Since being ‘late-diagnosed’ as autistic at age 29, I think a lot about those who are also autistic but don’t yet know. It bothers me that those who are unknowingly neurodivergent usually end up missing the opportunity to establish what they need in order to thrive — frequently leading to severe depression, anxiety and other debilitating comorbidities. A number of factors appear to contribute to this diagnostic issue. One of them being popular culture’s narrow representations of what being autistic supposedly looks like. So the release of ‘As we See it’, a new Amazon Prime series that centres the lives of three autistic adults — who are played by people who are actually autistic — was welcome news. Early reviews promised that the series would challenge the usual representations of autism. But — in my view — unfortunately, this is where the series fails.
The series begins with a quick introduction to the three autistic protagonists — who are all aged twenty-five — and share an apartment together. First, we’re introduced to an overweight Harrison and his battle with agoraphobia. We watch as he becomes overwhelmed while attempting to navigate the stimuli of the world outside his apartment block. Mandy, the ‘aid’ who cares for him and his two roommates — coaches him throughout the process. He almost makes it to the end of the street before he’s driven to a panic when a dog on a leash catches him off guard. We then cut to Jack — an awkwardly honest computer nerd who gets fired after claiming his boss is ‘intellectually inferior’ during a staff meeting. Despite being the most independent of the group, we quickly learn that his stubborn, black and white thinking means he also needs a lot of support in order to stay on track. Finally we cut to the last of the trio, an innocent looking Asian woman named Violet. For a short moment, I felt optimistic that she might offer a more alternative and socially aware presentation of autism (which is quite common among autistic women). But we quickly learn that Violet’s naivety and underdeveloped social skills make it unsafe for her to live independently.
So here’s the thing. The show’s depictions of life on the spectrum aren’t false or misleading. For many autistic people this is what life is like. In fact the internal challenges are quite relatable — to varying degrees — across the board. It’s just that for those most at risk for living undiagnosed, being autistic (outwardly) looks a lot different.
It should go without saying that not every piece of media which includes folk from marginalized groups has a responsibility to represent all people from that particular group. In fact those over-ambitious attempts can often be more problematic. But by centering three autistic people who differ in terms of style, personality and gender, the series is coded to suggest that showcasing the diversity of life on the spectrum is actually what it aims to do. This is why the series falls short, despite a wide open opportunity to lead with a more progressive narrative.
Adjacent to the main autistic characters, there’s ample room for a side character — or even a cameo — to offer an alternative glimpse of what autism can look like for those who outwardly appear neurotypical.
With that said, it’s important that calls for autistic representation aren’t colonized by those of us who ‘don’t look autistic’ and are therefore perceived as more ‘acceptable’ by society. (This would mean that we effectively perpetuate ableist narratives while only choosing to challenge them when they threaten our particular existence). But for those of us who don’t ‘look’ autistic it is important to be able to see ourselves represented. Because when we don’t, we’re less likely to discover who we are or receive a diagnosis. We’re then more likely to end up carrying feelings of shame, confusion, inadequacy and suicidal ideations due to a lifetime of unrealistic comparisons and expectations.
For many, a diagnosis is truly a lifeline.
So what could a series like ‘As we See it’ do better?
A balanced narrative that showcases autistic contributions and not just the neurotypical saviour archetypes would be a start. (I teach creative professionals to avoid this in Decolonial by Design.) But with regards to widening the lens of autistic representation, small shifts have the potential to make a big impact.
For example, Mandy, the carer could discover that she is also autistic. (Maybe that’s why she was struggling to get into med school). Or perhaps one of the main character’s family members is also autistic and offers an alternative image. The show needn’t revamp its entire cast or storyline. Weaving in a sub narrative that lets the audience know that it isn’t uncommon to find autistic people with PhD’s, partners and children, would be enough to transform the narrative. Showing that some autistic people can be found living their lives in a way that looks neurotypical on the surface, but is anything but underneath, would be a seriously helpful addition. This isn’t about replacing ‘typical’ representations of autism with the ‘less typical’ kind. These ‘typical’ representations are valid, necessary, beautiful and deserve a central space. But what we do need are dedicated spaces for the ‘less typical’ images to be seen as valid, necessary and beautiful too.