Shows like As We See It are vital to society’s media literacy and our understanding of autism.
Examining the power of television through As We See It
Media is imperative in shaping the way society operates. It takes different realities and mirrors them back to us, hoping to impact viewers. Autistic people have not been able to see their experiences adequately reflected on screen the same way so many of us do. Shows like As We See It are vital to society’s media literacy and our understanding of autism.
As We See It was created by Jason Katims, best known for Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. The show is an adaptation of an Israeli dramedy called On The Spectrum that followed three autistic adults living in an assisted apartment together. As We See It tells a similar story set in sunny California. Jack (Rick Glassman), Harrison (Albert Rutecki), and Violet (Sue Anne Pien) all are on the spectrum but in varying degrees of severity. The three live in an apartment together, monitored by a neurotypical aide named Mandy (Sosie Bacon). It’s a familiar premise in the world of comedy: adults in their twenties figuring out how to actually be adults. However, As We See It tells this story from a different perspective and one that has been sorely lacking in the media landscape.
It’s imperative to start with a brief background in the ways autism has been historically represented on screen. For a while, when autism was displayed on screen, it was only showcased in a particular trope: the autistic person as the savant. Autistic people are depicted as superhuman geniuses who are not “normal.” Rain Man (1988) is a notable example of this trope and often is credited as starting a pattern for a specific kind of depiction of autism. And then, there are more modern works like The Good Doctor and The Big Bang Theory that once again explore autistic traits through an unrealistic lens of savantism. While, yes, there are people on the spectrum with extraordinary talents and intelligence, it is an unrealistic version of what autism looks like.
On the other side of the media spectrum, autism also gets portrayed as an infantilizing condition or a sob story to make a neurotypical protagonist look like a hero. Recently, Sia’s film Music fell under harsh criticism for doing just that. The movie had a neurotypical actor play the part of a nonverbal autistic girl whose main role was to “help her older sister find herself.”1 It was incredibly patronizing, and the flack the movie got was justified.
As We See It is not the first comedy to center on characters on the spectrum. Shows like Atypical (2017-2021) and Everything Is Gonna Be Okay (2020-2021) have been recent hits for their funny, charming, and accurate depiction of autistic teens. Jason Katims’s Parenthood (2010-2015) also featured a character with Aspergers. But, while these shows were and are essential, they tended to focus on autistic children and adolescents. These shows focus on children with autism navigating school and coming of age firsts which is necessary. However, just as for neurotypical people, there are stories to be told from each stage of life. Katims states he was drawn to create As We See It based on a need he felt for stories about adults with autism.2 As We See It is able to fill that gap and do so quite well. In addition, Katims cast autistic actors to play these characters, which is so incredibly important.
It’s not enough to just tell autistic stories, but we must let autistic people tell their own stories themselves. Often when non-autistic actors take on roles of autistic characters it can feel more like a mockery of autism than a real deception of it, especially in stories about people with severe autism. Having actors imitate physical ticks or mental delays can be extremely insulting if not handled with care. Because As We See It features actors who are autistic themselves, not only do the characters feel real, but they don’t feel like a caricature of autism.
In the pilot, we first meet Harrison, who falls on the more severe side of the spectrum, nervously preparing to step outside the apartment building. He is breathing heavily and shaking. In his hands, he is clutching a phone attached to his headphones. Harrison is very clearly dealing with intense agoraphobia. We hear an encouraging voice telling him to take a step forward through his headphones. This is Mandy; her kind words, enthusiastic demeanor, and sense of humor allow Harrison to begin his trek outside. Unfortunately, a dog barking on the sidewalk sends Harrison into a panic attack ending the day’s mission. A few moments later, we meet Jack. Jack works at a sleek, Google-esque, tech company. We see how brilliant Jack is in a business meeting and how good he is at programming. But for everything he has in technical skills, he lacks in social skills. Jack is blunt, apathetic, awkward, and offends people. When he calls his boss an idiot for messing up one of Jack’s programs, he is fired and storms out. And then, there’s Violet. Violet works at Arby’s and enjoys talking to her co-workers and cute customers…even if these interactions don’t appear to go well. Her older brother Van (Chris Pang) is her sole family member and constantly stresses over trying to keep Violet safe. Violet’s obsession with wanting a boyfriend and to go on dates is humorous and brutal to watch at the same time.3
Throughout the season, we watch these characters be challenged and grow. Jack must work on his empathy skills not only to get his job back but also in order to cope with his father’s recent cancer diagnosis. Harrison makes a new friend who helps him break out of his shell, but he is often met with a society of adults that don’t view him as a peer. Violet’s workplace crush becomes immensely dangerous, causing Van to attempt to send her to an assisted living autism facility. Through it all, Mandy is there. But not in a savior, hero-complex way. Mandy is just as flawed as Jack, Harrison, and Violet. She makes mistakes that have consequences, like hooking up with Van in front of Harrison, and when the gang succeeds, it’s often not because of Mandy. That’s what makes this show so earnest and still a comedy.
As We See It prioritizes story, character, and jokes over preachy messages about autism. By sticking to telling real stories about real people, the show’s true message shines. The protagonists aren’t portrayed as one-dimensional poster children for autism. They are also not infantilized or incompetent. One of the reasons this show is so enjoyable to watch is because it’s not trying to be any different than all the other dramedies that exist about young adults. Jack begins to date his father’s nurse, takes edibles with his dad, and has an active sex life. Violet goes on Tinder dates and can’t seem to find the perfect guy—sound like a familiar trope? Mandy wants Harrison to get out and exercise more, but he keeps finding loopholes. Eventually, Harrison starts virtual Zumba classes solely because the instructor is very, very attractive. Funny moments range from Harrison adopting the mantra “fear is my bitch” to Jack not wanting to splurge on a fancy dinner for his first date. These storylines are not groundbreaking. But the perspective from which they are approached is.
It’s easy to dismiss As We See It as nothing more than entertainment. However, the show creates a real social impact. For the first time, adults on the spectrum can see themselves in the half-hour comedy. They can see characters who are not props but live an imperfectly messy life as all twenty-five year olds do. Not only that, but this show addresses issues with the way society treats neurotypical individuals through its plot lines. Harrison befriends a twelve-year-old boy who lives in the apartment building and is just as lonely. Their friendship is sweet and helps them both grow . . . until the boy’s mom forbids Harrison from being around her son. She calls him a “weirdo” and other hurtful words. In the pilot, Violet storms into the apartment in tears after getting in trouble for asking a customer out at work. She folds to the floor and clutches a pillow as she sobs in a fit. Violet screams the phrases “I want a boyfriend,” “I want to date a normal guy,” and “I want to be normal.”4 The pressure to assimilate to what Violet thinks is normal comes solely from society and perhaps the world of social media. When our hearts break for Violet, we are also forced to ask ourselves why Violet feels the way she does about herself. In what ways do we need to reshape the way we treat autistic people?
Van and Violet’s relationship struck me the most. I am the oldest of three, and my younger brother has special needs. He is not autistic but is developmentally delayed. He shares a lot of traits with someone on the spectrum and reminds me of Harrison quite a bit. As We See It captures the strain and complex dynamics of having a family member on the spectrum. Van’s love for Violet is raw, and watching his struggle to connect with her is one of the realest parts of this show. He wants to do right by her but isn’t sure what that even means. Harrison’s family faces a dilemma of what to do with Harrison. As Katims mentions, it’s important to tell stories of adults with autism because so many people deal with the reality of it. My brother is now eighteen and a legal adult but cannot live independently. The conversations Harrison’s family has about his future sound eerily similar to ones that have occurred many times in my house. And not just my house, the homes of millions of families. Good comedy comes from the audience’s ability to identify with it. As We See It, is that show for so many people. Moreover, it’s that show for so many people who haven’t had many chances to relate to comedy or see themselves on screen.
One scene that truly speaks to my experience with my brother is in episode 5, “Ever Had an Edible?” Harrison and Mandy spend the day visiting Harrison’s parents and eighteen-year-old sister Nicole (Alyssa Jirrels). Nicole shows Harrison her new car. Harrison and his sister clearly have a great relationship full of love. Despite being his younger sister, Nicole fulfills the role of being someone Harrison looks up to. Amidst the fun of playing with the seat recliners of the car, Nicole says, “You know I’m graduating soon?” Harrison eagerly starts talking about how awesome her graduation party will be, not registering what Nicole graduating actually means. Nicole presses further, “You know, after the party. I am going to college. I’m going to be in San Diego for a little while.” Harrison is able to conceptualize this only by knowing the San Diego Zoo, “isn’t the zoo far away?” Nicole mulls over her next words carefully, not wanting to upset him. She explains that the reason for her new car is so she can visit him and that they can FaceTime. Then Harrison finally gets it, “So you won’t live here anymore?” That line hit me because it’s the exact same question my brother asked me two years ago when I was leaving for college. This moment alone conveys so much about the emotional journey Harrison is going on. His world feels like it’s changing. Everyone he knows is leaving him, and it’s almost as if everyone is moving on without him. The scene ends with Nicole saying she loves him and always will. Harrison fights back the tears as she continues by telling him their parents and Mandy will always be there for him too. The cruel irony of it all? At this same moment, Harrison’s parents are telling Mandy that they are moving to Montana, without Harrison.5 Harrison lives his life afraid of the outside world, and now his only safety blanket, his childhood home, is being ripped out from under him. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also incredibly real.
As We See It is not reinventing the wheel by any means. Instead, it’s adding a new spoke to it. And when we talk about social change, we cannot ignore the role television plays in forming today’s culture and society. In a world still laced with ableism, seeing autistic characters in this way helps us understand the world from their point of view. Whether you have interacted with someone on the spectrum, are on the spectrum, or none of the above, this show will provide you the opportunity to be a more empathetic and aware person. Representation matters on and off the screen. As We See It brings new conversations to the table by simply telling stories about people that live in the same world as the rest of us. And it’s asking viewers to see this world the way they do. Through that experience, a kinder, more informed, and open society might emerge.
- Ito, Robert. “‘As We See It’ Is Not a Typical Portrayal of Autism,” New York Times, 21 Jan. 2022. Accessed 27 Mar. 2022.
- Robert Ito, “‘As We See It’ Is Not a Typical Portrayal of Autism,” New York Times, January 21, 2022.
- “Pilot,” As We See It, season 1, episode 1, written by Jason Katims, directed by Jesse Peretz, aired January 21, 2022 on Amazon Prime.
- “Pilot,” As We See It, season 1, episode 1, written by Jason Katims, directed by Jesse Peretz.
- “Ever Had an Edible?” As We See It, season 1, episode 5, written by Romi Barta, directed by David Boyd, aired January 21, 2022 on Amazon Prime.