April is Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month, so we’re highlighting some great actors, writers and directors on the autism spectrum you should know about. This list only includes those who openly identify as autistic, though there are likely many more autistic people in the film and TV industries who are either undiagnosed or private about their diagnosis. With that said, let’s look at thirteen prominent members of the entertainment industry who are on the autism spectrum.
Anthony Hopkins destroys the misconception that autistic people can’t be great actors. Everyone’s aware of his legendary performances, from Hannibal Lecter to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Odin; he just received his sixth Oscar nomination for his role in The Father. However, not everyone is aware that he is on the autism spectrum.
Speaking with the Desert Sun in 2017, Hopkins stated, “I’ve been diagnosed with Asperger’s, but I’m high end. A lot of people with Asperger’s are highly functional, but inconsistent.” Asperger Syndrome is no longer technically in the DSM-V, now being grouped generally under the label of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Daryl Hannah was diagnosed with autism in childhood, and in the 1960s, that meant threats of institutionalization. Fortunately, her mom ignored that advice, and Hannah went on to star in a series of great movies, from Blade Runner to Kill Bill.
Hannah’s most serious challenge related to autism is her extreme shyness. Though she enjoys acting, she decidedly does not enjoy doing press for movies or being a celebrity. Because of this, she only works in acting sporadically these days, opting to instead focus her efforts on environmental activism.
One of the most common traits of autism is intense specialized interests. For Dan Aykroyd, who was officially diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome at age 12 and has since self-diagnosed as having Asperger Syndrome, these special interests include criminology and the supernatural. His knowledge of the former was essential in writing The Blues Brothers, while his obsession with the latter was the driving force behind the creation of Ghostbusters.
Billy West’s voice-acting resume is extensive. He’s played the Red M&M, Doug Funnie, both Ren and Stimpy, several Looney Tunes and approximately half the main cast of Futurama, among other roles. He also has both autism and ADHD. He revealed his autism diagnosis on Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, explaining that the reason he got so passionate about voice acting was that it was “the only stuff that translated to me and made sense.”
Dan Harmon realized he might be on the spectrum while working on Community. When he started writing the sitcom, he had initially intended the cynical self-obsessed protagonist Jeff Winger to be his self-insert character, but he started to realize he had more in common than he thought with Abed Nadir, the autistic character who coped with social situations by treating them like a TV show.
Harmon’s experiences on Community drove him to see a therapist and begin the process of receiving a professional autism diagnosis. Rick Sanchez, the anti-hero of Harmon’s next hit series Rick and Morty, is also identified as autistic and could be considered a hybrid of Jeff and Abed.
You might not know him by name, but you’ve likely seen character actor Paddy Considine in shows like Peaky Blinders and The Third Day or movies like Hot Fuzz or The Bourne Ultimatum. He also wrote and directed the critically acclaimed films Tyrranosaur and Journeyman. Considine was diagnosed with both Asperger Syndrome and Irlen Syndrome, a condition that makes it difficult to process visual stimuli.
Kayla Cromer is the first openly autistic actor to play an autistic character on American television, starring as the teenage musician Matilda on Everything’s Gonna Be Okay. The series’ second season premieres Thursday, April 8 on Freeform. Cromer also has dyscalculia, dyslexia and ADHD, and has special interests in true crime and the paranormal. Her dream role is Squirrel Girl in the MCU.
Josh Thomas, the creator of Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, had to do a lot of self-searching about why exactly he was so passionate about making a show about autism. Many fans had interpreted Nicholas, his character on the show based heavily on himself, as having autistic traits, and after one of the show’s neurodiversity consultants agreed with these fan theories, Thomas ended up with an autism diagnosis himself. The queer Australian comedian previously made another hit semi-autobiographical series, Please Like Me.
Hannah Gadsby was an actor and writer on Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me, where she examined her experiences with depression through dark humor. She broke out in the United States with her live show and Netflix special Nanette, which starts off as a stand-up comedy before evolving into something a lot less funny. Nanette was allegedly her retirement from comedy, but its huge success led her to make another stand-up special, Douglas, in which she speaks directly about her experiences as an autistic woman.
Jorge Gutierrez’s visually distinct cartooning style and strong interest in traditional Mexican culture made a strong impression on audiences in the Nickelodeon cartoon El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera and the movie The Book of Life. He is currently working on the Netflix miniseries Maya and the Three. Gutierrez was diagnosed with autism shortly after his son was.
Maxwell Atoms is the creator of the delightfully twisted Cartoon Network hit The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, as well as its less-successful sister series Evil Con Carne. He’s also worked on Cow and Chicken, Chowder, Fish Hooks, Bunnicula and multiple Scooby-Doo movies, and did voices for the Hazbin Hotel pilot. In February 2021, he wrote on his Tumblr account, “I have Aspergers and every single social interaction I have is anxiety-inducing.”
David F. Sandberg
David F. Sandberg launched his directing career with the horror films Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation before entering the DC Extended Universe as the director of Shazam! He is currently working on the sequel Shazam!: Fury of the Gods and also makes YouTube video essays about the art of filmmaking. In one of these video essays, on the topic of how he works as an introverted director, he notes he was diagnosed with “atypical autism,” though he prefers not to talk extensively on the subject.
Perhaps the most famous autistic rock star, David Byrne got into filmmaking by writing, directing and narrating the 1986 musical comedy True Stories, which was not a commercial success but has since developed a cult following and been included in the Criterion Collection. Byrne’s contributions to film and television also include composing the scores for the likes of The Last Emperor and Big Love, as well as starring in some of the most acclaimed concert films of all time, including Stop Making Sense and American Utopia.