I am ready to talk about people with autism performing the roles of people with autism on film and television.
When I founded my nonprofit The Miracle Project® offering performing arts for people with autism years ago, I talked a good game about the limitless possibilities for children and young adults of all abilities, but I never dreamed one of my students would guest-star on the hit new ABC series The Good Doctor.
Why didn’t I dream this dream? I should have then, and I do now. My thoughts on this are growing and evolving as characters with autism and other disabilities become more prevalent in the media and performing arts: Atypical, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, The Good Doctor, Speechless – all feature a main character portraying a person with autism or with other developmental disabilities.
Until recently, there weren’t a slew of shows on film, television and Broadway about the population that my family was included among. I am the mother of a non-speaking, twenty-three year old son with autism whom I adopted from an orphanage in Russia when he was a toddler. When traditional therapies couldn’t reach him, I developed my own methodology using music, creative dramatics and movement to reach him. I never could have imagined that this little boy who spun around in circles, flapped his hands, and threw tantrums for hours, would evolve into a calm, respectful, confident young man – still severely disabled – but happy. Beyond my wildest dreams, he has been a semi-professional model, appeared on stage with Jack Black, Conan O’Brian and Stephen Stills, works part time in an organic garden and he presented at the United Nations using his iPad’s text to talk.
It’s time that people like my son and others with disabilities see themselves on TV. Film and Broadway, played by people like themselves. I lift up the development of these entertainment forms reflecting individuals with disabilities. I applaud any entertainment that elevates this discussion of disability in our community.
That said, we can take it a step further. Let’s hire our kids and young adults with autism in far greater numbers.
Individuals with autism can fulfill roles in these shows and in new shows. Let’s provide opportunities for ALL people to see themselves reflected in the entertainment they consume.
I have heard showrunners tell me, “there isn’t a talent pool strong enough to carry these roles, so we have to hire people without autism to portray people with autism.” I cringe when I hear this and I challenge their assertion on a few different levels:
Discrimination - For starters, people with disabilities are in the position of being among a historically highly-discriminated-against group. People with autism have an 80% unemployment rate. I know personally many individuals with autism who want to work, are ready to work, and are capable of doing high-quality work. Sometimes the “we can’t find someone” reasoning unfortunately can be perceived as discrimination against underrepresented groups.
Misunderstanding - I’ve often heard that some production companies have concerns that an actor with autism may have a ‘melt down’ on the set. Believe me, as a veteran acting coach, I have witnessed more on-set meltdowns from stars of feature films and TV shows, than I have ever witnessed in any of my classes!! My professional students with autism are among the most reliable actors you can hire. They are tireless, committed, focused, prepared, and usually don’t hang out at craft service socializing.
Valuable Insight - Our talent pool with autism and their parents are subject-matter-experts on the experience of a person with autism. Their rich insight, humor, and inner world are a great resource to any show.
Self-Representation - For comedies, it is so much funnier and appropriate to laugh WITH our kids and families that AT them. We can help work with studios, networks and production companies to create more of these opportunities to unite together now and into the future.
It’s good business! At ARC’s recent national conference, Katie Driscoll, founder of Changing the Face of Beauty , Jonathan Murray, CEO of Bunim Murray Productions and Executive Producer of Born This Way; and Jeff Blade, CEO Of Matilda Jane Clothing, discussed how including individuals with disabilities is good for their companies.
Past Successes - My nonprofit The Miracle Project works every day to address this issue. We train individuals like: Coby Bird, 15, who will co-star on The Good Doctor and was previously on ABC’s Speechless and other students who have performed at Carnegie Hall, The White House, The United Nations, on the show Parenthood, and who present at conferences nationally and internationally.
These individuals are not “talented for a person with a disability.” They are talented and ready to work equally to any other person with or without a disability. Each year, members of The Miracle Project perform at the Wallis in Beverly Hills, starring those with and without disabilities. Shows like the The Intimidation Game an anti-bullying musical, and Work In Progress - a coming of age musical, are created with individuals of all abilities.
Future Hopes: That the media continues to hire actors of all abilities to reflect the diversity in our communities. We will continue to work on licensing The Miracle Project programs including a new touring production company to develop inclusive, diverse talent among people with and without disabilities.