In modern-day television, autism has become part of the spotlight. More shows are starting to have characters that are on the spectrum in starring roles. Some of these include “The Good Doctor,” “Atypical” and “Parenthood,” and there was even an autistic character on the show “Degrassi.” All of them are great shows; however, there is one thing that bothers me — none of the actors who played these characters are on the spectrum, and none of them were women. Freeform is changing that with Kayla Cromer.
Growing up as someone on the spectrum, I waited for a character that reminded me of myself. Julia on “Sesame Street” is amazing, but she’s a Muppet, and I was still looking for someone relatable. That is why I was happy when Freeform cast Cromer, an actress with autism, in one of their new shows.
Cromer stars in the new Freeform show “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay.” The show is about a brother raising his two younger sisters after their father dies from cancer, and Cromer plays Matilda. She is a high school student on the spectrum who is musically gifted and has dreams of going to Julliard.
Matilda is like any other student: she wants a boyfriend, she wants to go to college, she loves her friends and family and she loves music. Cromer portrays the character in a way that is relatable to the audience. She seems awkward when it comes to certain social situations, but it reminds me of myself when I was in high school.
What makes her so genuine and realistic is Cromer’s own personal experiences; she is able to apply that to her character, which is another good reason to cast people on the spectrum in these roles.
Cromer shows that actors on the spectrum are capable of playing these parts. Her role on the show could open many doors for people with disabilities trying to get into the business. There are many talented actors out there with autism, if only they were given a chance.
Matilda breaks the stereotypes that often surround autism, one of them being that people with disabilities don’t want to have sex. There is one episode where she has sex, which her friends and family wrongly interpret as her being taken advantage of. This scene broke the stigma that people with disabilities don’t have sexual desires.
Not only is Matilda a great character, she is also showing viewers that autism doesn’t always fall into the stereotypes that we often hear about in shows like “Parenthood” and “Atypical.” She shows that people on the spectrum are capable of feeling emotions and showing empathy (in the very first episode she gave the eulogy at her father’s funeral) and that they don’t always have fixations on certain things. She shows that every person with autism is unique in their own way, and that everyone needs to stop bundling them into one category.
Cromer is one of the first female actresses on the spectrum to play a character on the spectrum. This is amazing, but it makes me wonder — why did it take so long to cast someone on the spectrum, particularly a woman?
While there have been some portrayals of women with autism in film, it was very rare that a character was portrayed by someone who is on the spectrum. Cromer was diagnosed with other disabilities at the age of seven, but her diagnosis of autism did not come until later, which is very common with women and girls because sometimes they are good at hiding it.
I don’t believe I got an official diagnosis until I was in kindergarten or first grade. Sometimes we get diagnosed late because our signs tend to be different from boys. However, just because we are fewer in number doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve to be represented.
Women with autism are very underrepresented in the media. Autistic characters are usually children or white men, and I’d like to know, “Where are the girls?” “Where are the people like me?” It might be true statistically speaking because more men and boys are diagnosed as autistic than women and girls, but we still want to be represented. Cromer’s role as Matilda is a step in the right direction for authentic representation for autistic women.
There was a plotline in “Girl Meets World” where a female character was diagnosed as on the spectrum. It was a good plot and a big step in the right direction for Disney Channel. However, the actress that played this character was not on the spectrum.
Although “Atypical” has cast a couple of actors on the spectrum in their second season, there is still a long way to go. There is still a huge need for accurate representation of women on the spectrum.
One of Cromer’s goals is to join the Marvel Universe as the first actor on the spectrum, as either a character that has autism or a neurotypical character. We need more characters like this.
Cromer’s Matilda shows that autism is not a “man’s” problem. She is showing that autism doesn’t have a gender — you can be a man, woman or nonbinary. Anyone can have autism, and while we shouldn’t rely on TV to give an accurate portrayal of autism, it would be nice if the media acknowledged that women on the spectrum exist.
Here is a challenge to Hollywood: They should cast someone who is on the spectrum in not just roles with autism, but also roles of neurotypical characters as well. Actors of all genders or no gender at all should be considered, especially women. It is time that women on the spectrum get their moment in the sun, and for everyone to know that we are here and we exist.
“Everything’s Gonna Be Okay” can be found on Hulu and on the Freeform website.