception of neurodivergent actors being incapable only grows.


   With special needs inclusion becoming more common in media—such as Disney’s upcoming “Peter Pan & Wendy” movie including a Lost Boy with Down syndrome—it’s critical to do it right. Misrepresentation creates bad impressions and hurts not only my own personal sanity, but also the actors and community the representation was intended for.