a young woman and two young men on a couch
Neomi Levov, Niv Majar and Ben Yosipovich are the leads in the Israeli series "On The Spectrum."

Will U.S. version of Israeli hit ‘On the Spectrum’ get autism right?

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

“On the Spectrum” may be one of the most critically lauded Israeli shows ever.

Sure, “Fauda,” about Israeli undercover operatives, and “Shtisel,” the Netflix hit about a haredi Orthodox family, are both whirlwind international successes. But “On the Spectrum” — a dramedy about three roommates who live together in a hostel apartment for autistic individuals — has received amazing international acclaim in a way those shows have not.

Among other nods, it was the first Israeli show to be accepted into the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, and the only non-English show at the festival that year. It is not yet streaming outside Israel, but American viewers can watch the first episode on the Yes! YouTube channel in Hebrew.

So it’s not surprising that the show recently got picked up by Amazon Studios for an American adaptation  — as yet unnamed and with no release date announced. The project is being helmed by Jewish showrunner Jason Katims, no stranger to portraying autistic characters; he created Max Braverman, a character with Asperger’s on NBC’s “Parenthood” (played by Max Burkholder) who was somewhat inspired by Katims’ own son.

Aside from its critical acclaim, I’m sure Amazon Studios executives know there’s another great reason to pick up “On the Spectrum.” TV viewers seem to love shows with autistic characters.

“The Good Doctor,” based on a Korean drama about an autistic savant, is one of the most popular shows on ABC. “Atypical,” a Netflix show about an autistic teen with an obsession for animals and incredible drawing skills, has been renewed for a fourth season.

But even if I find these widely beloved shows highly entertaining, one thing I know is that autistic representation on TV is not really representative, and at times quite problematic. The characters often seem like human calculators, and as Sara Luterman, a disabled writer, mentions in a great article about Cynthia Erivo’s character in HBO’s “The Outsider,” the majority of these autistic characters are white and male.

Also, many shows about autism focus on the difficulties that neurotypical family members have with accepting their neurodiverse children or siblings, such as in the Israeli show “Yellow Peppers,” adapted by the BBC into “The A Word.” This type of framing, while relatable for many families, makes autistic individuals into burdens. Ultimately it makes the drama of “coming to terms” with being related to someone on the autism spectrum more important than showing the experience of navigating the world for people who are neurodiverse.

So is “On the Spectrum” more representative of actual life with autism?

Israeli Dana Idisis, whose brother is on the autism spectrum, certainly seems to have tried to make it so in creating the show with Yuval Shuferman.

“Yuval and I didn’t want to tell a story about those with special abilities,” she said, alluding to so many depictions of autism in pop culture. “This is about day-to-day life and the issues of relationships, dating and job interviews. This all makes it different from other shows.”

The cast and crew worked closely with a Beit Ekstein hostel for autistic adults, a residence that helps young adults transition into independent living, to make sure their portrayals were accurate. The men and women they met there urged the creators not to make their characters into saints or fools. Instead, they urged them to show that the full spectrum of autism is the full spectrum of human experience, too.

But Ronen Gil, co-founder of the Autistic Community of Israel, said he had to stop watching “On the Spectrum” after two episodes.

“All I saw was clean and pure stereotype, with a little bit of a flavoring of stigma,” he said.

While the showrunners and cast talked to individuals at Beit Ekstein, in the end, the Israeli “On the Spectrum” was staffed only by neurotypical people — both off and on the screen. That’s an inherent flaw in so many shows depicting autistic characters. Yes, “The Good Doctor” has Jewish autistic actress Vered Blonstein guest star as Lana Moore, but its main character is still played by a neurotypical individual. The same goes for “Atypical” and countless other shows and movies that have autistic characters.

There are very few autistic people telling our own stories in mainstream media.

One of the first shows to cast an autistic actor as a central autistic character is Freeform’s “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay” — and it is truly delightful. Kayla Cromer’s Matilda is a charming and incredibly relatable character — and her “struggles” with autism, while aptly portrayed, are not a central part of this wonderful character and show. But one show is just not enough.

In that respect, the American version of “On the Spectrum” will definitely be a game-changer, as all three of its main cast members identify as on the spectrum: Rick Glassman, Sue Ann Pien and Albert Rutecki.

Glassman, a Jewish comedian, was diagnosed with Asperger’s as a child.

“As a kid, I didn’t intuitively pick up on facial recognition too well,” Glassman, 35, told a newspaper in Ohio in advance of the Cleveland Comedy Festival two years ago. “I didn’t know how I was received. What I realized as I got older: I think I’m annoying people or making them uncomfortable. I don’t understand what a boundary is.”

He added: “What I figured out was by doing comedy and weird stuff, if people think I’m going to be weird — even if I wasn’t conscious of this at the time — I’m going to control the situation. I’m going to beat them to the punch.”

Though having Glassman bring his experiences to the American version of the show is wonderful, and an important step toward representation, some worry that it’s not enough.

Katims is the only writing credit on the show so far, and Luterman, the writer, says that’s of some concern. As Katims fills the writers’ room, she says, she hopes he hires autistic writers and lets them take the lead.

“There are very few autistic people telling our own stories in mainstream media,” she said.

Ari Ne’eman, who advises the ACLU on disability, thinks that “the best representation of autistic people on television comes out of having characters with real plots and motivations that aren’t just about autism.” While he has not watched “On the Spectrum,” he says that excellent examples are Abed in “Community” and Brick from “The Middle.”

“Nobody wants a 30-minute public service announcement,” Ne’eman said. “So the question I’d want to explore in discussing any piece of media isn’t just whether it’s offensive. It’s whether autistic people are portrayed with the same complexity and nuance that is needed for showing a whole person.”

This story originally appeared on Kveller and was distributed by JTA.

Lior Zaltzman
Lior Zaltzman

Lior Zaltzman is deputy managing editor of Kveller. Follow her on Twitter @liorca.