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‘As We See It’ is not a typical portrayal of autism

  • >> Robert Ito, The New York Times
    Published: 2022-01-22 12:02:18 BdST

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Sue Ann Pien and Rick Glassman in Los Angeles, Jan 13, 2022. Glassman and Pien are two of the leads in “As We See It,” which follows three Los Angeles roommates who identify as being on the autism spectrum. Maggie Shannon/The New York Times

In the new Amazon series “As We See It,” Violet, a 25-year-old cashier at Arby’s, desperately wants a boyfriend, but she is looking for love in all the wrong places (namely, Arby’s). Violet’s needs are simple. She wants someone cute, someone to go on fun dates with. Most of all, she wants someone normal.

But to Violet, “normal” means something other than a guy who flosses and doesn’t have a creepy fetish. To her, “normal” guys are the ones who aren’t autistic.

It was a sentiment with which Sue Ann Pien, the Los Angeles-based actor who plays Violet, could identify. Like Violet, Pien is on the spectrum. This was no accident. It’s one reason she was cast.

“I would not be able to play this role if I was not autistic,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to bring the depths and the colours that I brought from my own experiences.”

In an industry where it has become less and less acceptable for actors to play outside their racial, sexual or gender identities, old norms for autistic characters persist. In recent films like “Please Stand By” (2017) and “Music” (2021) and in current TV series like ABC’s “The Good Doctor” and Netflix’s “Atypical,” autistic roles continue to go to nonautistic actors.

All of which makes a show like “As We See It,” a dramedy about three 20-somethings who share an apartment in Los Angeles, all the more remarkable. In a first for TV, the series, which debuted Jan 21, stars three lead actors who identify as autistic, playing characters who are also on the spectrum.

Having three leads with autism allowed the show to highlight a range of different experiences and challenges related to life on the spectrum. In addition to the lovelorn and outgoing Violet, there’s Harrison (Albert Rutecki), who struggles with stress eating and agoraphobia, and Jack (Rick Glassman), a curmudgeonly computer whiz who has no discernible filter and who prefers the company of Roombas over humans.

“There’s a great quote that I love that says, ‘If you met one person with autism, you met one person with autism,’” Glassman said. “Everybody has their own deficiencies and strengths, and this show does a really honest job capturing that.”

The diversity of characters helps with one of the central challenges of the show: How do you create characters who struggle with social interactions but whom viewers still want to engage with and be around for a full season — or multiple seasons? For a viewer, three Jacks might have been tough to take (imagine “The Big Bang Theory” but with three Sheldons), but the mix of three such divergent personalities becomes a rich breeding ground for not just conflict, but humour.

“You talk about the show and it sounds so serious,” said the creator, Jason Katims (“Friday Night Lights,” “About a Boy”). “But you watch the show, and it’s anything but that.”

Having three very different leads also helped the show’s writers push back against a long-standing Hollywood convention: the autistic person as savant.

“The reality is, savantism makes exciting film and television,” said Michelle Dean, a special education professor at California State University Channel Islands, who recently co-wrote a study of academic research about film and television representations of autistic characters. “But savantism is way overrepresented in Hollywood, and in fact, most people with autism are not savants.”

Any screen depiction of autism necessarily follows in the footsteps of the 1988 film “Rain Man,” starring Dustin Hoffman as an autistic savant. It wasn’t the first depiction of autism onscreen, but it probably had the largest and most lasting impact on how moviegoers view autism and how it is portrayed. The film won Oscars for best picture, director, writing and actor, and it brought a lot of empathy and attention to its subject — even as it set the pattern for other neurotypical actors, including Leonardo DiCaprio (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” 1993) and Claire Danes (“Temple Grandin,” 2010), to play neurodiverse characters.

Katims’ personal and professional experience positioned him to buck that trend in 2018, when he first began developing the idea. He had created a character with Asperger’s syndrome for his NBC series “Parenthood” (2010-15), inspired partly by his own then-teenage son. But his child had grown up since then, and their home life was evolving.

“I have a son who’s on the spectrum who was in his very early 20s at the time, and I was starting to think about what his future would look like,” Katims said. “I started to realise that a lot of what we read about and see about autism is about children with autism, including my own work with ‘Parenthood.’ I did 100 episodes about a boy with autism.”

His agent told him about “On the Spectrum,” an Israeli comedy series about three 20-something autistic roommates living in Tel Aviv. Katims became determined to create an American adaptation. Unlike in the original show, he wanted actors on the spectrum to play the roommates, but he wasn’t sure if that was a possibility.

“Honestly, I had no idea what the talent pool was for actors who were on the spectrum,” he said. Four days into the search, the casting director Cami Patton (“The Americans,” “Goliath”) brought Katims a self-made tape from Pien, who read a short but pivotal scene from the series pilot.

“I was weeping within 30 seconds of watching her audition,” Katims said.

Rutecki, who lives in Minersville, Pennsylvania, a small community roughly 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia, learned about the show from a cousin in graduate school who, while in Los Angeles on a class trip, had heard about a new show that was looking for autistic actors. Rutecki had never taken a single acting class, but he auditioned for the role and the producers liked what they saw.

“Watching the level of his acting go up over the course of the show was beautiful to see,” Katims said.

“As We See It” began filming in 2019. In addition to the three leads, the cast includes Sosie Bacon (“Mare of Easttown”) as a behavioural aide and de facto den mother to the three roommates; Joe Mantegna (“House of Games,” “Criminal Minds”) as Jack’s father, who is dying of cancer; and Chris Pang (“Crazy Rich Asians”) as Violet’s overprotective brother.

The production also included neurodiverse assistants, on set and in the writers’ room, and supporting actors, including Tal Anderson and Naomi Rubin of “Atypical.”

“Any of the characters that were neurodiverse were cast authentically,” Katims said. “And two actors who are neurodiverse are playing neurotypical roles on the show.”

Elaine Hall, the founder of the Miracle Project, a theatre and film program for autistic children, was hired to help ensure that the set was a nurturing, non-triggering one. As much as possible, loud sounds were kept to a minimum. Glassman appreciated the help.

“My podcast is called ‘Take Your Shoes Off,’ and it’s a metaphor for how many rules I have, and how I can be thought of as a difficult person,” he said. “But Elaine came in and tried to make me feel safe and comfortable, and then Jason curated this group of people that were just trying to be more sensitive to all of us. It was really beautiful, but I was also thinking, why can’t it be like this on every set?”

Pien agreed. “Usually I have to act on top of acting,” she said. “I have to pretend I’m a normal person; I have to watch my mannerisms; I have to hold my face a certain way. Being on a set where I didn’t have to hide my autism was heavenly.”

With three actors on the spectrum playing characters on the spectrum, there were bound to be moments where the lines between real life and the show’s fictional world blurred. There were scenes where Pien’s character, Violet, was having a meltdown, and Rutecki would want to break character to come over and soothe her, Pien said. Another time, between takes, Rutecki clasped his hands over his ears to shut out the loud sounds on the set; Pien came over and put her own hands over her ears, in solidarity.

“I had so many wonderful experiences on set,” Rutecki said.

For some scenes, Glassman used his own triggers — like his aversion to loud chewing sounds — to get into character.

“My dad chews loud, and it drives me insane,” he said. “So I asked the director if we could have the person next to me chew loud, because I was supposed to be very frantic in the scene, and I knew that listening to this man chew would drive me nuts.”

Katims did wonder at first what sorts of challenges having many cast and crew members on the spectrum might present. Would the production, say, have to work different hours or create numerous new protocols on set? “We didn’t,” he said. “And these three leads came so prepared. There’s a lot of actors I’ve worked with on other shows, and I wonder if they could be as prepared.”

Katims has already starting thinking about new stories for a hoped-for second season, while the cast is hopeful that their performances will ease the way for more neurodiverse actors to make their way into films and series.

“I don’t want to stand on this hill and say only people with autism should play people with autism,” Glassman said. “But I do think that the pendulum needs to swing a bit, and TV shows like this shed light on the idea that, oh, look, they can do this.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company