Story at a glance
- Kayla Cromer, who stars as a character on the autism spectrum, is on the spectrum herself.
- Portrayals of disabled characters by disabled actors have historically been rare in film and TV.
- The series premiere comes as disabled actors are pushing for better representation in stories about disability.
Kayla Cromer stars in the new Freeform TV series “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay” as Matilda, a girl on the autism spectrum. But while autistic characters have appeared in TV and film before, Cromer differs from many of the actors who have played them in one key aspect: She’s on the spectrum herself.
The series, which premieres Thursday, stars comedian Josh Thomas, who also created the show, as a young man who becomes guardian to his two teenage half-sisters, Matilda and Genevieve, after their father dies. Cromer made headlines when she spoke of her disability at a press event for the network last March, publicly disclosing it for the first time.
“The team were seeking an actress on the spectrum to cast. So, they were all aware of my differences from the start,” Cromer told Changing America. “We often discussed scenes in pre-production meetings, even did re-writes where my quirks were written in. It's all about teamwork, and I loved bringing their vision of Matilda to life.”
Cromer told Changing America she was able to draw on her own experiences to play Matilda, but that the character differs from her in some significant ways as well. For instance, Matilda’s a whiz at the piano, whereas Cromer describes herself as “not musically talented,” though she did learn to play several songs on the piano for the series pilot.
Moreover, Cromer told Changing America, “Matilda is learning to navigate life in a neurotypical world. She is inexperienced in dating and relationships. She is more open with her autism, where I was still learning to advocate for myself. She gets overwhelmed in situations with crowds and noises, or confusing moments.” By contrast, “I wasn't coddled, I was put into situations and learned to adapt.”
Despite the differences, Cromer adds, “Oh, and we're both quirky and hilarious, without knowing it.”
In fact, she said, her different way of thinking has helped her give the best performance possible.
“Being on the spectrum and having other learning differences, I am used to working harder and have a great drive to succeed. I interpret things differently, which helps with analyzing scripts, engulfing myself into roles, to achieve realism,” she said.
It “also drives me to make strong choices,” she added. For example, during the audition process for the show, she knew from the script that it was dramedy, and asked if she could try two different versions of a pivotal eulogy scene. “I did one comedy and one very dramatic with full on tears,” she explained.
As an openly autistic woman, Cromer is also representing the frequently underrepresented demographic of autistic women and girls.
Many of the most notable autistic characters in TV and film, including Raymond Babbit from “Rain Man,” Sam Gardner from Netflix’s “Atypical” and Tommy Westphall from “St. Elsewhere” are male. And, of those formally diagnosed, boys and men outnumber girls by about four to one.
However, recent research indicates this may largely be due to diagnostic criteria that is specifically derived from how autism manifests in boys, meaning some symptoms in girls are overlooked. Today, some of the most prominent autistic people are women and girls, including climate activist Greta Thunberg, comedian Hannah Gadsby and, of course, Cromer herself.
“Strong, visible female role models are so important. Even more so, imperfect role models are especially needed in this decade,” she told Changing America. “No one is perfect. We can do anything we set our mind to do! It’s much easier to dream big, when you see other females achieving theirs!”
Disabled actors have frequently struggled to be considered by casting directors for disabled parts; a 2016 white paper by the Ruderman Foundation found that 95 percent of disabled characters on TV were played by abled actors. By contrast, nondisabled actors playing disabled characters is often seen as a fast track to winning awards, with some of the most famous winners including Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot,” Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump,” Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” and Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything.”
In all, actors playing disabled characters have been nominated for 61 Academy Awards and won 27, but only two winners have been played by disabled actors, according to an analysis by IndieWire. The industry’s tendency to reward imitations of disability was even the subject of an infamous monologue in the 2008 Hollywood satire “Tropic Thunder.”
In recent years, however, disabled people are pushing back against the conventional wisdom and adding acting to the mantra “nothing about us without us.” In December, stars including Orlando Jones, Glenn Close, Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston and Mark Ruffalo signed a letter calling on casting directors to audition more disabled actors.
Other signatories of the letter include already-established disabled actors, including Danny DeVito, who has Fairbank’s disease, Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, and RJ Mitte, most famous for playing Walter White Jr. on “Breaking Bad.” Another signatory, Norman Lear, cast Geri Jewell, who has cerebral palsy, on “The Facts of Life” in 1980. Jewell was the first actor with a visible disability cast in a recurring prime-time role.
Authentic casting, like Cromer’s, is vital, she told Changing America, “because diversity and inclusion are still challenges in the entertainment industry. We exist! We are part of the human race. People first, who just happen to have differences.”