Culture Editor Alex Blank on the new Amazon Original series “As We See It” and its portrayal of autism.
â€œAs We See Itâ€ is a new Amazon Original series following the lives of three twenty-something roommates on the autism spectrum as they figure out life, relationships, work, and everything autistic people infamously struggle to navigate. The creator of the show, Jason Katims, stated that â€œall neurodiverse roles were cast with neurodiverse actors,â€ which enables the cast to â€œbring an emotional authenticity to their portrayalsâ€.
Indeed, the depiction of autism is certainly more nuanced and complex than what audiences are used to, one reason for it being that the three characters are so different from each other. Jack (Rick Glassman) works for a publishing company, while dealing with his fatherâ€™s new cancer diagnosis, as well as forming a new relationship. His main storyline centres around the need for financial independence, as he gets fired from his job for calling his boss an idiot, and his fatherâ€™s cancer might almost seem as a stylistic device to make him face the reality of independent adulthood, while entering a romantic relationship forces him to examine his failures in â€œpassingâ€ for NT (neurotypical). While I loved witnessing his vulnerability as he admits his desire to pass for normal, I wish there could be more of it throughout the series, so that the audiences could see what lies beneath his â€˜stiffâ€™ or â€˜unwelcomingâ€™ exterior.
In contrast to Jack, Harrison (Albert Rutecki), who does not work, is afraid of leaving his room due to extreme sensory overload. As he befriends his upstairs neighbour, A.J. (Adan James Carrillo), what follows is a heartwarming covert bond formed between the two; they need to communicate through walkie talkies, as A.J.â€™s mother forbids his son to connect to Harrison. While I found the character of Harrison relatable in many ways, I couldnâ€™t help but get angry at how the show put him in the position of a victim at almost every turn, and he is frequently portrayed through the lens of the side characters who call him â€œslowâ€. The way characters are treated by others affects how the audience perceives them, and the reason why Harrison might not be able to escape his childishness is precisely because everyone around him treats him like a child.
The third character, Violet, is a rare portrayal of a woman on the spectrum. She works at Arbyâ€™s, and has a desperate and deep need of connection, which is also a depiction of the extremity of special interests. For Violet, these two go hand in hand, as her need for connection mixed with the desire to be normal leave her obsessed with finding a partner and losing her virginity. She eventually ends up taken advantage of by a guy sheâ€™s infatuated with, and she loses a job over it. As glad as I was to see an autistic woman on screen, many of her behaviours – such as meltdowns, and communication or attachment issues – were left unexplained, and it might be easy for some NTs to misread her instead of truly understanding why she is struggling so much. This is intensified by the way her brother treats her. Though he claims he is overprotective for her own good, I donâ€™t think taking her phone away and forbidding her from joining dating apps contributes to the much needed narrative of encouraging autistics to take agency of our life on our own terms. What Violet needs help with is realising that she does not need to be â€œnormalâ€; and although her aide Mandy reassures her that being used and abused by a guy is very much normal (which bring a huge smile to Violetâ€™s face), it only reinforces her determination to enter the â€œnormalâ€ sphere.
Seeing the eponymous â€œweâ€ in the title of the series, I was hopeful that the ND (neurodivergent) experience would finally be depicted in all its wonderful extremes. However, despite a more nuanced representation than what weâ€™re used to, as well as the amazing job done by the main cast, the sensibility of the series still leans too much towards the NT side. Most stereotypically tearful or â€œrelatableâ€ moments the audience might experience with regards to the showâ€™s main characters are usually overruled by the NT narratives. Though it might be understandable that the creators want to balance the two out, somehow the heroes of the story are not the three main characters; rather, itâ€™s those who take care of them, such as their siblings, parents, or aides. Theyâ€™re the ones who get the sympathy vote for having cancer or being stuck in a love triangle, which are all well-trodden tropes that win audiencesâ€™ affection every time.
Jack is the one character who mentions â€œpassingâ€ for NT throughout the series, which is understandable given that the other two are an overweight man and a woman of colour, both belonging to groups often ostracised by society, whether autistic or not. But what bothers me most is the lack of trying to unpick what causes their struggles, their isolation, their habits and behaviours. When Violet is fired from her job for having a public meltdown, it is shown in a way that perpetuates the belief that autistic people need to learn to â€œbehave themselvesâ€ to fit in the rest of society, corresponding to the teachings of the disturbing Applied Behavioural Analysis therapy, known for taking extreme measures to ensure autistic people are better equipped to exist in a neurotypical world without ever trying to change that world. What if, instead, we create a society that is more open and direct, where the individual on the spectrum does not always have to be the one expected to accommodate to everyone elseâ€™s needs – and if one fails, maybe the camera should look more deeply within them, instead of prioritising the other perspective, such as Jack’s father, who calls raising autistic children â€œa burdenâ€¦but also a giftâ€ – as if the main purpose of ND people is to make the NTs in their lives better.
â€œAs We See Itâ€ is a step forward in some ways. It does many things right – the portrayal of sensory sensitivities, (mis)communication issues, the sheer helplessness of being looked through rather than seen. There are plenty of joyous moments in it too, such as the opening of episode 3, as the three roommates are preparing a disgusting bricolage of a drink (with a sprinkle of gummy bears on top) for Violetâ€™s birthday; or as they lie in bed listening to Barbra Streisandâ€™s â€œThe Way We Wereâ€. These are the moments that stress the importance of community, of having people out there who understand us – even if we donâ€™t get along with them on a daily basis, as the three roommates certainly do not. However, what the show does wrong echoes many issues that are still pervasive, both in the media and in real life, such as the infantilisation of autistic people/characters; the well-meaning othering through putting NDs in opposition to the brave NTs in their life; as well as the everyday overt discrimination based mainly on a lack of willingness to understand. As happy as I am that the creators have made an effort to expand their cast and include ND actors, it is not enough if the framework around them is still largely neurotypical.
So, my question is: How can we depict the struggles and traumas experienced by so many autistic people in a truthful and sensitive way without infantilisation, or without alienating the NT audiences? How do we erase the us vs them binary, while still ensuring that autistic people can thrive just the way we are, without masking or forever asking: â€œWhy does no one want me?â€ as Violet does so many times. Is there a way to raise awareness on a topic still so misunderstood without perpetuating the narrative that autism is a curse or a burden? I believe there may be. And I think â€œAs We See Itâ€ could be a minor step in that direction, because of and despite its faults, as it shows us how much we still need to work to normalise the autistic experience, without needing to interlace every scene with a more palatable neurotypical one.