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On television, disability is a tough sell

The show ‘As We See It’ stars autistic actors playing autistic characters. Its eight episodes were a boon to building autism awareness, and they were great entertainment. So why was the show canceled?

A still from "As We See It."viperagp/adobe/globe staff

In the pilot episode of the dramedy “As We See It,” Harrison, a 20-something homebody, suits up for a walk down the block. Slipping in earbuds, he cringes at the noise (garbage truck, skateboard wheels) as he steps from vestibule to sidewalk.

“Good job! Almost there, you’re so close!” says Mandy, Harrison’s aide, who stands outside his apartment building, encouraging Harrison from the phone. Harrison and his roommates, Violet and Jack, have autism and live in a supported-living apartment. Mandy’s job is to help them learn to go out into the world by themselves.

The show is warm and irreverent and quick. I blew through all eight episodes in two days last month and then looked up when season two would be released. That’s when I learned that it “will not be returning to Amazon.”

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My disappointment over the show’s cancellation feels more personal than even the general lack of autism representation does. If only autistic people’s stories were out there, I used to think, then people would care, and understand, and want to learn more. I’d finally seen my family’s experiences depicted in the mainstream media, and they didn’t sell.

“As We See It,” which debuted in January, was written and produced by Jason Katims, the head writer of “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood.” His son has autism and was an inspiration for the show. Amazon did not release viewing numbers or comment on the show’s cancellation, but “As We See It” earned a 90 percent critical rating and 98 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and TVLine ranked it among the Best Shows From the First Half of 2022.

Is autism just too niche for commercial success? Perhaps ask the more than 5.4 million autistic adults in the United States and those who help take care of them.

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"As We See It" cast members Albert Rutecki, Sue Ann Pien, and Rick Glassman, with series creator Jason Katims, were honored at the 2nd Annual HCA TV Awards in August for promoting representation and bringing awareness of underrepresented voices in entertainment. Rodin Eckenroth/Getty

“As We See It” stars three young adult roommates living in LA — like “New Girl” but featuring an underrepresented group: disabled adults. Each episode offers a window into what it is like to have autism and to live with someone who does. Autistic actors portray autistic characters. Some of the show’s crew members and writers are neurodiverse.

My older brother Nicholas has a profound form of autism. He lives at home with my parents, has a vocabulary of about 100 words, and needs help with nearly all parts of daily life. The “independent living” that the show’s three protagonists aspire to is not yet realistic for Nicholas. Still, I see many of his experiences refracted through the three roommates: Harrison’s fear of dogs, Violet’s public meltdowns, Jack’s intense love of routine.

I also see some of my own experiences refracted through the caretakers’ overwhelming love and their tinge of frustration over how hard it is to bring Harrison, Violet, and Jack (read: Nicholas) into the big, bulldozing world without incident. Frustration, too, over how important their lives are, and how that should go without saying. Yet the public knows so little about autism. The cancellation of “As We See It” removes a source of information and empathy from the public discourse. “Calm down! You’re upsetting him,” one woman snaps at Harrison as he leaps up and down, terrified by her barking dog.

Other plot points are autism-specific but with a twist and punctuated by dry humor. For instance, Violet’s obsession with finding a boyfriend, a common TV trope, is taken to a humorous pitch and sustains a complicated, gripping plot. On a Bumble date, a guy sits down, tells her she’s beautiful, and then leaves hurriedly when Violet leans forward and confesses that her brother might take away her phone for “breaking the rules.”

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Van, Violet’s brother, indeed takes away her phone: “No more dating apps.” So at Arby’s, where Violet works as a “sandwich technician,” she meets a french fry delivery guy and hooks up with him in the back of his truck. Violet is over the moon — she’s finally found love. Until the next day, when fry guy tells her he’s not looking to date. She throws a milkshake at him and gets fired for “creating a hostile work environment.”

The plot accomplishes the primary imperative of television: to entertain. And baked into it is the idea that kids with autism grow up to face crises in love, friendship, and family, just like everyone does. The show also probes deep questions about guardianship, independence, and vulnerability: Should Van have prohibited dating apps? Did fry guy take advantage of Violet? In a powerful scene, Van tries to purchase the morning-after pill for Violet, but the pharmacist insists on speaking with Violet herself.

“Does this ever get any easier?” Van asks Jack’s father, whose response is: “Not really . . . It’s a hell of a burden. It’s also a gift.”

“I started to realize [Jack] was making me better,” Jack’s dad says. “I became a little more considerate, more compassionate, and I like the guy I became.”

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The show has its detractors. One Twitter user, using the hashtag #ActuallyAutistic, stated, “The way it portrayed autistic people like burdens was terrible.” And it has its blind spots, hardly acknowledging those on the more severe end of the spectrum, like my brother.

But I like what Rick Glassman, who plays Jack, said in an interview after the show’s debut. “Everybody has their own deficiencies and strengths, and this show does a really honest job capturing that.”

It is not TV’s job to make us better people, but good television can make us more aware. Once, my brother ran screaming into the surf when a friendly golden retriever chased him into the water. My mom dove in and pulled the dog off Nicholas while the dog’s owner yelled from the shore that they were hurting her dog. “Control your son!” Maybe, had that woman watched the first five minutes of the “As We See It” pilot episode, she would have realized what was going on.

Isabel Ruehl is a writer in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @IsabelRuehl.