‘People think they know what autism is, and they don’t’: The cast of As We See It on their groundbreaking show
Sue Ann Pien spent her teenage years making her way through life. “I grew up thinking I was weird, hiding things about myself that I found hideous,” the 42-year-old says. She wasn’t weird or hideous at all – she was autistic. “I thought something was wrong with me. That was the message over and over, over and over, that was given to me. Especially because I’m Asian, so in this community there can be a lot of pressure to conform. I’m still not sure I’m doing it very well. I have to take a character: “How is this person going to visit their family members? I work my way through social events.
Now Pien is making a whole different kind of game – and making a living from it. She plays the role of Violet in the joyful comedy-drama As we see. Based on the Israeli series on the spectrum, the Amazon show follows three roommates in their twenties with autism as they try to live independently, hold down jobs, make friends and fall in love. It was created by Friday night lights writer Jason Katims, who has a son with Asperger’s syndrome, and describes the project as “deeply personal” to him.
The three protagonists of the series – Albert Rutecki (Harrison), Sue Ann Pien (Violet) and Rick Glassman (Jack) – are on the autism spectrum. Easttown Mare‘s Lookalike Bacon plays their assistant, Mandy, who in the opening scene tries to encourage Harrison to walk a block to the local coffee shop. As Harrison exits his apartment building, he is engulfed in the loud hum of the outside world – the scrape of a skateboarder’s wheels, the squeal of a baby, the roar of a garbage truck. These sounds annoy him, but he continues. “You have that, okay? Mandy said. “It’s okay. You absolutely can do it.”
Rutecki sympathized with his character at this time. Processing sensory information can be challenging for people with autism, with many being sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch. “I have sensory issues myself,” says the 28-year-old, who had never played before this show. “There were a few episodes where it really affected me. One of the worst was during a play. During intermission, suddenly hearing 300 people talking at once, all the discordant sounds, everything was just too overwhelming. I had to find a quiet place to hide.
When we first meet Glassman’s character, Jack, the tech prodigy tells his boss he has “low intelligence.” He was quickly fired. “I have a little more conscience than Jack, but I’ve always struggled with lying,” says the 37-year-old, who made a career as a comedian. “It’s not necessarily a moral thing – it just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s hard to keep track and I can’t always tell intuitively when other people are lying.
Pien’s character, Violet, has her first scene in the fast food restaurant where she works. Violet outrageously flirts with a client, telling him she wants to “fuck” him. The client’s wife turns around. “That bitch just told my husband she wants to fuck him. Are you retarded?” She cries. “Thank you for your patronage,” Violet said.
“It was hilarious to film,” says Pien, 42. “From a very young age, people tell me that I cannot say certain things. Like, ‘This is really inappropriate.’ But there is so much hypocrisy in the world. Everybody steals everybody’s girlfriends or boyfriends, but they lie about it. For me, because I’m on the spectrum, I was like, ‘Oh, I thought that’s what everyone else was doing.’
Pien has been acting for 17 years, but this is his first major role. “There are so many of me, naturally, who understood Violet,” she says. “I know how she felt at that moment, why she said that, why she did that. This hidden side of me finally had a chance to be revealed.
Desperate to blend in, Violet sets out to find a “normal” boyfriend. She goes on a date with a guy she meets on Bumble, an app her protective brother Van (Chris Pang) has banned. Violet’s date abandons her within minutes of meeting her, and Van is furious when he comes to pick her up, dragging her out of the restaurant. “When I read the script, I cried,” says Pien. “My heart and soul are shared with Violet.”
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Glassman, who was only diagnosed with autism five years ago, also found himself looking within. “As a kid, I went to special classes and a special school, but I really didn’t know.” Playing Jack helped him view his own childhood with new understanding. “I didn’t realize I didn’t have friends when I was young because I wasn’t bullied,” he says. “People would find excuses not to play with me and I would believe them. Now I know how they looked at me. I see it correctly for the first time.
A particularly touching conversation between Jack and his father Lou (played by Joe Mantegna, who has an autistic daughter) offers a brief insight into being the parent of an autistic child. “Do you want your father to support you forever?” asks Lou, who has cancer and doesn’t know how long he’ll be here. “You have to have a job and remember to pay your rent, and talk to people when they look at you, and when a girl smiles to smile back. I need to know you’re okay, Jack. hear?” As Glassman reflects on the scene, he begins to cry. “It was very real,” he says. “There were definitely times when I was trying to identify with my father in real life, who I’m very, very close with.”
glassman hope As we see will help people realize that they haven’t got it all figured out about autism. “People think they know what autism is, and they don’t,” he says. “That’s what I learned through my diagnosis, and a lot of it through the show. There’s this saying, ‘When you met an autistic person, you met an autistic person.’
Rutecki agrees. “I hope people understand that there is a wide range of people on the autism spectrum and that we are not just one-dimensional tragedies, we are people.”
he wants As we see to help create a “kinder world”. “I hope people will be more patient and understanding when they meet someone with differences,” she says. “There are a lot of young people on the spectrum who are struggling to find an identity. People deserve to find places where they are loved and cherished.
“As We See It” will stream on Amazon Prime Video on January 21