APATA – The Australian Performing Arts Teachers Association

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Posted by Team APATA | Sep 18, 2019

Across performance disciplines such as theatre, film and television, there is a wider range of possible roles that can be explored to show the many faces of autism. Sadly, with many individuals diagnosed on the autism spectrum it’s still the case in 2019 that most roles including autistic roles are generally not cast with autistic artists.

Across communities we’re gaining a better understanding, although there’s still much work to be done. We’ve come a long way when considering three decades ago we had ‘Rain Man’ portrayed by ‘Dustin Hoffman’. Today a wider range of autistic stereotypes have emerged in the story lines especially across film and television. Over the last few generations autism diagnosis and awareness has improved in the community, and I’d suggest we all know someone today with autism to varying degrees and rightly not really think about the diagnosis as we know them personally as friends, work colleagues or family. Reflecting back to 1997, autism was identified as one in ten thousand, now its officially one in thirty-six. Based on statistics alone social change and audiences identifying with characters on the autism spectrum is perhaps to be expected and even an understanding that autism can range from severe Classic Disorder through to Asperger Syndrome and Pervasive Development or ‘Atypical’ is slowly becoming better understood and supported.

We have new heroes across our film and television platforms, where as a society we can learn and develop a better understanding for people and families with autism such as ‘Freddie Highmore’ in television series ‘The Good Doctor’ and Netflix series ‘Atypical’ with ‘Keir Gilchrist’ – a series we’ve been discussing recently in the office as we prepare to hit our Netflix remotes to binge watch Season 3 anticipated to be released in the second half of the 2019 calendar.

Atypical is a warm and wonderful story of a family coping with the achievements and challenges of autism. If you haven’t tuned into Netflix’s family drama ‘Atypical’ the journey of a teen on the autism spectrum, you’re missing out as this heartfelt comedy sets the lead actor on a path to bid for more independence putting his entire family on a road of self-discovery. Signing up for another series the question was asked, ‘is the lead actor autistic’?

The show received deserved backlash in Season 1 from the autism community as the lead actor playing Sam (Gilchrist) isn’t ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). In a positive move Season 2 featured autistic actors to deepen and enrich the shows portrayal of families and communities working with autism. ‘Atypical’ Season 2 features eight young actors with autism, who play members of Sam’s peer led group with career guidance councillor Ms Whitaker as they start to prepare for the next journey in life – high school graduation leading to employment or university.

The autistic kids cast in Netflix’s Atypical Season 2 were fantastic providing another layer to the shows complexity and value. It also looks like they’re having a lot of fun. There’s something about this show which hits the right note – it’s universal, a search for acceptance, and balances sensitivity. It’s a special kind of show!

‘Atypical’ embraces first and foremost the story of a family as well as the autism community discovering lessons to be learned, people’s prejudices, challenges and accomplishments. Truly remarkable and thoroughly enjoyed pressing the Netflix’s button and watching a show that is hiring actors on the spectrum – it’s pioneering and powerful.

Teachers working with autism will be the first to tell you that students on the spectrum have many talents. Performing arts offers a wonderful platform for young people as activities can be used to teach emotional recognition and expression, non-verbal behaviours and gestures, listening skills, eye contact, conversation skills, strategies to handle social situations and critical social skills. Students on the spectrum may present challenges for a typical theatre classroom – communication, sensory processing, social skills and fine motor control. However, they have wonderful strengths – honesty, attention to detail, and creative thinking. Attending a theatre class for example allows the student to focus on their strengths, build confidence and develop social skills.

In the Classroom Consider…

  • Adopting routine and structure
  • Creating an atmosphere of playfulness – explore and express
  • Use body, movement and gesture
  • Remain open to all the possibilities
  • Ask, ‘what did you notice?’ – leave time for observation and discussion

Performance is incredibly supportive and helpful for young people on the autism spectrum adding benefit by teaching social interaction and social language in the classroom and through scripts and interaction. Young people working in theatre explained ‘doors opened to a new world of possibilities‘ when they joined a theatre class. Often when encouraged by teachers their lives changed and they felt able to soar to new heights with class becoming extremely therapeutic providing life-coping, life-altering, and life-benefiting skills.

Netflix Series: Atypical

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