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As We See It is Being Hailed as a Bastion of Autism Inclusion, but is it?

This article contains spoilers, as well as discussion of ableism/sexism in the show that some readers may find distressing.

Growing up as an undiagnosed autistic girl, there was little positive representation of people like me on television. The first piece of ‘autism media’ I consumed was probably the 2003 novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which received criticism from autistic activists for its stereotypical portrayal of Christopher Boone, a ‘savant’ with an extreme talent for mathematics.

The book led many readers to believe that mathematic genius is typical among autistics.

For me, the stereotype of the (invariably male) maths geek loomed so large that I doubted whether I could, in fact, be autistic. In my early 20s, however, I started seeing more talk about ‘female autism’ online, and I was empowered to seek my diagnosis.

Several years on, autistic representation in popular media is thankfully richer and more diverse than in the past.

Therefore, when I heard about As We See It, an Amazon Original series billed as a wholesome comedy about three autistic friends living together (two males, one female), I was optimistic. Cute premise, I thought. Why isn’t anyone talking about this?

Then I began seeing critical tweets from fellow autistics. Fern Brady, a fabulous Scottish autistic comedian, tweeted: ‘As We See It on Amazon should be called As They See Us cause that’s all it is. More stereotypes.’ Uh-oh.

Still, I kept an open mind. With more autistic girls on TV, maybe I’d have accessed diagnosis sooner. But it’s 2022 now. Autistic white women, at least, have enjoyed some genuinely good representation in television since execs apparently discovered that we exist. 

In particular, Hannah Gadsby’s 2020 Netflix special, Douglas, marked a new milestone in autistic female visibility. I could barely have dreamt of an autistic lesbian delivering critically acclaimed stand-up a few years prior.

In preparation for As We See It, I watched a Sundance panel featuring cast members and neurotypical producer Jason Katims. Its title? ‘#ActuallyAuthentic: How Prime Video’s As We See It Delivered on Neurodiverse Inclusion’, clearly a play on the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag created by the autistic community to challenge the dominance of caregivers in online autism discussions.

The power dynamic makes the organisation of the discussion incredibly jarring. In the first 20 minutes, Jason Katims (who is the father of an autistic child) and the moderator (another autism parent) both speak far more than any of the #ActuallyAutistic cast. They’re basically props.

My initial optimism about As We See It having quickly evaporated, I nonetheless vowed to see its ‘neurodiverse inclusion’ with my own eyes. A major component of the ‘inclusion’ the show is praised for is the casting of autistic actors in autistic roles. Autistic activists attack the norm of giving autistic roles to neurotypicals for robbing us of opportunities and treating our neurotype as a costume. 

As We See It cannot be criticised for doing this, and while their performances aren’t necessarily Emmy material, the show’s leads do their best with what they’re given. I am happy they have obtained roles that will help them gain further opportunities in a tough industry.

But is As We See It good for autistic people collectively? I think Fern Brady may have hit the nail on the head calling it ‘As They See Us’. Some scenes speak to my experiences: for instance, the pilot episode’s opener, where Harrison experiences sensory overload on a city street. 

Unfortunately, this authenticity does not solve the core problem, which is that the show’s overall narrative centres neurotypical people’s perspectives, and desires. 

One especially distressing way this neurotypical-centricity manifests is in the treatment of Violet. 

Preoccupied with finding a boyfriend, she is highly naïve and temperamental. Her caregivers (a brother and Mandy, who is hired to support the household of 20-somethings to live independently) want to protect her. However, this understandable desire spills into coercion. 

Violet’s character ‘growth’ is acquiescing to her carers’ pressure to date an autistic man she repeatedly states she has no attraction to.

Flagrant ableism comes with a hefty dose of sexism — Violet’s similarly lonesome flatmate, Jack, succeeds in tracking down a neurotypical stranger at an arcade through her geotag, and is rewarded with a date. 

What’s the good in autistic female representation if it depicts us as uniquely incapable of choosing a partner compared with our male counterparts?

This isn’t the only ‘diverse’ series to be made by white neurotypical men. For example, two of Pose’s three creators – all men, by the way – are white. However, from my perspective as an outsider to Black transgender communities, Pose has been better received by those it represents. 

Perhaps better consultancy made the difference. Seasoned trans activist Janet Mock was also involved in writing and directing. 

I’m not aware of any equivalent autistic involvement in As We See It, but I do know that Jason Katims sought input on the script from Autism Speaks, who are considered a hate organisation by many autistic advocates. If more autistic people were involved in production, this probably wouldn’t have happened. 

Ultimately, As We See It offers the autistic community crumbs of neurotypical benevolence. We are supposed to be grateful that we are ‘included’ in this condescending and insulting show. 

In a day where autistic people like Hannah Gadsby are making TV that actually empowers us, crumbs simply aren’t enough. We deserve the whole cake.

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