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New series seeks ‘authentic representation’ of Asian Americans on spectrum

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More than 33 years after the Oscar-winning film “Rain Man” became one of the most influential On-Screen Representations of Autism Spectrum Disorders, a new Amazon Prime series seeks to expand the lens of autism representation in mainstream media.

Based on the acclaimed Israeli comedy-drama series “On the Spectrum” and produced by Emmy winner Jason Katims (“Friday Night Lights,” “Parenthood”), “As We See It” follows three roommates in their 20s. years on the autism spectrum (played by Sue Ann Pien, Rick Glassman and Albert Rutecki). Pien plays Violet, who is known for always displaying and verbally processing all of her feelings. While Violet often feels like an outsider, her greatest desire is to have the perfect job and boyfriend, like most people in their twenties.

“He’s the most personal character I’ve played in my entire life,” Pien, who has autism, told NBC Asian America. “The first time I read the breakdowns and the script I cried because there were so many parallels between what she was going through and what I had to go through in my own life.”

Sue Ann Pien as Violet in ‘As We See It’.Ali Goldstein/Amazon Studios

When she first received the audition materials for “As We See It” in mid-2019, Pien, a Los Angeles native best known for being a former Mars One contestant, was struck by the show’s heightened level of consciousness and later discovered that Katims had a son with Asperger’s Syndrome.

“I think it would be really difficult for someone who’s not on the spectrum to portray these kinds of authentic moments in life that happen that you can’t even describe unless you’ve been there” , said Pien. “Jason approaches this with so much love, and I can only imagine the father he is, and I know he has an amazing family. It was healing for me, as someone on the spectrum. , but hopefully for many, many families with loved ones on the spectrum or who are autistic themselves.

In a report, Katims said he wanted to “live inside the experience of what it means to be on the autism spectrum, rather than taking an outsider’s perspective,” which meant that it was imperative to place the trio at the heart of the show in the most authentic way possible. .

“I’m so grateful that there’s a time in the industry where authentic representation is what people want, because there are a lot of misconceptions around the spectrum of people,” explained Pien, who writes in his instagram bio that she is a #ActuallyAutistic actress. “There are people who are non-verbal, there are people who live independently, there are people who are independent, and you have a whole spectrum of humanity there. And I think it’s important to speak for ourselves as we see it, to share the perspective of our lives from within.

During the eight-episode first season, Violet has a contentious relationship with her older brother, Van (Chris Pang), who feels compelled to take on the role of her guardian after losing their parents. It was a relationship that resonated deeply with Pien and Pang, who recognized the tough love that characterizes many Asian families.

“Asian parents may not show their love in a very traditionally vulnerable and intimate way. It comes through this feeling of ‘I’m here to make sure you’re going to have a good life, because I have to take care of you. because of my protection,” Pien said. The relationship with Van is “very indicative of someone on the autism spectrum. I know growing up a lot of people felt very protective of me. There was a sense of danger that some of us may not always have naturally, and it might take us a little longer to mature in a certain way.

“In Asian culture, it’s all about how people perceive you,” Pang added. “If someone in your family has autism, you would try to hide it because you’re ashamed of it, and that’s something Van doesn’t have. He’ll never hide the fact that his sister has autism. He knows it and accepts it, and he’s just trying to come to terms with it, but that’s his journey – trying to deal with it in a way that works and is healthy for him and Violet.

Pien, on the other hand, admitted that she didn’t always have the same support system growing up, largely due to the stigma of autism and other conditions in the Asian American community. “I think traditionally in Asian families, trauma isn’t addressed in therapy sessions. There’s a stigma around mental health issues,” she remarked. “There’s a fear around me, ‘Oh my God, is there something wrong with my child, or is there something really different?'”

Pien continued, “I know a lot of my family and best friends faced intense racism growing up here, so you have to stay insular within your community to protect each other. And I hope that will open a dialogue for security, because I think it is very difficult for immigrant families to trust the world.

Pien and Pang both understand the weight of expectation that comes with landing their first series regular roles. But they also hope “As We See It” will help move the needle toward more authentic autistic and Asian representation.

For Pang, who starred as Colin Khoo in the groundbreaking 2018 film “Crazy Rich Asians,” this new comedy-drama series offered another opportunity to be a part of something much bigger than himself. “It was a chance to represent a different community, a community that I’m not really a part of, but that I can now help to advocate for and create compassion for,” he said.

“My childhood best friend literally just told me that her youngest son is on the autism spectrum and she’s Asian,” Pien said. “She said that because of our adventures together, she now understands her child. If there are families who still feel trapped in the stigma that they cannot disclose or that they have to protect family members who may be on the spectrum, [I hope] that it will open up a kinder world for everyone with more compassion, empathy and understanding.

“As We See It” premieres Friday on Amazon Prime Video.