Trapped Children: Popular Images of Children with Autism

| January 15, 2011

I stumbled across an interesting paper on images of Autism in the media, today. The author distinguishes two typical media images: the Broken/Fragmented Person, and the Imprisoned Person. My first thought is that these images are not particular to Autism, but represent ways of thinking about our world and threats to it in general. Applying them to extreme cases like Autism serve to highlight one pole of what amounts to a narrative of transition. Around Autism and Aspergers Syndrome the preferred term is “spectrum” typically couching the whole range in terms of a deficit model, and implying that one simply is where one is.

But if these models exceed their use within the specific diagnosis of Autism, we should not be surprised to see that they are persistent within educational discourse as well. Education is often defined by its challenge, its way of envisioning the journey out of the threat. And the two images detailed in this article should be familiar in education: the student is fragmented and broken (often implicating the mother), or the student is imprisoned, deep within themselves, desperate to get out.

The article suggests that we should be attending to the actual narratives used by those with Autism. Which raises an interesting question regarding educational narratives: where would we locate these alternative narratives, and from what perspective can we imagine their emergence? Which is to say, are they themselves to be considered “fragmented” or “trapped?”

Here’s a link to the original article:

Trapped Children: Popular Images of Children with … [J Med Humanit. 2011] – PubMed result.


The lay public inherits much of its information about disability and mental illness through the media, which often relies on information from popular scientific works. Autism, as it was defined during the dominance of psychogenic paradigms of mental illness, generated certain tropes surrounding it, many of which have been popularized through media representations. Often inaccurate, these tropes have persisted into contemporary times despite a paradigmatic shift from psychogenic to biological explanations and treatments for mental illness. The current article examines images and articles of children with autism from the 1960s and the early 2000s in major news media and scientific literature to highlight the persistence of themes of fragmentation and the imprisonment of children with autism. While these themes have persisted in psychological and media literature, narratives of people with autism and their families often present a different perspective. This results in two divergent ‘realities’ of autism being disseminated into the general public.