Good news for people with autism: the world has started noticing and caring about people who think and behave differently from the neurotypical majority. Businesses are starting to recognize and value the skills and talents of people on the spectrum (although 84% remain unemployed and unemployment in the arts reaches nearly 100%). Lately, some television shows and films have attempted to depict—and include—characters with autism. In the past week alone, I’ve received multiple Google alerts about television shows like Atypical and The Good Doctor, both starring neurotypical actors playing characters with autism. In addition, I attended the premiere of the Robert Pattinson movie, Good Time, in which my daughter Samantha—and other actors from her neuro-diverse theater group EPIC Players— appear in the last scene. All good, right?
Or is something important still missing? The bad news is that, despite autism being on the mainstream radar, actors with autism are still not being hired for lead roles in television or film (unless it’s a documentary). This remains true even when the characters portrayed have autism, and even when the story revolves around their disabilities. While the neurotypical actors in The Good Doctor and Atypical may (or may not!) have done research on autism symptoms and perform reasonably well in their roles, why aren’t actors with autism being invited to audition and perform? The partial answer is that directors (such as the Safdie brothers from Good Time) believe it would be more difficult and time consuming. After all, movie makers must stick to their schedules and budgets. Nevertheless, director Rachel Israel filmed Keep the Change on a shoe-string budget (far smaller than Good Time, Atypical or The Good Doctor) and adhered to her shooting schedule, although all her lead actors had autism.
While I’m grateful to the directors of Good Time for casting disabled actors in the final scene of a Robert Pattinson movie (especially exciting for any young actress!), I’m disappointed that time and money are the reasons offered for denying leading roles to the talented disabled. (On the other hand, it actually saves time and money to film a group scene of disabled people playing themselves, instead of teaching a group of neurotypical actors to “act” disabled.) Good Time has a disabled main character whose portrayal was heavy handed and one dimensional. Needless to say, I didn’t get a warm, fuzzy feeling watching a neurotypical actor flub the disabled role. There was a missed opportunity to show the world that people with autism have unique and appealing personalities of their own. Sadly, in Good Time the disabled character was neither interesting nor likable, just extremely slow. In the fast-paced movie, he was dragged around for almost two hours, treated more like an accessory or a piece of furniture than a human being.
Is this exploitation? How do we feel about the media making money from autism disabilities while refraining from hiring actors on the spectrum? Is it fair to expose the quirks, eccentricities, and struggles of people with autism without allowing them to participate as actors? Is it ethical for mainstream media to use the autistic identity for profit—without actually hiring people with autism? Sometimes neurotypical actors seeking to expand their own acting careers play disabled characters, using the roles as vehicles toward greater personal success. (See Autism Informs Theater – Struggling to Transcend Stereotypes, 8/12/16). Is it OK for neurotypical actors, directors and producers to cash in on the current concern-for-autism trend as a fertile, new creative territory?
Leaving the issue of fairness aside for the moment, let’s explore the issue of authenticity. With the current exception of Keep the Change (to be released in March 2018), there are no television shows or movies where actors with autism play a starring role. While there may be audiences who find Atypical and The Good Doctor both educational and entertaining, the thought of watching either of these shows is painful to me as a mother who raised a daughter on the spectrum at a time when the “A word” was stigmatizing, isolating and poorly understood. Reading the reviews of those TV shows only raised more questions for me. Is it okay to laugh at a person with autism who wears headphones to block out noise? Or is that mocking the disabled? I’d prefer to see audiences laugh WITH characters who have autism, cry WITH them instead of feel pity FOR or ABOUT them. In my opinion, the only way to achieve real empathy is to look at stories of people with autism through their own eyes, from their perspective. That means seeing the autism world from the inside out, instead of through the eyes and minds of neurotypical writers and actors (which is from the outside in).
Not all autism families will agree with my view point. Some will no doubt be grateful that autism is at least visible now, even if stigmatizing stereotypes persist. Movie and television audiences who are knowledgeable about autism may readily identify and empathize with issues of bullying or social rejection. Of course, these negative behaviors also affect neurotypical kids, so mainstream parents might be moved and entertained without noticing (or caring) whether the actors themselves are neurotypical or disabled.
However, I find myself in solidarity with folks on the spectrum who say: “Nothing about us, without us!” In my case, that does NOT mean I believe EVERY character with autism MUST be played by a person on the spectrum. But maybe the writer and/or director should invite actors on the spectrum to audition for these roles first (instead of last or not at all). I’d also like to encourage autism families and friends to participate in the writing and direction of autism stories, whether they are performed on stage, in film and television.
Finally, ending with more good news, I’m happy to report that the long-running Broadway hit The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night (which I loved) now features an actor with autism as its star. Is it too much to ask the rest of the entertainment world to embrace actors with disabilities the same way they have embraced other minority groups? I have a strong hunch that actors on the spectrum have something authentic and special to offer. Just wait till you see Keep the Change !