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The Latest Trend On TV: Characters With Asperger's

07/10/2013 03:06 pm ET | Updated Sep 09, 2013

the bridge

Introducing a character with Asperger's or autism on a TV show is hardly a new phenomenon, but it does seem to be more prevalent in pop culture lately. Is this trend on TV just the new, popular character quirk, or is it a sign of society's efforts to embrace and personify a disorder that has become more and more prevalent?

FX's "The Bridge" (premieres Wednesday, July 10 at 10 p.m. ET) is the latest TV show to feature a main character that has Asperger's -- in this case, Diane Kruger's leading lady Det. Sonya Cross -- and while it's unclear if it's necessary to the storytelling in the first few episodes, especially considering that it's never actually stated, it's the reason Kruger signed on for the series, the first TV starring role of her career.

"As soon as I started reading up on it, I realized that this was a really daunting undertaking because it's not something you can just put on," Kruger told The Hollywood Reporter. "It's a mind frame that I have to put myself into every day."

On the other end of the spectrum discussion is NBC's "Hannibal" -- in the pilot episode, it only took a few minutes for Laurence Fishburne's Jack Crawford to ask FBI analyst-turned-professor Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) where exactly he fell "on the spectrum." Will's particular brand of autism or Asperger's is never explicitly stated, but his laser-like focus, refusal to make eye contact, sympathizing with animals and solitary lifestyle are just a few of the indicators.

Is the use of that term "on the spectrum" in mainstream media surprising? "I hear it all the time in my work," says Dr. Mark McDonald, who has a specialty in child and adolescent psychiatry. "I do think that the expression has become more commonplace now. It's less of a technical term -- sort of how you would hear people say 'anal-retentive.' It's a very specific psychological term, but it's very commonly used, and has been for a long time, just to describe people who are very controlling.

"I don't know if ['the spectrum'] will become as common as that, or as OCD, but it's certainly come out of technical jargon into a much more common street use than it used to be. I certainly hear it a lot more than I ever did seven years ago when I first started studying it."

One show that not only mentions Asperger's and the autism "spectrum," but tackles it head-on is NBC's "Parenthood." Max Braverman (Max Burkholder) has been given several pivotal episodes and scenes since his character's Asperger's diagnosis, giving viewers a new take on family dynamics, but also something to talk about.

"Parenthood" showrunner Jason Katims has spoken at length about his decision to include a character with Asperger's, fully acknowledging that it would be an added effort to make the stories and portrayal authentic and to tell such personal stories since his own son has Asperger's. But in the end, these were stories worth telling, and the reaction to the character of Max has been an extremely positive one.

Burkholder previously spoke with The Huffington Post about the amount of research that goes into Max's storylines. "Every couple of episodes I have a meeting with the executive producer, and the director of the episodes, and sometimes some of the writers, and a doctor specializing in Asperger's and we just talk about what Max would be doing in certain situations, like how he would react to certain things and if everyone was over here doing this, what would Max be doing?" he said.

Dr. McDonald notes that a difficulty with social interaction is the most common trait of someone with Asperger's, noting that "their language development is normal, their IQs are high, they're very project-oriented, they complete concrete, repetitive or technical tasks very quickly and very well ... as long as they don't have to work with other people and manage the intricacies of social relationships."

Several other shows have touched on these indicators with their characters on the autism spectrum, to various degrees of success, including: "Grey's Anatomy's" Dr. Virginia Dixon (Mary McDonnell) in Season 5; "Fringe's" alternate-universe Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole); Jake Bohm (David Mazouz) on Kiefer Sutherland's "Touch"; Gary Bell (Ryan Cartwright) on "Alphas"; JJ (Ollie Barbieri) on the U.K.'s "Skins"; and Jerry Espenson (Christian Clemenson) from "Boston Legal," whose considerable physical quirks and awkward gestures earned him the nickname "Hands."

But not all TV characters are ready -- or willing -- to be diagnosed. "The Big Bang Theory's" Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) is probably one of the most obvious examples of a TV character who appears to have Asperger's, but co-creator Bill Prady has said that they've never written him with that specific intention, and they will never say that he does, indeed, have Asperger's.

Same goes for "Community's" Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), who most fans assume has Asperger's. He was even "diagnosed" on the show by Joel McHale's character Jeff Winger, but he'll probably never be truly diagnosed onscreen since talking about a person's medical conditions could easily take a show from being a comedy to being a "very special episode" of an '80s drama. However, Abed's particular character quirks famously prompted creator Dan Harmon to research Asperger's and, in turn, discover that he himself falls somewhere on the spectrum.

As a TV journalist, I'm of the mindset that any thoughtful portrayal is a good thing -- for starting a dialogue, for helping someone look into getting a diagnosis, for recognizing that people aren't cookie cutter characters, and TV characters shouldn't be either. But I also acknowledge that this isn't something I live with in my everyday life.

So I'm curious: Have you noticed the recent influx of TV characters with Asperger's? Do you think the condition is being thoughtfully explored on TV, or exploited? Who's getting it right?