To mark World Autism Awareness Day on 2 April, TBI deputy editor Mark Layton talks to producers from around the world, and across a range of genres, about their neurodiversity and disability-focused shows and what best practices can be learned from how they brought them to the screen.
Authentic on-screen representations of disability and neurodiversity are, on the whole, few and far between. Despite global discourse around inclusivity in recent months, instances of tokenism or disabled characters being utilised for ‘teachable moments’ are still prevalent.
This problem extends behind the camera too. Taking the UK industry as a recent example, research by the country’s Creative Diversity Network found a severe lack of inclusion behind the scenes, with contributions by disabled people actually decreasing over the past year.
But there are shows and formats out there, across both scripted and unscripted, that have successfully put authentic stories and the real lived experiences of the disabled and neurodiverse on screen and can offer insight on the best way to include these communities on both sides of the camera.
Filming with respect
Love On The Spectrum is a reality dating series, which was produced for Australia’s ABC network by Sydney-based Northern Pictures and now streams globally on Netflix. It follows participants who are all on the autism spectrum as they search for love or take the next step in their current relationships.
“By telling people’s stories in their own voices, and putting real people front and centre of a series, it was a great opportunity to introduce Australia (and the world) to a diverse group of people on the spectrum,” says show director and producer Cian O’Clery.
The show is currently in production on a second season for ABC, with plans to follow a new group of participants. The series highlights the myriad ways in which autism can present and O’Clery says that it was important to demonstrate this diversity to help to dispel misconceptions that can come, for example, from anchoring a representation of autism around the portrayal of a sole fictional character.
“The autism spectrum is incredibly diverse, and it’s important to include the stories of people who represent this diversity. That’s not to say that films and TV shows shouldn’t feature autistic characters, but the more diversity there is in that representation of autism the better,” says O’Clery.
When it came to production, O’Clery says that while some of the participants needed a little more care to ensure they weren’t placed in stressful situations, others faced no challenges at all.
“It’s about being respectful and sensitive to each person’s individual needs,” says O’Clery. “Our mantra is ‘we are not filming on our terms, we are filming on your terms’. That goes from planning filming around their schedules, to not filming long 12-hour days, people can always put their hand up to pause filming if they are feeling overwhelmed, and we won’t chase them down alleyways as they try to escape the film crew.”
On the scripted side, Keshet International’s drama format The A Word, about a family coming to terms with their child’s autism spectrum diagnosis, has helped to bring a personal tale about autism to a wide, international audience.
Originally created by Israeli writer and director Keren Margalit as Yellow Peppers and produced by Tel Aviv-based July-August and Keshet Broadcasting for Channel 2 in 2010, the show has since been remade in the UK, Greece and the Netherlands, while Keshet Studios is currently developing the series alongside Universal Television for NBC in the US.
Margalit explains that she didn’t set out with any particular aim of educating people about autism when creating the show, but rather to tell an authentic and personal story from her own first-hand experiences as the mother of an autistic child. In-fact, Margalit reveals that she sees it more as a story about communication, than about autism.
“I generally don’t believe in agendas, it never works. I had a story to tell and it came out. When someone is passionate, the story just comes out. I never had that motivation,” she explains.
Given this growing global interest in what was a very personal story, Margalit likens the remakes to “sending my kid to boarding school. In my backpack I put three to four essential things that are crucial to him coming back alive; the first one is that it is not about autism, it is about communication skills; it’s funny; it’s human and [the notion that] the battle to be normal can drive you insane.”
Finding the joy
British children’s series Pablo, meanwhile, explores autism from a unique perspective, using animation to bring to life the inner thoughts of the titular autistic five-year-old.
Creator and producer Gráinne McGuinness, of Belfast-based Paper Owl Films, says that the show, which is currently in development on its third season for CBeebies and RTÉjr, came about because she sought to address the widespread bullying of autistic children by spreading awareness about the disorder. “I wondered if you could do that in a TV show for pre-schoolers and build that perspective from the earliest possible age,” says McGuinness, who explains that Pablo is “honest” in that it doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of what it is to be an autistic pre-schooler, but it deals with them in a creative way.
“There’s a lot of real joy in there too,” says McGuinness. “Celebrating Pablo’s love of nature or the fact that he can completely disappear into another world inside a tiny bit of fluff or just be completely absorbed by the rain.”
Adding to its authenticity, Pablo features autistic creative talent on both sides of the camera. “Every single script was co-written by an autistic writer that we trained to write for children’s television,” reveals McGuinness, who describes the show as the greatest creative joy of her career. “It’s the core of Pablo that it comes from the autistic perspective. Every single script is based on a real-life experience or passion or thought pattern that an autistic person has had.”
All the animated characters on Pablo are also voiced by young people with autism, with McGuinness adding that working with talent on the spectrum was “not really rocket science,” explaining: “It was just simple, really. It was just finding out what people needed in order to be able to work well and then doing that.”
Leading the way
Factual format Down The Road, meanwhile, is gaining ground in Europe. Created by Belgium’s Roses Are Blue and distributed by Brussels-based Primitives, the format follows six young adults with Down syndrome as they embark on an adventure-filled international road trip.
A fifth season of the original show has just been commissioned by Belgian pubcaster Eén, with a local adaptation on its way to Germany’s SWR, following existing versions in Poland and Romania.
“We never wanted to create a show ‘about’ Down syndrome or send out a big message,” explains Roses Are Blue’s creative director Maarten Millen. “We wanted to create an entertaining and identifiable show ‘with’ people who have Down syndrome.”
Millen says that there were, of course, practical concerns to consider to accommodate the participants. “We always had full support of the cast’s parents and caretakers. Together with them we could decide whether or not they are up for the challenge. Both physically and emotionally, a trip like this one demands a lot from our cast and they need enough time to rest and process everything. As a team you also need to take into account things move slower than they usually would.”
Millen praises the production team for going the extra mile on this project: “Our editors also (gladly) became caretakers during these trips. Even the cameramen took on extra jobs to make sure the cast got everything they needed. I never saw an entire crew being as involved with the cast as in this show.”
With the format now having sold to several countries, Millen reveals that his main advice in the show bible, and also during consultancy, is “let the cast lead the way as much as possible. Let the cast tell the story as much as you can and let them decide what is a big story and what is not.”
He explains: “In season two, we planned all kinds of spectacular activities for our cast. The first holiday home we checked into was a beautiful beach front house around Cape Town. But instead of telling a story about admiring the view and the beautiful house, we ended up making ten minutes of compelling television about the cast complaining about the staircase. It was completely unexpected and pure. I loved it.”
CPL Productions, which, alongside fellow London-based outfit Motion Content Group, created factual series The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes for Channel 4 in the UK in 2019, took inspiration for the show from a pop-up restaurant in Japan that had opened for just two days where all the front of house staff had dementia.
Bringing together 14 volunteers, the producers set out to replicate the experiment on a much bigger scale and run for five weeks instead of just two days.
“This was not a series about the old and infirm. It was a unique series about what happens when you are diagnosed with dementia whilst still of working age,” says exec producer Trish Powell of the show, which featured participants with ages ranging from 23 to 67.
“The ambition was to see if staying in the workplace – with reasonable adjustments put in place by employers – could slow down the onslaught of this cruel disease. In the restaurant these ‘reasonable adjustments’ were made daily as more about the individuals and their needs unfolded. For example, in the kitchen, cutlery drawers had pictures on them so that the right implements went in the right places for the next day. Every day presented a new challenge, but always a solution was found.”
Because of the nature of the show, CPL and Channel 4 agreed that all contributors would need to give their consent on camera each day at the start of filming, with an expert ensuring that they understood what it was they were consenting to. The producers also provided the use of a quiet room for any contributor that struggled during filming, though Powell notes this was only used once during the production. Three dementia trained medics were also on hand during filming, with another to stay with the guests at the hotel during the nights if any problems arose.
The pandemic temporarily put the brakes on any follow-up to the show, which is distributed by Red Arrow Studios International, but Powell reveals that CPL is currently in development on a possible update to the format – The Hotel That Makes Mistakes – which will expand the concept even further and provide new challenges for new participants.
Taking the risk
While these shows all demonstrate the wide variety of programming focused around the neurodiverse and disabled that can achieve success, Roses Are Blue’s Millen notes the industry still appears hesitant to embrace such content: “I think there are still a lot of reservations when it comes to disability representation on screen,” he says, but points to the success of his own Down The Road, which reached a 58% market share during primetime in its latest season in Belgium. “It’s absolutely possible to be extremely successful with this kind of content as well. Someone in the right seat just has to decide to go for it.”
McGuinness agrees: “As producers we’re always trying to minimise risk, but the real risk that we have is if we don’t find new ways of doing things and new voices in the world.”
Speaking of her own experience on Pablo, she says that creators unwilling to take the chance will miss out. “It’s just opened up this portal of creativity from these amazing people, so the real risk is not having those voices and not having these new stories to tell.”