“It’s a part of me, but I want to be known as an actor first,” says 15-year-old Coby Bird. “It”, in this case, is autism.
April is Autism Awareness Month, and Coby is telling Yahoo Entertainment about being an actor, an actor who just so happens to have autism.
Coby, who has appeared on the TV shows Speechless and The Good Doctor, explains that he was much less verbal when he was younger. “I only had three-word sentences,” he says, offering examples: “Red car, blue car. I want this, I want that. Again, again.” He’d also often wear headphones wherever he went so that unfamiliar sounds wouldn’t overwhelm him.
At school, these differences resulted in bullying from classmates. “They would always pick on me and diss me,” he says. “They would try and find these flaws I had and try to make fun of them.”
Coby was eventually homeschooled by his mom and became involved with the Miracle Project, an organization that describes itself as a “fully inclusive theatre, film, and expressive arts program for children, teens, and adults with autism and all abilities.” There he dove headlong into acting, an interest that was first piqued by the 1985 classic The Goonies (his favorite characters are Mouth and Chunk).
As he grew more at ease on the stage — and, in turn, offstage — Coby picked up an agent and started booking roles. First, a bit part in an episode of ABC’s Speechless. Then, last year, a much juicier role on The Good Doctor, the ABC show starring Freddie Highmore as the brilliant autistic doctor Shaun Murphy.
In the episode, Coby plays a patient named Liam who arrives at the hospital with a mysterious injury. Further complicating things is the fact that Liam speaks only a few words at a time and is frequently overwhelmed by unfamiliar stimuli. Sound familiar? Coby explains how he mined his own traumatic past to play an autistic character, saying, “I used everything from as a child and made that the persona of Liam.”
He continues, “Most people who don’t have autism and get roles for characters who do have autism have to look up research and everything. But I don’t have to because that’s my entire life.”
Which brings up an interesting question: Why are non-autistic actors getting parts playing people who are autistic? “I think there should be more roles for people with autism,” says Coby.
While praising Highmore’s performance and accuracy on The Good Doctor, Coby outlines the main problem with these kinds of castings. “They don’t understand [autism] because they never had it,” he says. “Even though they go through research … they never went through it.”
As for Coby, his dream role might surprise you. It isn’t something out of Shakespeare or the latest buzzy Star Wars character, he simply wants to play a non-autistic character. It would be important, he says.
“[It would show] I can go beyond the boundary,” he says. “I love playing characters with autism, because I’m sharing a message, but being a character who doesn’t [have autism] would show kids with autism they can do it too. I want to show people that we can also do this.”
And to any doubters, or casting agents for that matter, Coby is ready for his next big part — whatever that may be.
“I can do this,” he said. “Put my autism aside and see what my skills are, see what I can do.”
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