The debate around the representation of disabilities in the media has been re-energised this week, following the release of promotional material for the upcoming Netflix drama, Atypical. Making its way onto the streaming site on August 11, it centres on an 18-year-old with autism and his search for romance. If the cringeworthy ‘boy tries to find his one true love’ plot doesn’t raise your eyebrows, then the fact it’s been branded as a ‘dark comedy’ in news reports should have you worried. Failing that, then the trailer, released last week, gives us a glimpse as to what we can expect…
It’s The A Word meets The Inbetweeners. In the two minutes, we see family disputes akin to the former, and the awkward sexual humour of the latter. Whilst there’s no denying that mothers, fathers and sisters have their own reactions to a relative’s autism diagnosis (something The A Word explores rather well), the ‘sometimes I wish I was normal’ self-pity and the awkward dinner table discussions only creates this harmful idea that audience members can poke fun at the condition. If this show wants to be a comedy, then there’s other ways to go about it.
There’s also the risk of generalisation that comes with any show that tries to represent disabilities through one sole character, which is especially important to note when it comes to autism – a condition unique to everyone with it. Add that to the fact that British actor Keir Gilchrist – who plays the main character – isn’t autistic, then those on the spectrum have every right to be concerned that the portrayal may not be 100 percent accurate.
Thus, the question of whether the teenager – named Sam – could have been played by an autistic individual has been raised by people online, and it’s a valid question to ask.
Only on a couple of occasions has a valid reason been given for a neurotypical portraying a character with autism – one of them being the role of Christopher in the stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Even though it isn’t specifically mentioned in the book that the 15-year-old has Asperger’s Syndrome, many people have made the connection. However, with the show involving flashing lights, strobe effects, loud music and a lengthy monologue at the end, it’s understandable that neurotypicals play the demanding role.
However, with regards to the aforementioned The A Word, the reasons its creator gave to The Mirror were that it was “too big an ask for a six-year-old on the autistic spectrum to imitate a whole range of emotions in keeping with the piece. By definition they have difficulty processing and imitating.”
Whilst that is true, one has to ask at what point does such a role become improbable to someone with autism? To dismiss an individual with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) because autistic people struggle to understand emotions is unfair to those with the condition who are trying to pursue a career in acting – most of whom, one imagines, have probably developed their own thought processes to help them understand the emotions they need to replicate for their performance.
Nevertheless, in terms of Atypical, the demands of the role are yet to be revealed to the audience, and we can still question the casting team’s decisions. Though more importantly, there is another argument to be had here, in terms of representation off-camera.
It’s an issue raised by the actor Lenny Henry in relation to the BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority-Ethnic) communities. The comedian is quoted in an ITV News article, saying “if the pickers and deciders remain the same then nothing changes, because only what gets measured gets done.”
So, using that idea and applying it to the world of disability, just as much as it’s important that the actors are autistic, we must also campaign for those with ASDs to be part of the creative process – whether it be helping with the casting, advising the creators or even producing the show themselves. With the team behind Atypical giving the role to a neurotypical actor, one can only hope that autism charities in America and those with the condition were able to advise important members of the crew throughout the writing and production stages.
Although it may be unfair to judge a whole series from a two-minute trailer, the short insight we’re given is enough for audiences to discuss whether the show will do a good job of representing such a misunderstood condition.
Now we wait until August 11…