In a recent Curb Your Enthusiasm episode (Season 9, “Namaste”) Larry David pretends to be on the autism spectrum to win sympathy from an African-American mechanic he has insulted. Of course, as widely noted in the autism blogosphere, this is insensitive and inappropriate. But there is more honesty (and humor) in this one scene than in all of the fantasy that Hollywood continues to put out on autism this fall–including through such high-profile shows as The Good Doctor and Atypical. Here’s why we should take notice.

For the past decade, autism has exploded in popular culture, so that it is simply impossible to turn on the television or go to the movies without an autism reference or character on the autism spectrum. When I started in the autism community in 1991, Rain Man, was the main and near sole autism reference in popular culture. In just the past five years, more than twenty movies and television shows have appeared with characters on the autism spectrum—to say nothing of tens of memoirs, novels, and young adult fiction.     An adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon’s popular 2003 book featuring a teen on the autism spectrum, is winning applause on Broadway.

This multiplicity of material is to be welcomed. There is no one autism story. As is often said, persons on the autism spectrum differ widely in skills, interests, behavioral traits, activities–“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” and so on.

Yet, among Hollywood’s main shows, the dominant autism narrative is a narrow one. It is primarily of autism as the quirky savant: the brilliant or near-brilliant person, whose autism is mainly difficulties in social communication. On The Good Doctor, Shaun Murphy, the character on the autism spectrum, is able to diagnose medical conditions that confuse and confound other doctors, including doctors many years his senior. On Atypical, 18-year-old Sam Gardener, who is on the spectrum, possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of penguins, rare fish and Antarctica.

Yes, there are persons in the autism community like this—though savant skills are most often accompanied by more severe social dysfunctions than shown on these television shows. However, these savants and near-savants constitute a small range of persons on the autism spectrum—estimated at well less than 10%. For most, autism is more than the somewhat-endearing behaviors that the television characters demonstrate as defining autism: failure to make eye contact, or filter statements, or understand social cues.

The Good Doctor, on network television, is watched by a stunning 17.8 million viewers per week. The producers and writers understand the elements of successful medical dramas (as far back as Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare of the 1960s), and skillfully incorporate these elements. Autism is not the drawing card. Yet, the show in its success significantly shapes how many Americans are being introduced to autism. So often today when autism comes up in a non-autism community audience, The Good Doctor and Atypical will be mentioned. (Netflix does not release viewership numbers, but Atypical has been popular enough to be renewed for a second season.)

Among autism family members, practitioners and advocates, the views of these shows are not all negative. Some see the heightened profile of autism, and its generation of autism discussion, to be a big positive. “What’s the saying, any publicity is good publicity” notes Jan Johnston-Tyler, a Silicon Valley advocate and well-known autism job expert—who nonetheless cringes at some of the surface understandings of autism.

A more common view is that these shows make the work of people in the autism community not easier but more difficult. David Platzer is an anthropologist of autism employment (profiled earlier this year), who is deeply involved in trying to create new employment opportunities for adults on the autism spectrum. Platzer explains:

“Pervasive popular culture representations of autism as entailing savant or savant like skills, such as Atypical and The Good Doctor, can create real problems for those of us working to promote employment for folks across the autism spectrum. When employers or potential employers equate autism with genius and mild social eccentricity, they are not adequately prepared for the patience and dedication that working with a broader autistic population often entails. In many ways, the representations of autism we see in Hollywood are actually setting the community up for failure. And this is especially so for those who experience more significant challenges.”

Platzer is spot on. In 2017, autism employment initiatives throughout the country have continued to grow in autism-focused small businesses, autism self-employment and internet-based creative collectives, and autism targeted hiring efforts in major companies. But it has been a slow process this past year, in part as the reality of autism employment has conflicted with the idealized versions held by company officials.

For example, in Silicon Valley, neurodiversity is gaining currency, and major tech companies are widely discussing autism hiring programs. But only a few new hires have been made this year, in part as firms have found that persons with autism are not all near-savants. While they often possess unusual skills and upbeat personalities, they also often possess other challenges that go beyond small issues like making eye contact.

As autism employment programs are evolving, we are understanding the key role of employer patience. This is not really different from patience that all workers benefit from in learning a job, in being allowed to make mistakes without immediately being fired. The autism employment programs that are succeeding are employers committed to giving time for mastering job tasks, for not panicking, for being in it for the long run. But who will provide this patience if they think they are getting the brilliant Dr. Shaun Murphy or Sam Gardener?

And what of the more severely impacted among the autism community? We say that there should be a place in the job world for persons of all abilities. But, as Jill Escher notes in a powerful recent commentary, the characterizations on these shows, makes this claim a joke.

Which brings us back to the recent Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. Larry David doesn’t try to shoehorn autism into a thirty minute sitcom or lecture us about autism. The episode doesn’t have a Hollywood ending in which Larry comes to a “teachable moment” or reconciles with Bridget’s son who we are told is on the autism spectrum. At one point, Larry’s agent Jeff notes that most people he knows with autism are delightful people. But for the most part the show treats autism with the same irreverence as it treats all subjects. The episode is provocative, brings attention to the subject, without the didactic tone and self-congratulation of these other shows.

There is an earlier example of Hollywood getting autism right. This year is the 45th anniversary of A Child Called Noah. The book is part of a trilogy by Hollywood screenwriter Jeff Greenfield (Harry and Tonto) about his more severely autistic son, Noah. Noah’s condition no more defines autism than does Dr. Shaun Murphy’s condition or Sam Gardener’s condition. But Greenfield’s books are grounded in experience, with more than paint-by-the-numbers autism individuals and families. With their depth and insight (and humor), these books continue to be relevant today.

(One additional point: In these shows, the autism community is portrayed as a joyless place, where family members and others soldier on. In Atypical, Sam’s mother and father are portrayed as alternately whining about their lot and stoically bearing the burden of a family member on the autism spectrum. The other parents are shown as weary and beaten down, and both the support group leader and Sam’s therapist portrayed as smug and clueless. None of this captures the family or autism community dynamic as I’ve known it in Northern California for nearly thirty years.)