Atypical Representation: Special Needs Is Out of the Closet

Recently there has been a lot of talk about diversity – in the workplace, in politics and in entertainment. Usually people assume diversity means people of different races being represented, but it also means people of different abilities. In the past we occasionally saw a lead character in a wheelchair or with some other disability but lately some shows are not only centered around a character with special needs, the cast also includes people with special needs.

The groundbreaking show Life Goes On featured actor Chris Burke who has Down Syndrome, but has been off the air since 1993. Glee showcased a multi-ethnic, multi-sexualitied and multi-abilitied cast with not one but two supporting actors with down syndrome, although the main character in a wheelchair was a typically-abled actor. Glee ended its run in 2015. Daryl Mitchell is one of the rare actors who has become disabled but continues on with his performing career. Speechless stars actor Micah Fowler, who like his character has cerebral palsy. The show’s creator Scott Sylveri based the show on his own family as he grew up with a brother with disabilities.

The Good Doctor is centered around a surgeon with autism and savant syndrome, played by Freddie Highmore who is neurotypical. The actor does know someone with autism and also heavily researched the role. His performance consistently gets praise as the actor always conveys the inner thoughts and feelings of an often emotionless character. The show staff includes people on the spectrum and advisors so as not to be stereotypical, and the show’s executive producer David Shore points out that the surgeon is a unique character who has these conditions and is not meant to portray autism in general. The show has just started its second season in network television.

The latest addition to this brave history is the Netflix show Atypical, which has just completed its second season. Created by Robia Rashid, it follows a high school senior with high-functioning autism who struggles to be independent and move forward in life. Although a supporting character is played by an actor with autism (Anthony Jacques, who is hilarious), the first season was criticized for not including enough people on the spectrum on the staff or in the cast ( the lead actor Kier Gilchrist is neurotypical). The show does have an “autism advisor” who is a special education professional and researcher named Michelle Dean. Ironically, many of the writers and directors are female so the show was doing a lot for diversity, just maybe not the special needs kind of diversity. The second season expanded the writing staff and the actors to include more people on the spectrum, including some young people in a support group. I was amazed to actually see a casting call for high-school aged people with autism. It is progress, but these are still supporting characters. (For a negative review of the show by an actor on the spectrum, check here)

It is encouraging to me that young people growing up and dealing with challenges are being shown possibilities, just as I am sure it was encouraging for minorities to see their own races being portrayed positively. I hope that all around them; in school, at home, in the workplace and on TV and in movies young people with disabilities are being bombarded with uplifting, inspiring messages. That everywhere they look, they see potential. They will never know their full potential unless they are given opportunities and the courage and self-confidence to take them.

Last year, Micah and two other members of the Speechless cast performed at a benefit for the institute that runs my kid’s school – a school that is based on inclusion. And they were wonderful. Watching Micah it was clear – his disability didn’t rule his life – he was using it to inspire others.

To let them see…once more…anything is possible.

About the Author

Rosie Reeves is a writer and mother of three; including one with special needs. She works side-by-side with her daughter’s therapists, teachers and doctors. Rosie has also served as the Los Angeles Special Needs Kids Examiner. She can be reached at Rosie is a member of the PedSafe Expert team


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