More than 33 years after the Oscar-winning film “Rain Man” became one of the most influential onscreen depictions of autism spectrum disorder, a new Amazon Prime series is looking to widen the lens of autistic representation in the mainstream media.
Based on the acclaimed Israeli comedy-drama series “On the Spectrum” and executive produced by Emmy-winner Jason Katims (“Friday Night Lights,” “Parenthood”), “As We See It” follows three 20-something roommates on the autism spectrum (played by Sue Ann Pien, Rick Glassman and Albert Rutecki). Pien plays Violet, who is known for always displaying and verbally processing every feeling she has. While Violet often feels like an outsider, her greatest desire is to have the perfect job and boyfriend, like most people in their 20s.
“This is the most personal character that I’ve ever played in my entire life,” Pien, who has autism, told NBC Asian America. “The first time I read the breakdowns and the script, I cried because there were so many parallels between what she was going through and what I had to go through in my own life.”
When she first received the audition material for “As We See It” in the middle of 2019, Pien, a Los Angeles native best known for being a former Mars One candidate, was struck by the show’s acute level of awareness and later discovered that Katims has a son with Asperger syndrome.
“I think it’d be really hard for somebody who isn’t on the spectrum to portray these types of authentic moments of life that happen, that you can’t even describe unless you’ve been there,” Pien said. “Jason approaches this with so much love, and I can only imagine the father he is, and I know he has an incredible family. It was healing for me, as a person on the spectrum, but I hope for many, many families with loved ones on the spectrum or who are autistic themselves.”
In a statement, Katims said he wanted to “live inside the experience of what it means to be on the autism spectrum, rather than take an outsider’s view,” which meant that it was imperative to cast the trio at the heart of the show as authentically as possible.
“I’m so grateful there’s a moment now in the industry where authentic portrayal is what people want, because there’s a lot of misconception around the spectrum of people,” explained Pien, who writes in her Instagram bio that she’s an #ActuallyAutistic actress. “There are people who are nonverbal, there are people who are in independent living, there are people who are independent, and you have an entire spectrum of humanity there. And I think that it’s important to speak for ourselves as we see it, to share the perspective of our lives from the inside out.”
Over the course of the eight-episode first season, Violet has a contentious relationship with her older brother, Van (Chris Pang), who feels obligated to assume the role of her guardian after they lose their parents. It’s a relationship that resonated deeply with both Pien and Pang, who recognized the tough love that is characteristic of many Asian families.
“Asian parents may not show their love in a very traditionally vulnerable, intimate way. It comes in through this sense of ‘I’m here to make sure that you’re going to have a good life, because I have to care for you through my protection,’” Pien said. The relationship with Van is “very indicative of somebody on the autism spectrum. I know, growing up, a lot of people felt very protective of me. There was a sense of danger that some of us may not always innately have, and it could take us a little bit longer to mature in certain ways.”
“In Asian culture, it’s all about how people perceive you,” Pang added. “If someone in your family is autistic, you would try and hide that because you’re ashamed of it, and that’s something that Van doesn’t have. He will never hide from the fact that his sister is autistic. He knows and accepts that, and he’s just trying to deal with it. But that’s his journey — trying to deal with it in a way that works and is healthy for him and both Violet.”
Pien, by contrast, admitted that she did not always have the same support system growing up, in large part due to the stigmatization of autism and other conditions in the Asian American community. “I think traditionally, in Asian families, trauma is not dealt with in therapy sessions. There’s a stigma around mental health issues,” she remarked. “There’s a fright around, ‘Oh my gosh, is there something wrong with my child, or is there something really different?’”
Pien continued: “I know a lot of my family and best friends have encountered intense racism growing up out here, so you have to stay insular within your community to protect each other. And hopefully, this will open up a dialogue for safety, because I think it’s very hard for immigrant families to trust the world.”
Pien and Pang both understand the weight of expectation that comes with landing their first regular roles on a series. But they also hope that “As We See It” will help move the needle on more authentic autistic and Asian representation.
For Pang, who starred as Colin Khoo in the groundbreaking 2018 film “Crazy Rich Asians,” this new comedy-drama series presented another opportunity to be part of something much bigger than himself. “Here was a chance to represent a different community, one that I’m not quite a part of, but that now I can help champion the cause and build compassion for,” he said.
“My best friend from childhood literally just told me that her youngest son is on the autism spectrum, and she’s Asian,” Pien said. “She said because of our adventures together, she has an understanding of her child now. If there are families who are still feeling trapped in the stigma that they can’t disclose or they have to protect their family members who may be on the spectrum, [I hope] that this will open up a kinder world for everybody with more compassion, empathy and understanding.”
“As We See It” premieres Friday on Amazon Prime Video.