SILVER SPRING, Md., August 2, 2011—About halfway through the second episode of Syfy’s new series “Alphas,” Dr. Lee Rosen, played by David Strathairn, says, “[His] ability is an integral part of him, as is the color of a person’s skin or you being left handed. You can’t extract that.”
Rosen is referring to a character with special neurological abilities and is basically talking about neurodiversity, but taken to the nth power.
“Alphas” is a science fiction series focused on exploring people whose neurological anomalies give them special powers—super strength or the ability to hyper-intensify one sense at a time, for example—at the same time that they deal with the deficits and difficulties brought on by their differences. These people are the titular Alphas.
It is fitting then, that one of the show’s five main Alphas is Gary Bell, an autistic adult who can read a wide range of electromagnetic frequencies, including television, radio and cell phone signals. The inclusion of an autistic character brings an interesting layer of neurodiverse reality to a show almost entirely made of fantasy.
Gary, as played by actor Ryan Cartwright, is described on the show as a “high functioning autistic.” Cartwright sees him as more complex than just his diagnosis and says, “I like that he has a voice, an attitude and a developing sense of humor. He’s an innocent in certain ways, which makes him endearing, but he’s also finding himself in a position of great appreciation and admiration for the first time in his life, so he’s strutting a little.”
Naturally, the autism community carefully watches portrayals of autistic characters on television, something the show’s creators seem to be aware of. “Everyone involved in the show is taking great pains to be sensitive to the autistic community,” says Cartwright.
Interest in creating a realistic portrayal of autism started before filming began with Dr. Susan Bookheimer, a faculty member at the UCLA Neuroscience Program, who has served as a consultant for “Alphas,” offering advice on aspects of Gary’s presentation and symptoms. Bookheimer also consulted on each script as it was developed.
“I read the dialogues and gave input on how this character might have reacted, the kinds of things he would and wouldn’t say, and generally tried to give insight into the inner life of a high functioning person with autism,” she says. “I wanted to help make the character as genuine as possible, not a caricature, but a real person with many of the issues that an individual with autism has.”
For his part, Cartwright researched autism in order to be able to play Gary as a real person. He says that in addition to consultation with people who work with autistic individuals, he watched documentaries and read books by autistic authors Temple Grandin and Daniel Tammet, along with vlog and blog sites created by autistic people.
“Reading about autism and neuroscience helped me understand the reasoning behind a lot of the physical attributes and difficulties of people with autism, which in turn helped me create, as opposed to imitate, a physicality for Gary,” he says.
Cartwright has incorporated much of this into his portrayal of Gary. Gary rarely makes eye contact, something that is difficult for many—but not all—people with autism. (“It’s quite relaxing to not have to look people in the eye all day,” Cartwright says. “You end up listening and visualizing a great deal more.”)
On the show, Gary’s speech is convincingly stilted and echolalic (repetitive of others’ vocalizations), which is even more impressive when you take into account the fact that in real life, Cartwright speaks with a British accent. The character’s sense of humor adds an air of levity to the show and gives him extra personality at the same time that it challenges the idea that people with autism are humorless.
The show has deftly introduced common autism characteristics, such as Gary’s reliance on rules learned by rote, his need to have idiomatic speech explained, and his extreme reliance on routine. There are other subtle touches, such as when Gary sits down in a chair, spies a fluffy pillow and starts to pick at its detail. Much of this takes place in the background of scenes, letting Gary’s way of being permeate the atmosphere. “Alphas’” third episode features a secondary storyline that has Gary hearing a humming sound in the team’s new offices that no one else can hear.
Watching “Alphas,” it is clear that Gary’s character was put together with careful thought. Of course, an autistic person is more than just a collection of symptoms, something Cartwright is aware of. “The character was a rough sketch to begin with,” he explains. “The wonderful writers and producers on the show, along with myself, slowly connected all of Gary’s traits and conditions until he was a balanced and believable individual.”
Gary’s interaction with the other members of the Alphas team is interesting in that while the team seems to like and respect Gary, some of them baby him a little and at least one team member is often openly annoyed by him. It will also be interesting to see how much Gary’s disability is explored in its own right as it relates to Gary, and not just as a foil or a lesson for the other characters.
Yet even with all of the care put into Gary’s character, the creation of a savant-like autistic character gives some observers pause. Many in the autism community are wary of portrayals that imply that autistic people are savants because while some definitely are, most are not.
Gary’s repetitive hand gestures, or stims, are familiar to those who know people with autism, but in Gary’s case, he is manipulating the electromagnetic signals he is able to receive. Is the fact that Gary has a sort of savant-like ability mitigated by the fact that he is surrounded by non-autistic characters who share similar powers? And should we assume that Gary’s autism is responsible for these powers?
Cartwright says we can’t make that assumption. He explains that “Gary’s autism isn’t necessarily linked to his ability to visualize electromagnetic waves and that the process of maturing while being bombarded with this perma-light show inside his brain has also affected how he behaves as an individual.”
Bookheimer concurs, saying, “He isn’t a shallow stereotype—he has a complex character. He is not defined by his autism. He, like the other characters, has a special ability, and he knows that he is special.”
It is encouraging to see more and more non-stereotypical characterizations of autism on television, especially one that centers on a smart, funny, successful, but clearly quirky adult man, who needs extra help to get along in the world. It will be interesting to watch Cartwright and the creators of “Alphas” as they help Gary develop as a three-dimensional character, and as they hopefully explore more themes of neurodiversity.
It seems evident that the team behind “Alphas” has put good faith and care into the creation of the character. Cartwright himself seems protective of Gary—all of Gary. “I feel as though my first responsibility is to Gary as an individual,” he says. “As I’ve said before, you want to play the person, not the disorder.”
“Alphas” airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on the Syfy network. The full pilot episode is available to watch online. To read the full text of Ryan Cartwright’s interview with Jean, please visit Stimeyland, Jean’s personal blog.
Jean writes a personal blog at Stimeyland and an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey. Read more of Jean’s work at Autism Unexpected in the Communities at the Washington Times.
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