First, let me say that this list is probably not going to be what you expect - my interest in film and television is substantial, and my opinion of the handful of works that have dealt directly with Asperger's is not very high, so the characters I talk about are not emblematic of anything other than great writing and acting. They do, however, illustrate personalities that are very familiar to someone with Asperger Syndrome, and do so in a variety of circumstances, professions, and individual characteristics. These are "Aspies in their natural habitat" as it were, not totems of a disorder being splashed on screen as disability organization award-bait. And, what's more, the films and TV shows they appear in are just plain awesome.
I should note that in a number of TV series where the character's AS traits are obvious, writers often write overt denial of Asperger Syndrome into the script so as to maintain some "air of mystery" around the character's remarkable talents. This is pure bullshit, and can simply be ignored. Now for the countdown:
10. Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) in 1998 film π (pi).
When I was a little kid my mother told me not to stare into the sun. So once when I was six, I did. At first the brightness was overwhelming, but I had seen that before. I kept looking, forcing myself not to blink, and then the brightness began to dissolve. My pupils shrank to pinholes and everything came into focus, and for a moment...I understood.
Pi is one of Darren Aronofsky's classic films before he became prominent, and is one of the reasons he came to the attention of Hollywood. Like pretty much every Aronofsky movie, it's basically a story about paying too high a price to realize a dream. Max Cohen is a reclusive mathematician and scientist living in a tiny apartment in New York City, where he uses advanced hardware to look for patterns in the stock market. When he talks to people at all, it's almost always about his work rather than anything else, and the one glimpse of something off the plane of that world - when a hot Indian lady next door flirts with him - just makes him shy, although he is obviously tickled by it.
The notion that this character has Asperger's is hard to prove in specific terms beyond those already mentioned, but would almost be irrelevant to the film even if it were correct - which is part of why I include it in this list. Cohen's mind throughout the entire film is not only moving at lightning speed, but is accelerating the whole time toward some unknown and unknowable epiphany. And the closer he gets to it, toward finding a pattern that would change everything, his sanity begins to unravel. The film is so tightly-wound that it's almost like it occurs within his world - it's not merely that this pursuit is the highest priority, it's the only thing there is. And even the audience is caught up into it.
9. Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) in the 2004 film of the same name.
Napoleon is an oddball high school student with a number of strange interests and hobbies - his fascination with the liger (a rare lion-tiger hybrid) being one example - and consequently awkward relations with other students. But rather than focusing on sex or sports like his fellow teenagers, he emphasizes cultivation of various, often impractical "skills." One result of this focus is his shockingly adept dance performance at the end of the movie as part of his fellow oddball friend Pedro's campaign for student government.
This was a delightful and nostalgic movie for me, because as a kid I did this kind of thing a number of times: My social status at most times was definitely negative, so from time to time I would master some impressive new skill and demonstrate it to the awe and bewilderment of other students. While they were having fun with friends or playing sports, I would be practicing this random thing. Success varied though. The most successful was when I built up my arm muscles and beat every other guy at arm wrestling but this one freakish athlete, which shocked people because before that point I couldn't do a single pushup.
Misinterpreting the key to social status as something rational and discrete like building up socially irrelevant skills makes sense in the context of AS - I didn't figure out until later in life that social success (at least that not related to money) comes mostly from subconscious minutiae of how you talk, facial expressions, gestures, eye movements, emotional awareness, body shape and movement, etc. People usually don't decide to like anyone - it just happens based on things that have nothing to do with someone's collection of talents, or even whether they're a good person: That's why moronic, selfish pricks can be popular even in the adult world, and don't necessarily have to be rich - it's just how they say the awful shit they do rather than the actual content.
8. Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) in the ongoing UK series Sherlock.
Cumberbatch's Holmes is brusque, rude, alternately bored with and afraid of human connection, constantly soaks in the information of his environment, and delights in reaching complex conclusions about it. His relationships, such as they are, overwhelmingly revolve around some utilitarian or intellectual purpose, and only ever progress beyond that through long, sustained interactions. He only begins to care about Watson as a friend after they have helped each other through a number of dangers and difficult circumstances, but even then is enormously inconsiderate. Yet his eccentricities are (barely) tolerated by those around him due to the usefulness of his talents as a detective.
7. Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) on House (2004-2012).
House, like Holmes above, is a brutally insensitive and socially irresponsible genius given special consideration because of his talents - in this case, his ability to brilliantly diagnose complex medical conditions from limited information. Unlike Holmes, however, House has a number of baser hobbies that often complicate his effectiveness - a deep and very public addiction to Vicodin, open use of prostitutes, a sexual and emotional obsession with his boss (played by Lisa Edelstein), and enjoyment in making deliberately racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive comments just to screw with people. He wrestles with nihilism and self-destructiveness, and the battles of his struggle leave behind a long line of emotional and sometimes literal wreckage.
Although he revels in the forms of chaos as an expression of angst, he desperately wants to keep his overall social environment stable and unchanging: For example, he is terrified and enraged at the possibility of losing people he considers friends despite routinely offending and exasperating them, yet mainly because they're major elements of his reality - actual, mutual human connection is a much smaller and rarer part of it.
Houseisms (Embedding disabled)
6. Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost) from HBO series The Wire (2002-2008)
Spoiler Alert: If you haven't seen The Wire and intend to some day, skip the following description. Prez begins the series as what you would assume to be comic relief - an inept, bumbling, dorky cop who keeps screwing up in major ways. But as this is The Wire, there is a much, much deeper character reality at work in this initial impression. We find out that he has profound technical skills working with computers, and is highly creative at finding solutions to the team's technological problems. In fact, he never really wanted to be a cop in the first place, but had been forced into it by the expectations of people around him. But as a quiet, shy person who doesn't stand up for himself until pushed over the edge, he simply goes along with what is expected of him - including his reputation as a "goof." However, he ends up becoming a highly-regarded public school teacher who wins the respect and admiration of his students.
This might be a slightly questionable choice, since just being shy, quiet, undemonstrative, awkward, and having a deep well of unsuspected talent does not automatically make someone a candidate for AS, but it is a very familiar pattern. Prez is very uncomfortable in the politics and thuggery of the law enforcement world, but swims like a dolphin the moment he gets a chance to play with technical equipment. Teaching is more challenging for him, but he ultimately demonstrates his depth of character and ability to communicate over time even with students whose lives and backgrounds are very different from his. In fact, it might be because they have such challenges in their lives that he is eventually able to connect with them, since he himself is so dispossessed as an individual. A scene where the normally-shy Prez comes out of his shell with the group because he has an opportunity to contribute:
Here's a clip of Prez rearranging the crime board to be more orderly and informative (very interesting for our purposes):
5. Octavian / Augustus Caesar (Max Pirkis, Simon Woods) in HBO's Rome (2005-2007)
While the character of Octavian is a dramatization and partial fictionalization of the historical figure who ended the Roman Republic, the depiction - especially in Octavian's youth - screams Asperger's. He speaks formally yet precociously in normal conversation, is socially and sexually awkward despite having easy access to sex as a wealthy patrician youth, prefers study over any other activity, and intensely dislikes physical activity when his mother forces him to learn combat skills under the tutelage of a Roman legionary friend of the family. Although he is terrible with people, he has a frighteningly advanced abstract understanding of the political forces that move those around him, and offers cunning advice to his uncle Caesar. Probably due to his emotional limitations, he ends up being something of a sexual deviant, lusting after his sister and eventually telling his prospective wife that he enjoys sadomasochism. His amorality, however, is just who he is - not a product of disability.
There is no way to know if the real person had these attributes - very likely not, since they're just not that common, and his historical actions fit just as well with being a cunning and ambitious bastard of the ordinary variety. Still, people with this type of mind tend to have very specific, very deep fascinations, and sometimes that fascination is politics. Those people can be very dangerous, in either good or bad ways, depending on their individual character and morality. I can think of a number of prominent historical figures, both heroes and monsters, who one could make a case for having had AS, but that's a separate discussion. Here we're only talking about the HBO character, not the actual Roman emperor.
4. Lt. Reginald Barclay (Dwight Schultz) in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) and Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001).
As pretty much the only character on Picard's Enterprise who has any sort of real flaws or problems, Barclay proved to be unexpectedly popular and provided a number of memorable and emotionally significant episodes. He is painfully awkward, stutters from social anxiety, hides from people by immersing himself in holodeck fantasies often to a pathological degree, and yet is good enough as an engineer that Star Fleet felt he would be a worthwhile addition to the elite crew of the flag ship. Even when he becomes confident enough to speak normally, the overall impression is often pathetic.
One could argue that he is socially isolated because of his stutter, but even when he gets help and is able to overcome it to a reasonable extent he remains absurdly, sometimes comically out of step with other people. He needs them, and wants their affection and respect, but he just doesn't understand them enough to really know how to go about it. But as an engineer, he understands things he can control - like holodeck programs - and as a result ends up building himself an alternate life in simulation. He also clearly has anxiety disorders, but I'd argue they arise from inadequate social instincts.
Because of his failure to develop socially, his emotions are somewhat childish, and the fantasies he constructs involve belittling those who make him feel inadequate (like some of his superior officers) while the female authority figures he lusts after all fawn over him. Ultimately he deals with his holodeck addiction with help, and ends up back on Earth as a respected - but still eccentric - experimental engineer.
3. Detective Holland "Dutch" Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) from The Shield (2002-2008)
Despite his renowned skills as a detective, Dutch is often the butt of jokes and pranks from his colleagues because of his awkwardness, and is even worse when it comes to women - although he occasionally succeeds. His mind is a razor-sharp weapon of awesome power applied to unraveling the patterns and motives of criminals, the physical evidence of crimes, and the conflicting stories of lies and imperfect memories. And yet as a man he is painfully haunted by feelings of inadequacy and failure, only made worse by how his colleagues treat him. The villain-protagonists of the series - the murderous and thieving "strike team" led by Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) - fear to have their activities come to his attention because of his ability to sniff out the truth, and resent the hell out of that fear, so they often make fun of and bully him.
Despite his pain and insecurity, Dutch goes through life with a sense of stoicism and purpose, accepts his limitations, and does what he can for himself and his job. The result is a long string of high-profile solved cases and an equally long string of abortive attempts to hook up with women. If I were the kind of person who wanted to be a cop, this is who I'd imagine myself being, although in fairness to reality it's unlikely I would be anywhere near that good at it.
There's a shocking lack of good clips of Dutch on Youtube - these short, light bits are the best available:
2. Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) from Community (2009 to present).
Abed is the most perfect representation of Asperger's I've ever seen in entertainment, even though they never say he has the condition - especially his facial expressions, and the way his eyes tend to look to the side or past people rather than focusing directly on them when speaking to them. As far as that goes, I am an older white version of Abed - when I interact naturally with people, I have no intrinsic instinct to look directly at them as long as they're in my field of view. The only reason this isn't #1 is that Community, while a funny, brilliant, and endearing show, is not exactly deep or engrossing - it skates across the mind with ease, and is as insubstantial as it is witty and entertaining.
Abed, also somewhat like me, is strongly interested in pop culture - particularly movies and television - and he has to rely on them to a big extent in relating to others. This is especially familiar, because most people learn their style of speaking - cadence, rhythm, accent, phrasing, etc. - from their parents and interacting with other people, while I am consciously aware of the fact that when I talk what comes out is a melting pot of attributes from film dialog. I don't mean I speak in movie scripts or character catchphrases, but the way people speak in the movies that most affected me growing up is the way that I speak when trying to sound conversational rather than the alternately brusque or verbose way I speak when I don't care how I sound - which is also how Abed talks. However, he is capable of artfully emulating the nuances of film dialog when quoting verbatim, which is also familiar.
He relates to the other characters in ways they don't understand, and is usually unable to reciprocate how they relate to him. But they accept him, and he accepts what they need from him despite finding it difficult to deliver. Abed is such a memorable, standout character that he is the only one whose name I can recall off the top of my head, having last watched the show a couple of months ago. Most of them are funny and interesting in some way (though some are not, at all), but Abed is the only one who emits a real sense of autonomy - it borders on impossible to predict what he's going to say, and as such is very much the Wild Card of the series. There are no sitcom tropes involved, just a really strange personality generating all sorts of bizarre ideas and perspectives out of nowhere.
1. The Driver (Ryan Gosling) in Drive (2011).
Drive is a basically a film of visual poetry, where the action is merely what happens when things already happening in the atmosphere become physical. So it makes sense that the nameless Driver played by Ryan Gosling would be practically mute at most points of the film, and defined largely through his effect on others rather than words. But it isn't just his words that are silent - his face is too: A generally inexpressive mask that somehow still manages to radiate what's going on inside without really changing in any large, overt way. It would be one thing if the character were merely guarded, but that isn't what's on display: He is not hiding anything. His emotions simply don't translate to his face in the syntax of normal facial expression - apart from an occasional quiet smile in sweet moments - and he feels no need to speak most of the time. While it's unlikely either Gosling or the filmmaker intended to imply Asperger's, that's what they delivered - and it is awesome.
Gosling's character is a highly skilled auto mechanic and talented stunt driver who farms himself out to movie sets for car stunts and to criminals as a getaway driver, and has memorized the streets of Los Angeles and the practicalities of escaping a police chase down to the tiniest details. He wears a shiny '80s jacket with a scorpion on the back that is painfully out of place in 21st century LA, but seems to either not notice or not care how odd he looks - another big Asperger feature. The only relationship he has at the beginning of the film is to his boss at the auto shop where he works as a mechanic (played by Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston), and that "friendship" mostly consists of passively listening to the guy ramble. Cranston's character later tells a story about how he first met The Driver - he walked in out of nowhere, asked for a job, and accepted much lower wages than are normal or deserved given his talents. That's all we ever learn about his background.
This anecdote has a couple of features that suggest possible AS behavior: Either ignorance of or indifference to the normal conventions of seeking employment, and either not knowing what his skills were worth or else failing to stand up for himself when offered a low figure. Later on, when forced to try to negotiate with violent and clever criminals, he is clearly incompetent at it and very agitated. This, in retrospect, helps explain why in his work as a getaway driver he establishes very firm rules up front with his "clients" about how he operates, what they get for their money, and the absolute dictate that they never try to contact him again once the job is done. One imagines that he spent quite a long time thinking before coming up with those rules, not to mention the awesome amount of effort that must have gone into memorizing the LA street grid. The Asperger theory begins to sound more and more plausible the more deeply you examine the details of the movie.
Fortunately for the character, he meets a woman (Irene, played by Carey Mulligan) in a state of emotional need who doesn't mind his silence and relative lack of expression, and they slowly build up an unspoken attraction characterized mostly by how they look at each other. This makes sense in the visual poetry of the film, although in real life a young, sexually attractive waitress with a young son who married a criminal now in prison is not likely to be the most placid of people. But because she has to mesh with The Driver, she is made into a more normal version of The Driver's quietude. His protectiveness of her and her son, and the little touches of warmth that come to his face in their presence, show his feelings and that his instincts are noble - as does his willingness to help Irene's husband when he gets out of jail, even though it ends his hopes of being with her. Thanks to Irene and her son, The Driver goes from being empty to radiating human emotion, albeit through his same natural placidity, and he's perfectly willing to accept mortal danger in their defense.
I've had all-too-brief times in my life where I've connected with someone like that, during which all that came before seemed cold and hollow, so I have a deep appreciation of the emotions on display in this film - especially since they're not really "on display" so much as subtly implied. The Driver at the beginning of the film is practically soulless, dead inside - a machine who executes precision plans without having any apparent sense of purpose or joy in anything. Then, through his budding relationship with Irene and her son, and the spiraling events that put them in danger, he transitions into someone who can act on the fly and take leaps of faith for a cause greater than himself. He is still the Tin Man, but now an incandescent version of himself radiating with human meaning.
You realize you're watching something special very early on in the film, and the impression is cemented by the time the title sequence and its remarkable soundtrack unfolds. The evolution of Gosling's character is really the icing on the cake, and as far as I've seen the single most counterintuitive, profound, empathetic, and probably unintentional depiction of Asperger's Syndrome ever seen on film. I do find the character's adeptness at and comfort with violence unlikely given his preference for orderliness and exacting planning, and also the speed with which he recovers from being thrown off balance by the unexpected - though the film makes it clear he is very uncomfortable whenever anything unplanned happens - but we can accept it as a necessity of a movie with strong action elements.
Sort-of-honorable mention: Sheldon Cooper. I enjoy The Big Bang Theory despite knowing that it's really not a good show and the writing is crap. And yet it's more relevant to me than 99% of the crap sitcoms around, so I just sit back and let the laugh track move me.