|[image: Promo photo from the new series As We See It, in which three autistic people are sitting together, looking at the camera.]|
Autistic Science Person
This article contains full spoilers for the first season of As We See It.
Note on Impact: Aside from the review of the actual show, I do want to first comment on this show’s impact for autistic people in the entertainment industry. It is clear that the show creator, Jason Katims, had good intentions for this show, especially regarding hiring autistic actors to play autistic characters. It’s worth noting that two autistic actors play neurotypical roles (Lillian Carrier and Robby Clater), and that autistic adults were hired as part of the crew and production (I’m assuming this based on the term “neurodiverse” being used), though there are not any specifics about this. It is clear Katims wants more opportunities for autistic people in the entertainment industry, and I very much hope that this show catapults opportunities, especially for the three leading cast members, as well as pushes the industry to hire autistic writers, and even autistic directors, so we can tell our own stories through an autistic lens.
As an autistic person, I decided to watch “As We See It” to see how autistic people are represented. After watching the whole season, I concluded that “As We See It” should be called “As Non-autistic Caregivers See It.” The autistic actors do a great job in the show and honestly seem really quite talented. It’s unfortunate that the script was originally written by a non-autistic parent of an autistic child, and the non-autistic script and direction really shows in how the show is framed—in what characters we spend time with, and whose point of view we are looking from, throughout.
Three autistic adults (Violet, Jack, and Harrison) are all in their 20s and live in a group home with a non-autistic support aide, Mandy (played by Sosie Bacon). Seven minutes into the show, the viewers witness a group meeting with them all. Mandy tells Violet, a 25-year-old, to watch her language for saying the F word. Throughout the show Mandy asks them how their “goals” are going, which they have to make progress on every week. Most of the goals involve either striking up conversations with complete strangers (sounds super safe, right?) or asking a family member how they are doing emotionally. If they don’t work on their goals, their privileges are taken away (it’s never clear to the viewer what this entails).
Right away, it seems as if we’re meant to empathize with Mandy and her plight to want to be a neurologist. During the first meeting, Violet is looking at her phone saying she is going on Tinder. Instead of the camera watching Violet scroll through Tinder, we watch as Mandy gets a notification on her phone from Duke University, a let-down for her potential career. This happens while Mandy is telling Violet that no phones are allowed during group meetings. Nine minutes into the pilot, Mandy’s boyfriend Joel (played by Omar Maskati) comforts her by saying she will become “a brilliant famous neurologist and make new breakthroughs in understanding autism.” What that is supposed to mean to us, as viewers—well, that’s never really explained, ever.
Throughout the show, I heard the word “autism” maybe five times? And the word “autistic” once, and “Asperger’s” once. The only time I heard the word “autistic” was when it was used negatively in a conversation between to non-autistic adults, where the autistic child is seen as a burden. It seemed intentional – as if the word “autistic” provides a weighted negative connotation to the scene—“stuck with his autistic son.”
Somehow the entire show is supposed to be about autistic people, but there sure are a hell of a lot of conversations where two non-autistic people talk to each other a few feet away from an autistic adult to talk about how “worried” they are about the autistic person.
There are certainly some redeeming scenes in the series around Jack’s character (played by Rick Glassman) and his dying father Lou (played by Joe Mantegna), as Jack becomes his father’s advocate and does extensive research about his cancer and odds for survival (like I would hope most people would, autistic or not). Jack also tells his boss he has inferior intelligence, tells an old person she has Alzheimer’s because she’s bad at cards, tells Violet (played by Sue Ann Pien) to shut up, and doesn’t seem to have learned how to not be an asshole to people. None of those things are “autism-related” (except maybe telling someone to shut up because they’re being too loud). The Alzheimer’s comment isn’t even a factual one and he doesn’t specify that he’s joking, compared to later scenes where he does.
The show seems to give Jack (a cis white autistic man who works in tech) a pass on being nice to people, while Violet is constantly getting her autonomy revoked by her brother, who isn’t much older than her. Jack’s dad seems to understand him, and his dad is impressed by his growth over the course of the show—Jack grapples with his dad’s cancer diagnosis, wants to help him, and even asks how he’s doing (as part of a goal). They do genuinely grow together as characters during the show and it’s quite nice to watch.
Meanwhile, poor Violet has the worst experiences in existence. She’s 26 years old and really, really wants to go on dates with men. Her parents died, and her brother Van (played by Chris Pang) now takes care of her. He constantly tells her to stay off Tindr and Bumble. She gets walked out on during a date she secretly acquired through Tindr, because she overshared.
Even though she constantly talks about wanting to go on dates throughout the series, no one ever seemed to talk to her about safe sex or asked if she’d like to be on birth control. This background information doesn’t exist in the show. We have no idea what background she has about sex, and unfortunately, many disabled people do not get proper sex education, especially when it’s often shrouded in metaphors or vague language, and not concrete facts. The idea that it never occurred to her family to educate her about this, even by age 16 or 18 is egregious, very unfortunate, and highly unlikely.
Violet meets a really cute guy who’s a vendor at her workplace, and he seems genuinely into her. She texts him a bunch and doesn’t hear back from him. Instead of anyone giving her any real advice, her brother finds out and simply tells her to never date him or interact with him. Great, helpful tip Van!
So one night the vendor texts Violet, and she ends up having sex with him in his truck. She enjoyed it— and assumed (because of course, why educate her about any of this stuff) that he was now her “boyfriend.” Cue the predictableness of him showing up at her workplace, him telling her it was just a one-time thing, and her getting upset and throwing a milkshake at a customer. Cue her getting fired. And guess what? She’s not sure if he used a condom. She’s required to answer sad questions at the pharmacy counter to get Plan B so she doesn’t get pregnant. Van does not even ask if she would ever like a child; in fact, he says nothing. The next scene is her taking the pill in silence. Of course, none of this could have been prevented, apparently?
Instead of deciding that Violet is a grown woman who should be educated about sex and how to look out for people taking advantage of her, Van decides, you know what she needs? To be in an institution for two to three years! Violet has a meltdown (like anyone would at that point?) and Van doesn’t back down from this idea for an entire episode. He forces her to meet the person who runs the facility, which doesn’t go well, because he failed to tell Violet it would be for an entire two to three years of her life. All of this because she wasn’t allowed to date people.
The saddest part to me is that the final episode, when Van decides that she shouldn’t have to go to an institution, and that she should be allowed to have her regular phone back with apps on it, is deemed a “happy ending” for Violet and a way of reconnecting with her brother.
Writing this all out, it sure seems more like tragedy porn than a happy ending. I cannot imagine being in that situation as an autistic adult.
I do think only having one autistic woman in the show doesn’t help her plotline at all. The show doesn’t end with talking about how autistic people (and all disabled people) need better sex education and understanding of what dating is really like (i.e., what it means to “Netflix and chill” sent via text or Tindr). There is only one scene where someone explains to Violet that asking to “hang out” is likely an invitation for having sex, and for some reason Violet ignores this advice, even though in other scenes, like with her workplace friends, she listens. Like many shows by non-autistic people that showcase autistic people, these facts, like explaining that many guys have one-night stands or often ghost women, don’t come up until “after” the misunderstood event has happened because otherwise, it wouldn’t make for much drama, now would it? Watching autistic adults understand consent and safe sex and the lingo involved wouldn’t create the drama that is supposed to be part of a drama TV series.
Sue Ann Pien plays the role very impressively but the script doesn’t allow Violet as a character to grow or thrive—much of the plot line is devoted to her brother Van being controlling and worrying about her, and Violet’s reaction to this control over her autonomy.
One of the most obvious overlooked issues to me was sensory sensitivities. Harrison’s goal is often to try to get out of the house. The very first scene of the show is Mandy asking if Harrison is “ready.” Harrison doesn’t have headphones or sunglasses on. They’re on the phone, and he walks out of the house down the street. She keeps saying to him “You’re fine, you’re fine” as he deals with the bombardment of sounds and commotion. He walks near a dog and it starts barking at him, and he yells “Dog! Dog! Dog!” He tries this same exercise with Mandy for a second time, but the goal is to get to a café for a croissant, because he wants a croissant. It’s more successful but still scary for him.
A few episodes later, you see him donning noise-canceling headphones and sunglasses as he steps outside with his friend. Why was he not given those options earlier, especially to help with the loud barking dog? There’s never a follow-up to this in the show.
A few other blatant faux pas occur in this series: Non-autistic characters asking autistic characters to “make eye contact” or to “look at me,” even when they are upset, which can be painful and overwhelming for autistic people. Please do not think this is the way to comfort every autistic person! Mandy told Harrison “You’re fine, it’s fine” when dealing with an overwhelming and loud environment, which could be invalidating to his experiences rather than helpful. Multiple autistic characters talk about how they “wish they could be normal”—something that I think every autistic person has definitely felt, but it is so explicitly laid out multiple times in the show that it seems to be used for non-autistic characters to act as shepherds to comfort the autistic characters. The non-autistic characters say they don’t need to be normal and they’re beautiful as they are, rather than creating an opportunity for the characters themselves to work through their own internalized ableism or negative feelings. They also give completely conflicting views, where Mandy says to make eye contact, while also saying to Jack “Don’t be your true self.”
However, one insightful point, brought up subtly in the show, is how Harrison’s parents assume that he “takes up the most time” for Mandy of the three autistic adults. They assume he needs more support than the other autistic adults, and at that point, as viewers, we know that this is clearly not the case. This emphasizes the idea that support needs are not linear or on a scale. Functioning labels don’t encompass or show the human experience, including the autistic human experience. This scene portrayed this point very well without being preachy.
Society Gives Autistic White Cis Men A Pass
Harrison, who has very little drama compared to the other characters in this first season, hears Mandy say “I love you” when he gets ice cream with her—and only an episode later does the audience find out that he took this to mean that Mandy is his girlfriend.
Similar to the autistic character of Max in Parenthood, the idea that autistic cis (non-trans) white men who don’t understand romantic relationship dynamics are allowed to assume a romantic relationship, and even resort to stalking or harassment, without clarifying anything first, and are allowed to be deemed “right” in these mix ups, is shown again here both in Harrison and Jack. Harrison sees Mandy kiss Van and becomes sad and quiet. After Mandy finds out there was a mix up regarding the “I love you,” she talks to Harrison and apologizes profusely. She even offers to resign because she feels like she must leave if Harrison doesn’t want to see her again. Harrison had no real reason to assume they were boyfriend and girlfriend and could have easily asked her at any time. As a viewer, I saw no indication that she was his girlfriend, or that he thought she was, between the “I love you” and that resignation scene.
I will say that it is quite strange for an aide who’s not much older than Harrison to say “I love you” and assume that will be taken only as a sign of friendship. In all honesty, when I watched the “I love you” scene I thought: Mandy is going to clarify now, right? Right? That he’s like a brother to her or something? No—Instead, you just watch Harrison say “I love you” back, and that’s the end of the scene. Throughout the show, Mandy is often told by non-autistic people how much she understands autistic adults and how much people need her to support their autistic family members, yet these somewhat clear missteps continue to occur. This plotline in particular had me puzzled due to both characters’ lack of clarity, understanding, and directness.
On to potential stalking: Jack randomly appears next to his love interest, Ewatomi (played by Délé Ogundiran), multiple times throughout the show—and while she is clearly taken aback by it, it’s hard to tell if Jack notices this or not. She gets genuinely upset when he shows up while she’s working, as she has a right to be. He also shows up next to Mandy near her car at one point, and this seems to be written off as fine and quirky, almost as a “smart” thing because he reminds Mandy that location sharing “works both ways,” so really, it’s her fault, I guess? Him showing up randomly instead of casually texting someone before he shows up never seems to be addressed in the show. It seems completely fine and even good for Jack to be dating and potentially stalking a woman, but it’s not okay for Violet to use Bumble or Tindr to find a date, or to even go on a date with someone she met in real life.
Violet and The Glaring Double Standards
It is both amazing and very sad to me how differently Violet is treated compared to the other two autistic characters. Yes, that’s because Van is struggling because their parents died and he doesn’t know how to support her, but it’s also because autistic white cis men are looked at in a different way by society. Jake got his job back after apologizing very abruptly to his boss and nearly insulting him again in the process, yet Violet got fired from Arby’s for being reasonably upset when a guy slept with her and didn’t want to date her afterwards.
It’s unclear whether Violet got a job at a bookstore after being fired at Arby’s, but the interview clearly didn’t go very well. Somehow, Violet explaining why she got fired, that she got upset about a guy who didn’t want a relationship after sleeping together, was framed as worse than Jake telling his boss that he had “inferior intelligence” at the beginning of the series.
I don’t know if these double standards between Violet’s and Jack’s stories are supposed to reflect how things are in real life or not, but either way, it really wasn’t enjoyable to watch. I didn’t come away from it thinking “Oh wow, non-autistic people really will understand autistic people now that this exists!”
It felt like this was written for non-autistic parents who are watching their autistic teenager or young adult grow up and are scared for them. It didn’t feel like a show for me, or for an autistic audience in general, even if the autistic actors did a very good job playing their characters.
It’s interesting to note that the actor Robby Clater, who plays Jack’s neurotypical boss, is autistic. I hope more autistic people are cast for neurotypical roles, but I also hope that the range and diversity of autistic characters continues to expand on film and TV. One question I had while watching this was, why couldn’t Jack’s boss be autistic? There are in fact autistic managers and bosses in the real world. Further, many autistic people do live independently, yet not one autistic character in that first season lived independently, not even a supporting character.
Autistic people only get a handful of media representation that even comes close to the real autistic experience, and non-autistic people are the ones who so often get to create, write, and direct this media. This show was somewhat of a miss for me personally, but it is also a step towards moving in the direction of increased autistic representation, slowly but surely.
Overall, I couldn’t tell what message this show was trying to send as a whole. “It gets better” for non-autistic people caring for autistic adults? Or “Life is horrible and will forever be horrible” for autistic women of color? Or “It’s okay to insult people, show up next to them in person without warning, and assume relationships are romantic” for autistic white cis men?
I don’t think this is “bad representation” necessarily—I felt horrible watching Violet be controlled throughout the show, and it was nice to see Harrison find a friend, and Jack connect with his dad, and the subject matter is definitely complex. But I do think we need some shows with main autistic characters that are not based in drama (or autistic trauma, for that matter), especially not ones written by non-autistic people.
I want a show about autistic superheroes, autistic sitcoms, autistic musicals. I want to see autistic happiness and autistic thriving, where the non-autistic characters already understand the autistic characters, and the autistic characters already understand what they need, how best to communicate for them, and how to self-regulate. I want to see autistic adults just living alone, or being with their spouse or kid, or owning a pet. I want regular, everyday autistic people stuff. For these shows to exist, they need autistic writers from the very beginning and/or very involved consulting by autistic people themselves, before a script is even written.
Autistic people need to be able to tell our own stories. It doesn’t always have to be about how hard it is for non-autistic people to “deal with us.” I think that may actually be the point of the show—I just wish that was the message I felt when I watched it.