While you were spending time with the Shtisel family in your Netflix queue, the 10-episode Israeli series “On the Spectrum” arrived on HBO Max in early April to coincide with Autism Awareness Month. The award-winning 2018 drama features standout performances from the three leads — neurotypical actors playing neurodiverse roles — and challenges audiences to consider the complicated world of neurodiverse young adults living with autism spectrum disorder.
ASD is a developmental disability that can cause a range of social, communication and behavioral challenges. A frequently used term for people on the spectrum is “neurodiversity,” which acknowledges variations in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention and mood.
The neurodiverse characters in “On the Spectrum,” Zohar, Ron and Amit, struggle to pick up on social cues and participate in the world around them to different degrees. They live in a group apartment, where social worker Yaeli and Zohar’s brother Asher often check in on them, trying to nudge the young adults toward stability and social involvement, with varying success.
Zohar (Naomi Levov) wants to be “normal,” which to her means having a neurotypical boyfriend. Her moods change on a dime, from elated to frustrated to rageful, all visible in Levov’s expressive eyes. Amit (Ben Yosipovich) has a simple view of the world and is infatuated with Lior, the waitress and aspiring actress at the local café. He believes that her kindness makes her his girlfriend, and he keeps taking things from his roommates, including Zohar’s late mother’s ring, and giving them to Lior as gifts, without understanding he’s done anything wrong. Ron (Niv Majar) is reclusive, antisocial and extremely rigid about routine. He often reacts to people bluntly. The apartment is alternately silent or cacophonous as its residents live their lives.
Writer Dana Idisis, who co-created the show with Yuval Shafferman, said she wrote the series “from a very personal place” because her brother is on the spectrum. “I wanted to write a story in which he was the hero, where he deals with society and not where society needs to deal with him,” she wrote in press materials. “It was important for me to meet with as many people on the spectrum as possible, as every person has their own story. And I was grateful to meet so many that opened up their hearts and confided in me.”
While “On the Spectrum” doesn’t have “authentic casting” (since neurotypical actors play neurodiverse characters), HBO Max hired graduates and students of Exceptional Minds — a Los Angeles-based, nonprofit vocational academy and digital arts studio that trains artists with autism — to provide the dubbing for English-speaking audiences.
Yes Studios, the producer/distributor of other popular Israeli shows, positions it as a “comedy drama series,” but because the comedic situations emerge from the clashes among the young adults’ worldviews and realities, this series and its riveting performances are better classified as drama.
In one episode, Zohar, supervised by her social worker and speech therapist, goes to a club. The outing helps her feel normal and appreciated but leads to one of the more sobering and dangerous stories in the series. As a neurotypical viewer, I was conflicted: I understood Zohar’s wish to be normal, but I also wanted the neurotypical caretakers to be more hands-on to ensure her safety. It’s heartbreaking to watch Zohar try so hard to find love and end up ditched, disappointed and victimized over the course of the series. Her brother Asher, fearful that his sister will be exploited, tells her she must never let anyone touch her. “But I want to,” she says.
Lauren Appelbaum, VP of communications at RespectAbility, which fights stigmas around people with disabilities and advocates for their full participation in society, advises using the word “typical” instead of “normal.” She also encourages creative teams to bring disabled writers into the room and to cast authentically to avoid misrepresenting those with disabilities. RespectAbility has consulted on more than 35 projects this year alone.
Some American audiences may be drawn to this series to see familiar Israeli actors — Reef Neeman (“Fauda,” “Shtisel”) plays Lior; Yakov Zada Daniel (“Our Boys,” “Fauda,” “Autonomies”) appears as a religious neurodiverse speed dater; Shadi Mar’i (“Fauda,” “Possessions,” “Juda,” “Our Boys”) plays Zohar’s friend and co-worker at Aroma. But the central appeal of “On the Spectrum” is its portrayal of the challenging space occupied by the neurodiverse, especially around the forming and defining of relationships, and of the neurotypical folks who surround them.