“Nothing About Us Without Us”: Looking at Media Representations of the Autism Spectrum by Autistic Performers

Sue Ann Pien in As We See It; young actor Jim Fujiwara in The Reason I Jump; comedian Hannah Gadsby performing the standup special Douglas; and actor Buck Andrews in Special. Photos Courtesy: Kino Lorber/IMDb; Netflix; Netflix; Background Courtesy: Shomiz/iStock

Authentic representation in film, TV, and media plays an essential role in helping us to value, understand and welcome each other, and the diversity of our experiences. Not only that, but it’s also crucial that you see yourself — that we all see ourselves — reflected in characters on screen. 

But genuine representation is only possible when the actors, directors, writers and other creatives are given the opportunity to tell their own unique stories. Moving forward, we’re eager to see more neurodiverse people on screen, in directors’ chairs and in writers’ rooms. (And we’re also hoping to see much less of the problematic “Sia approach” to making films about neurodiverse characters, which is marked by both inaccurate and dangerous portrayals of autism spectrum disorder.)

As Autism Awareness Month comes to a close, let’s look at some series and films that provide a platform for autistic creators and creatives on the autism spectrum, so that they can share their first-hand perspectives with the world. 

As We See It (2022–)

As We See It is an American adaptation of the 2018 Israeli comedy-drama On the Spectrum. In this new Amazon Prime series, three young adults on the autism spectrum — Jack (Rick Glassman), Harrison (Albert Rutecki) and Violet (Sue Ann Pien) — live together, and see each other through navigating life, work and love. Healthcare aid Mandy (Sosie Bacon) and Violet’s brother Van (Chris Pang) round out the main cast.

Albert Rutecki, Rick Glassman and Sue Ann Pien in As We See It. Photo Courtesy: Amazon Prime

Offscreen, the new show is raising the bar in Hollywood with its commitment to casting neurodiverse actors. For example, creator Jason Katims proudly revealed that in addition to the three leads, two other neurodiverse actors play neurotypical roles. But does the show deliver more than good intentions? 

Here are a few of the opinions expressed by some viewers in the autism community. 

Pros:

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  • As an Asian American woman, Violet breaks the typical “white male with autism” trope.  
  • Kudos for the positive effect of casting neurodiverse actors in autistic roles. 
  • They can see themselves in the characters. 
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But there are some unwelcome tropes on display here, too. 

Cons: 

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  • Caretaker ableism and a focus on the neurotypical character and her viewpoint. 
  • The infantilization of Violet.
  • Family members of neurodiverse individuals claim they’ve been “made better” by their “struggle/burden”.
  • An overt sentimentality. 
  • Extreme emotional distress is the default reaction for autistic characters, thus limiting folks’ perceptions of how autistic people react in real life. 
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Amazon Prime released all eight episodes of As We See It’s first season in January 2022.

Special (2019–2021)

Netflix’s Special debuted in 2019, becoming a must-watch (and under-marketed) gem on the popular streaming platform. Ryan O’Connell, who created, wrote and starred in the show, based it on his book, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves. O’Connell, like his character Ryan Hayes, is a gay man who has a mild form of cerebral palsy. 

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While Special’s representation of disability was pretty groundbreaking in the show’s first season, the second and (sadly) final season introduced the character of Henry, a person on the spectrum and Ryan’s love interest, who’s played by gay neurodiverse actor Buck Andrews. 

Buck Andrews and Ryan O’Connell in the second season of Special. Photo Courtesy: Netflix

“I think for autism and neurodiversity, there are these ingrained stereotypes of who people are and what they’re capable of,” the actor notes. “Capitalism is real and for a long time, the language revolved around our ability to produce. Naturally, that bled into the media, and, ironically, we were ousted from roles, both in front of the camera and behind, because they didn’t think we could produce the content.”

Although he doesn’t play the lead character in Special, Andrews is proud of his work and the representation he brings to the screen for the autism community. In a TVInsider interview, Andrews explains that, “the characters [in Special] just get to live, laugh, love like whole-a** people. On some other shows, they’d flatten the characters’ storylines for something generic and easily digestible.”

Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas (2020) Comedy Special

Hannah Gadsby is a talented and outspoken gender-nonconforming and queer Australian comedian who rose to widespread fame, and acclaim, thanks to her groundbreaking Emmy and Peabody Award-winning comedy special, Nanette (2018). Gadsby interrogates what comedy is — and what a comedy special can do — in Nanette, all while delivering biting social commentary and acerbic wit. 

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While Nanette’s debut on Netflix made her a real household name globally, it’s Gadsby’s second special, Douglas, that delves into the autism spectrum disorder diagnosis she received in 2016. From the acclaimed Douglas to Gadsby’s bestselling memoir, it’s clear the comedian’s honest work has greatly impacted members of the autism community and their allies. 

Hannah Gadsby in the Douglas comedy special. Photo Courtesy: Netflix

On a personal note, I watched Douglas with my adult son, who was also diagnosed with high-functioning ASD as an adult — he loved it! And he isn’t the only one. Here are a few reviews of Gadsby’s work from some other members of the autism community: 

  • “I have never felt this represented in entertainment before.” – Nera Birch, The Mighty
  • “If you’re not autistic you need to do the work to understand how radical, brave and important Douglas is for autistic people. . . The importance of Gadsby’s work for autistic people in witnessing embodied representation, at a global level, is immeasurable and a thing of utter joy.” – Sonia Boué, Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism
  • “She’s not just an autistic artist, she’s someone who is producing work that is recognizably autistic in its tone, structure, and subject matter to other people on the spectrum.” – Sarah Kurchak, GEN (via Medium)

The Reason I Jump (2020)

This 2020 documentary is an adaptation of a novel attributed to Naoki Higashida and published in Japan in 2007. Higashida was diagnosed with autism as a child; because of his limited communication skills — Higashida was nonverbal — his mother claims she helped him write the memoir through facilitated communication techniques. 

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Jim Fujiwara in The Reason I Jump. Photo Courtesy: Kino Lorber/IMDb

The film is not a straight adaptation. Instead, director Jerry Rothwell introduces viewers to five young people around the world with nonverbal autism, and includes input from their families, while excerpts from the memoir provide evocative narration. While the documentary has received critical acclaim, the project may be overly ambitious, as it purportedly attempts to simulate the inner world of autism. In the end, this film highlights why cinematic representations of people on the spectrum must include input from neurodiverse people. 

Simply presenting individuals with autism on film — “Here is what an autistic child looks like. This is how they behave, and this is what they hear” — is a one-dimensional approach that only offers a superficial grasp of the experience. Overlaying the scenes with haunting music and immersive cinematography techniques just doesn’t allow the film to overcome its apparent shortcomings. 

Love on the Spectrum (2019–)

Considering the plethora of dating shows on TV today, it was only a matter of time before producers turned their attention to the neurodiverse dating pool — hence Netflix’s two-season show Love on the Spectrum.

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Perhaps the most positive thing about this series is the lack of drama that’s typical of most reality shows. Reviewer Sara Luterman, who is autistic, writes, “Although I was not completely pleased with Love on the Spectrum, it is kind, and I respect the creators’ good intentions.” However, Luterman further explains that the show also presents inaccurate data as factual; offers lousy advice; and is often guilty of infantilizing. 

A scene from reality TV dating show Love on the Spectrum. Photo Courtesy: Netflix

Ava Rigelhaupt of disability-led nonprofit RespectAbility shared her opinion of the show from an adult with autism’s perspective: “It’s wonderful how Love on the Spectrum introduces neurotypical viewers to the humanity of autistic people — making us more relatable, while, at the same time, shows autistic people that romance is possible.”

Autism Ontario asked a focus group of adults with autism to watch the show and weigh in; the consensus was positive with viewers noting that the series is accessible, refreshing, relatable and worthy of another season.  

Further Viewing: More Neurodiverse & Autistic Performers on Screen

Fred Armisen, Taylor Richardson, Auli’i Cravalho, Rhenzy Feliz, Anthony Jacques and Gerald Isaac Waters in All Together Now (2020). Photo Courtesy: Netflix

The following shows also feature neurodiverse performers in autistic roles: 

  • Asperger’s Are Us: A 2016 documentary on Netflix about four young comedians who have Asperger’s Syndrome and are preparing for a show. 
  • Speechless: A 2016 ABC sitcom about a family that includes a son with cerebral palsy. Neurodiverse actor Coby Bird plays family friend Christopher in one of the episodes. He also played an autistic character on The Good Doctor
  • The A Word: This 2016 BBC One series follows the story of a young child on the autism spectrum, played by a neurotypical actor. But the show also casts neurodiverse actors in other roles, too.   
  • All Together Now: A 2020 drama on Netflix featuring Anthony Jaques as Ricky, a young man on the autism spectrum who’s the best friend of main character, Amber (Auli’i Cravalho).
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