special needs actors
Image: "RJ Mitte speaking at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con International in San Diego, California." by Gage Skidmore (Edited in Canva)

Putting a high-profile actor in a role where they are asked to portray a character with special needs is nothing new and has been taking place for quite some time. What we should be wondering is, why? Why not cast the part to someone who understands every aspect of the role?

Television and movie casting has improved immensely over the last ten years in regards to this very issue. There are several actors and actresses who line the screens and have special needs - some make it well known while others tend to keep it a little quieter. Either way we appreciate them all the same! Acting is a tough gig to begin with so let’s take a look at some of the best actors and actresses with special needs we see on our screens today:

special needs actors
Image by Kristin Dos Santos via CC

1. Lauren Potter

Lauren is a crowd-favorite actress with Down Syndrome - About one in every 700 children are born with Down Syndrome each year making it the most common chromosomal condition in the United States.

Her biggest role so far has been starring on the television show Glee as a cheerleader and one of the few people who can go toe-to-toe with the leading “bad guy” of the show played by Jane Lynch.

In addition to this breakout role for Potter, her and co-star Lynch align with the mission to end the use of the “R-word.”

You can watch their PSA that aired after one of Glee’s episodes in the link.

Actors like Potter are helping to advocate for those they represent and raise awareness of things that can be offensive, like her “R-word” platform.

special needs actors
"Jamie Brewer" by Red Carpet Report via Creative Commons

2. Jamie Brewer

Jamie is another actress who has Down Syndrome, most commonly known for her role on the spooky, one-day-to-be cult classic t.v. series,  American Horror Story.

Brewer has worked on three of the seasons for this horror anthology and has really excelled in giving us some good chills and creepy vibes through playing a clairvoyant, a witch and a ventriloquist’s doll. Her roles aren’t focused solely on her Down Syndrome, which is amazing. It’s a necessity to start breaking the stereotypes and myths involved with people with special needs.

On that same token, during the first season Brewer was featured, AHS tackled some of the issues that can arise in families with special needs characters - though they chose to highlight some of the darker ones,  as hard as it can be to watch it is important to create awareness of (rare) situations such as verbal abuse.

special needs actors
"RJ Mitte / Betsy Brandt / RJ Mitte" by Peabody Awards

3. R.J. Mitte

R.J. emerged on the scene with quite the opportunity on the hit show Breaking Bad.

This actor has Cerebral Palsy, referred to as CP, which affects body movement, muscle control, muscle coordination, muscle tone, reflex, posture and balance.

It can also impact fine motor skills, gross motor skills and oral motor functioning (Learn more here).

His character on the show also has CP.

Mitte travels across the country talking about his experiences, and is a spokesperson for the Inclusion in the Arts and Media of Performers with Disabilities, as well as for actors with disabilities in the Screen Actors Guild.

special needs actors
"Bailee Madison and Marlee Matlin" by State Farm via CC

4. Marlee Matlin

Marlee Matlin, a hearing impaired actress, has been in several nominated films and critically acclaimed t.v. shows. She was the youngest actress to win the Best Actress Oscar at the age of 21 after landing her first speaking role in “Children of a Lesser God”.

Matlin lost the majority of her hearing when by the time she was just over a year old. She’s is a great symbol of empowerment and overcoming the obstacles that come from special needs such as hearing loss.

Matlin is also a published author and has strong ties to philanthropy and giving back to several communities that have disabilities, special needs and different ailments. She’s an all around A-lister.

special needs actors
"Tim Burton" by Gage Skidmore via CC

5. Tim Burton

Tim Burton is a special case here - he’s not ON screen but he may as well be as we see his personality in all of his films. He was diagnosed later in life with Aspergers.

Some of the qualities associated with this form of autism include:

  • limited or inappropriate social interactions
    • "robotic" or repetitive speech
    • challenges with nonverbal communication (gestures, facial expression, etc.) coupled with average to above average verbal skills
    • tendency to discuss self rather than others
    • inability to understand social/emotional issues or nonliteral phrases
    • lack of eye contact or reciprocal conversation
    • obsession with specific, often unusual, topics
    • one-sided conversations
    • awkward movements and/or mannerisms

(https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/asperger-syndrome)

Burton has won several awards for his beautiful, yet hauntingly creepy creations like “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, “Corpse Bride”, “Sweeney Todd” and “Edward Scissorhands”.

special needs actors
"Michael J Fox" by Paul Hudson via CC

6. Michael J. Fox

Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease later in life and has become an avid advocate for the disease now. Because of his high profile, his diagnosis brought about a huge wave of questions and educating the public about what it means to have it.

Most people are familiar with the motor symptoms of this disease that create tics and muscle spasms. You can read more about symptoms related to Parkinson’s here.

Fox is another inspirational character that really plays up empowering people and creating transparency with his life as someone with special needs now.

What can you do to help?

It’s important to include not only characters with special needs in stories but to include the actors who relate to them as well. This small aspect of character creation and world-building in movies and t.v. shows assists in empowering young children and even adults who have special needs to pursue their dreams including those in the arts.

We know how important it is to empower people starting at a young age and continue this encouragement throughout their lives. We believe in improving communications and trying to understand our friends that come by the center to learn and grow with us.

This is made possible through people like you who care about the visibility of people with special needs and their everyday lives, and we appreciate any and all donations. If you feel as strongly as we do feel free to donate here.

What can you do to help?

If you prefer to donate time over money, please check out our volunteer page and learn a little more about what we have to offer our special needs community.

About the Author

Allison Vickers is a recent graduate of UNT and has an affinity for all things related to dogs. A data analyst by day, writer by night, Allison thrives off of giving back to the communities she is a part of. Though her writing skills may be slightly above sub-par, she loves learning and educating people about how to love a little harder.

6 Special Needs Actors and Actresses

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