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Why “Claws” Autistic Character Dean Should Be Played By An Autistic Actor

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Harold Perrineau as Dean. (Turner Press / CLAWS)

Harold Perrineau as Dean. (Turner Press / CLAWS)

A new summer show favorite has been CLAWS, which features the incredible Niecy Nash as Desna, a woman who has big dreams of owning a high-end salon and caring for those she loves.  A surprise in the series is the character Dean, who is autistic and Desna’s brother.  Dean is a complex character, mainly due to the fact that the portrayal is a cripping up one; Dean is played by Harold Perrineau.

I had hoped that someone would write about this conflict, and Monique Jones gave her perspective earlier this week.  I wanted to boost the thoughts of someone who’s Black and autistic on the blog, and am gracious Monique gave me permission to cross-post her article on RYV!  

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Republished with permission from COLORwebmag  / Monique Jones

TNT’s hit show CLAWS, which has just been renewed for a second season, is firing on all cylinders, for the most part. From having a bisexual crime boss, a butch lesbian of color, and a woman of color in the lead role, the show is teaching others in the business what intersectional TV can be. However, notice I said “for the most part.” One of the points of contention with this show is Harold Perrineau’s character Dean, the brother of Niecy Nash’s Desna. Dean has autism, but Perrineau does not.

Perrineau’s portrayal of a person with autism falls in a long tradition of non-autistic or otherwise non-disabled actors portraying autistic or otherwise disabled characters. However, these kinds of portrayals are not authentic to the unique experiences of people who are actually on the autism spectrum.

Acting Autistic When Not

In a recent interview with Ebony, Perrineau went into his creative process when developing Dean’s character.

“Well, because he has autism, I thought it was important to figure out what that means to be autistic. One of the things that I found out is that it’s certainly not a disease. While there are people whose brains help them learn in a very typical way, there are people who have autism and their learning process is very atypical, I think that’s the word for it. What I wanted to do was understand the range of possibility that a person who has autism might have. We talked to a doctor. I think the writers pointed me to a doctor who helped them. I have some friends who have children with autism. I talked to them a lot.”

He also added that he spent tons of time on the internet and read books on autism, including Holly Robinson Peete’s book on the subject (Peete has an autistic son). “I had all of these different sources, and it took me like months to figure out, because [with] the range of autism, you could be anywhere on the spectrum. While it offers me the opportunity to do anything, you have to find the specifics of each person. That’s where I started looking. I just talked to people [and read].”

The fact that Perrineau took the time to research autism before diving into his characterization—particularly learning about how people along the autism spectrum manifest the potpourri of symptoms in different ways, and not always exhibiting all of the possible symptoms along the spectrum—is appropriate, to say the least. In fairness, Perrineau’s work on developing Dean as a character has paid off in some respects. The fact that he has added a layer of humor and relatability to Dean that isn’t often found in other portrayals of autism is better than most. Dean comes off as someone who is entirely aware of himself and his unique view of the world. He’s an artist and is also someone who is well aware of his own emotions and how to relate to others, including his sister and Judy Reyes’ Quiet Ann. He knows how to form friendships and feels loss just like anyone else. By approaching Dean from a humanistic perspective, Perrineau has elevated the character of Dean from just a basic stereotype.

However, there’s still the fact that Perrineau himself isn’t autistic. He’s putting on the mantle of autism in a role that could have been given to an autistic actor (unknown or otherwise). Then, there wouldn’t be any confusion or overwhelm when portraying Dean because the actor would be able to draw from his own experiences with autism.

The particular expression of Dean’s autism that Perrineau chose is something I have a tug of war with, personally. Even though Perrineau stated that he pulled from tons of sources, it doesn’t seem as if he referenced one person in particular. This is of particular concern because without a clear reference, there’s a window open for the usual autism stereotypes to come through. And to a degree, they do, despite everything Perrineau has done to give Dean more life than most autistic characters on screen. Dean still has a moment in which he loses self-control of his emotions. He still has movements that harken back to Dustin Hoffman’s movements when portraying Raymond Babbit in Rain Man. Even with the amount of emotional depth Perrineau gives Dean, Dean still has moments of portraying the childlike, non-sexual stereotype assigned to many disabled people, including autistic people. This is not to say that Perrineau’s characterization of Dean speaks to no one with autism—on the contrary, as stated above, the autism spectrum ranges from those with mild expressions of autism, such as Asperger syndrome (borderline and high functioning) and Pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), to what is called “classic” autism, which has its own range of severity even within that diagnosis.

Things get even more complex for girls, particularly girls with ASD (otherwise known as Asperger Syndrome); from what I’ve looked up about the subject in relation to myself, the “symptoms” of ASD in girls can manifest in very sly, nearly undetectable ways, much differently than how they can manifest in boys. This is not even counting the possible relationship there is to ASD and being highly-sensitive. As someone who has looked up both and counts herself as highly sensitive and as a definite candidate for being diagnosed with a high-functioning form of Asperger Syndrome, I definitely think there’s some validity in considering the possibility of hypersensitivity being another side of the coin of the autism spectrum, since it seems the key emotional component in autism is experiencing emotional overwhelm that goes unnoticed or misunderstood by non-autistic people. That emotional overwhelm is explained especially well in this video:

Shutting Down Bullsh*t about Autism 2

In any case, the point is that autism has a number of different expressions, and full knowledge of the spectrum itself is still a mystery to doctors studying the condition, since there are many people who area along the spectrum who haven’t been diagnosed because their symptoms go undetected. With all of this knowledge out there, and with all of Perrineau’s research on the topic, for his characterization to still fall back on elements of the standard autism portrayal in the media is a sticking point. While Dean is a great character, a character I actually like despite the possible anti-Dean tone of this article, there still seems to be the perception that all people on the autism spectrum have the same symptoms and showcase them with the same severity. As you’ve seen in the video and read in the links above, that’s not the case, and science has yet to get to the bottom of the well of understanding autism’s complexity.

To reiterate, while Dean does showcase one version of autism, Dean’s case is not the only way in which autism can manifest. It would be great if television and film did more to outwardly showcase autistic characters that demonstrated the diversity of the condition.

Real experiences with autism can’t be taught

There’s a lot more that goes into the autism spectrum experience. Actor Mickey Rowe gave The Huffington Post a perfect description of what it feels like to be along the spectrum. Rowe became one of the first actors with autism to play an autistic character on a major stage when he was cast to play 15-year-old autistic character Christopher in Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. He was also the first autistic actor to play that specific character.

Rowe, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 21 years old, wrote to The Huffington Post in an email about the types of challenges people along the spectrum face, and how those challenges helped him play Christopher.

“Autistics use scripts every day. We use scripting for daily situations that we can predict the outcome of, and stick to those scripts. My job as an autistic is to make you believe that I am coming up with words on the spot, that this is spontaneous, the first time the conversation has ever happened in my life; this is also my job on stage as an actor…As an autistic, I have felt vulnerable my entire life. To be vulnerable on stage is no biggie.”

In his main interview with The Huffington Post, he said that someone with autism playing an autistic character is better than someone putting on the mannerisms.

“There is so much information and so many stereotypes around autism because we nearly always learn about autism from others instead of going straight to the source and learning about autism from autistic adults.

Ideally someone with a disability could play any role, and not have that role be about disability. A wheelchair user could play Hamlet and not ever mention the wheelchair, or someone who is legally blind and autistic like I am could play Puck. But until we see that happening, the least we can do is give disabled people a voice to represent our own communities in a way that is more about honest and less about stereotypes.”

Here’s Rowe in his own words:

Autistic says, “If you are different, the world needs you!”

And here he is playing Christopher, a character with a different expression of autism than his own:

Side 2, Mickey Rowe, Curious Incident: Indiana Repertory Theatre and Syracuse Stage

And here he is playing Christopher again as well as other characters, including one from Shakespeare:

Mickey Rowe: Midsummer, Curious Incident, Henry V, Rabbit Hole

Rowe is a great example of how an autistic actor can not only lend authenticity to autistic characters, but also successfully play any character that’s usually ascribed to a non-autistic person. One of the key ways an autistic actor provides authenticity to an autistic character, aside from being autistic themselves, is showcasing the amount of stress autistic people are under to appear “normal.”

Speaking from personal experience, I might not look, sound, or act non-autistic in day-to-day life. At most, I might not look you directly in the eye when I’m talking (despite training myself on this since I’ve had to do in-person interviews for my various jobs). But, with my neurodivergence (as I write above, I’m somewhere in between being highly-sensitive and having high-functioning ASD), I’ve experienced a vast amount of stress trying to appear “normal,” even though most of my life is spent consumed by emotion, much like how that one guy in the video above described with the “Spock” analogy. The stress and vulnerability Rowe mentioned is something that is an innate experience to those who are neurodivergent, and it’s an element I’m not sure is quite as apparent in Dean’s characterization as it should be, despite the effort being shown to illustrate Dean as a caring person who wants to look after his sister. This particular element is why it’s important for autistic actors to get cast more often.

The character of Dean would have been a great opportunity for a black actor along the spectrum to be discovered and cast. There are so few instances of black autistic characters onscreen, with Billy from Power Rangers being the most notable one. However even then, actor RJ Cyler is playing at autism since he himself isn’t autistic. But that’s a footnote at the bottom of what has been hailed a nuanced performance by Cyler. Overall, Hollywood should do more to showcase a varied range of characters with autism. They don’t all have to be stereotypically marked, and neither do they all have to have “passing” privilege. But there should be a wide assortment of characters autistic viewers can choose from and be able to see themselves in those characters.

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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