On the Spectrum: A New Twist to Autistic Representation

The main characters from On the Spectrum: Armit, Ron, and Zohar (Photo courtesy CBC Gem)
Michael Cnudde, Managing Editor, Autism Matters

On the Spectrum is an Israeli television series that depicts the lives of three autistic young adults who live together – Ron, Zohar, and Armit (played respectively by Niv Majar, Naomi Levov, and Ben Yosipovich). Filmed as a series of ten 30-minute episodes in 2018, it is unique in that it features autistic actors playing the lead roles. The program is currently being streamed on CBC Gem.

On the surface, On the Spectrum would seem to answer the demands of many autistic self-advocates for better representation of autistic people in the media. But how does our panel of self-advocates see this? The Autism Ontario Adult Media Panel recently discussed these and other questions. Courtney Weaver, freelance writer and self-advocate; David Moloney, Autism Ontario Board Member, self-advocate, and Mutual Fund Indexer with CIBC; and self-advocate Nicole Corrado, participated in the conversation moderated by Autism Matters Managing Editor Michael Cnudde.

"I thought it illustrated some very real executive functioning related challenges in daily living that can be faced by many adults diagnosed on the autism spectrum and those closest to them," Courtney said, reflecting on the first episode. She noted some of the everyday challenges portrayed in the episode including using the telephone which the character Ron turned off due to its noise. Doing this, however, cut him off from communication with family members who wanted to remain in contact. Also accurately reflected were some characters' lack of understanding of the value of money. "This episode reminded me of an experience my mom had at a social house for persons with developmental disabilities, since the money and communication experiences reminded me of the social house."

"It was a very good, very honest, and truthful and accurate representation of people on the spectrum," said David. "I was really quite pleased with how the director essentially allowed those featured to operate as they normally would." He said the show was well done, especially how the producers and directors appeared to take in all facets of individuals on the spectrum.

Courtney noted that she had recently learned that the actors who played the lead autistic characters also identified as autistic. "Their lived, and acting experience came together to give great performances."

Nicole's opinion differed, however. While she appreciated the fact that there were autistic actors on the program, she hoped that they would also have writers and directors who were also on the spectrum. "The actors are only going by what's on the script, and they can only do the best with whatever scripts they have," she said. "They can be autistic actors. But if the scripts depict autism in an inaccurate way, the depictions will only be as accurate as the script. The actors can only do as well as they can with the script."

Of all the characters, Ron turned out to be the favourite of both David and Nicole. Although she considered Ron rude to the people around him, she felt that came from fear. "A lot of his stuff does come from fear, but you do see the most growth," Nicole said. "I do see the potential. There is a kindness buried under his rude exterior. We really start to see him change once he begins to leave his house."

During this and the other six episodes she had watched, Nicole noted that Ron was the only character who demonstrated much growth, citing how he had grown when interacting with a neighbour. At first, she said, they didn't get along, but they began to help each other. "I found he was the only one who really had character progression."  

David agreed with Nicole that Ron was his favourite character. He said he found parallels between his experiences and those of the character, particularly in the job search process. "I can understand his frustrations in trying to find suitable employment, and I can understand his difficulty in the interview. I was once there myself." When he was job hunting, he said he had no idea how to prepare for an interview. David's pleased that the character is depicted as seeking – however begrudgingly – employment. "It's my hope that as long it takes, he will find something suitable."

Nicole reserved stronger opinions for the other two main characters, Zohar and Armit. She felt that Zohar lacked boundaries when searching for potential romantic partners, saying she presented a negative image of women on the autism spectrum. Nicole found Armit's romantic pursuit of a waitress who worked in a nearby café "just creepy."

The fact that the program was filmed in Hebrew and broadcasted with English subtitles, while an accessibility device, posed some issues for group members. One member, not present reported he could not watch the program because of the subtitles. David said that while he watched the episode, he found the subtitles particularly demanding due to his age-related vision loss and that he had to look at computer screens for much of his work. "It's challenging to view content on a mobile device, or other personal computers or other products for a prolonged period.

Photo caption: The main characters from On the Spectrum: Ron, Zohar, and Armit. Photo courtesy CBC Gem.