Commentary: Hollywood has a long road to disability inclusion. My experience shows it’s possible
In “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay,” which premiered on Freeform in January 2020, I play a girl with autism, Matilda, coming of age in high school with some, shall we say, complicated family dynamics. The series creator and my fellow actor on the show, Josh Thomas, built a story that features a neurodiverse cast and explores themes of acceptance, kinship, adolescence, grief, romance and sexuality, and ultimately what it means to be a complicated human in an equally complicated world.
When I first sat down for a table read with the whole cast of “EGBO,” as the first person with autism spectrum disorder to play a lead character with autism on American television, I found support, love and inspiration, building real chemistry even before hitting the set. It helps that the atmosphere around the show encourages us to bring our whole selves to work: I am able to share my personal experiences and interests with my castmates. When I enter the studio, it’s like seeing family. It’s the best experience of my working life.
This is not to say the journey to inclusion is easy. Growing up with autism, dyslexia and dyscalculia, I’ve never known easy. When I tried to check a Harry Potter book out of the school library as a child, the librarian refused, saying I wouldn’t be able to read it anyway. When I started acting, I was an accomplished master of mimicking neurotypical people to fit in — masking myself to avoid the labels and stereotypes that are a constant for people with autism.
Even now, playing a groundbreaking character in a TV series that practices acceptance of differences, I must face the fact that women with disabilities, especially those with autism, are rarely represented in mainstream media. As Josh commented in a recent panel interview with the Autism Society of America, there are currently no other TV shows with autistic girls. None.
Creator Josh Thomas follows up “Please Like Me” with his first American TV series, Freeform’s “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay.”
In my industry, inclusion starts with diverse decision-makers at the helm and equally diverse representation behind the scenes. Neurodiverse people have spent their lives discovering and building their strengths, and their ability to think outside the box, among myriad other assets, should be a boon in creative fields. As my acting teacher once suggested, saying I reminded him of Helena Bonham Carter, embracing the unusual choices I made with my characters — embracing my genuine self — could lead to a career like hers: one filled with unique, bold characters and a confident persona outside of the typical Hollywood box.
Inclusion also demands neurodiverse characters being portrayed in authentic ways, to which “EGBO” was committed from the outset. Josh never assumed the task was going to be hard: “Whether [actors] are neurotypical or not, you have to figure out what they need to be in the right kind of emotional space, so they can turn up on set and be charming,” he said in the panel interview. “So this didn’t feel different to me.”
And authenticity helps combat stereotypes. People on the spectrum — an estimated 1 in every 54 children are diagnosed in the U.S. today — are not a monolith. How we experience the world is different; we are diverse in our abilities, interests, backgrounds and more. By going beyond just depicting behaviors to showing how an autistic person navigates the world, how families and friends can be truly accepting and supportive, “EGBO” is able to highlight vital topics within the autism community: navigating sex and consent, independent living, the intersection of autistic and LGBTQ experiences and more.
It’s not just representation for autism, either: Our series features LGBTQIA actors, deaf actors and people of color. On the set of “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay,” the writers, directors, producers and crew work collectively with the actors to get their take on the script, scenes, improvisations and rehearsals to make it as authentic as possible. One thing we do on set is share our personal experiences, and then play with those moments to include in our performances. We are proof that increasing visibility and acceptance can be done, because we are doing it.
Of course, entertainment has a huge influence in our lives and audiences want to see themselves reflected in the characters they are watching. But we can also model the process of inclusion for other working environments, which should be places for all to thrive — whether by addressing accessibility on sets, encouraging and maintaining open communication or sharing knowledge and compassion.
April is Autism Acceptance Month, which marks a conscious shift away from the language of mere “awareness” that many in the community, myself included, believe will inspire greater inclusion of neurodiverse people in the entertainment industry and beyond. I am so grateful to “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay” for amplifying my voice, and as a way to give back I am proud to announce that I am now an Ambassador with the Autism Society of America.
I hope that by sharing my experiences, I can communicate to those on the autism spectrum: Please know that you are not alone. After all, acceptance is simply about recognizing that we are all human — we’re just wired differently. People with autism have empathy. We desire friendships, relationships and marriage. We are passionate about our interests and the people in our lives.
Major studios like Walt Disney are becoming increasingly interested, it seems, in the $1-billion market segment of consumers with disabilities.
Here’s another story from when I was younger: I remember saving all of my allowance to buy a Barbie doll. I clutched my purse full of loose change and bills watching my new doll get rung up at the register. While I counted out my money to pay, the cashier was clicking and tapping her nails loudly and impatiently at the counter. That tap, tap, tapping made it really hard to concentrate. My frustration built and I had to keep recounting.
Eventually I said something. I said, “I have dyslexia and dyscalculia, can you please just give me a little time to count my change!”
The people in line behind me and my mom clapped for me. I was very young at the time, but when I advocated for myself and articulated my needs, I felt empowered.
Inclusion is key if that feeling is to keep growing. Because there is power in coming together. In welcoming others without trying to change them. In speaking out with one voice.
Kayla Cromer is an actress, activist and Autism Society of America Ambassador living with autism. She stars in “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay,” airing Thursdays on Freeform. She is active on Instagram (@Kaylacromerofficial) and Twitter (@kaylacromer17).
‘Everything's Gonna Be Okay’
When: 10 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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