Kevin Valdez draws on personal experience to play a neurodiverse character on a new Apple TV Plus show.

The first time we meet Louie King, a character in the new Apple TV Plus show Little Voice, he’s on a mission to Broadway.

He has flouted curfew by sneaking out of his group home to get an autograph from a specific member of the Phantom of the Opera cast. But instead of the star, Louie excitedly waits for a lowly member of the ensemble.

“She just left Aladdin after being a standby for three years, two months and three days,” Louie says breathlessly to his sister Bess, his eyes locked on the stage door. “If I’m lucky,” he adds, “I may get her autograph.”

That’s the nature of Louie’s Broadway obsession — his head filled with endless stats and dizzyingly obscure details. The role is tailor made for Kevin Valdez. The 21-year-old actor isn’t obsessed with Broadway, but he and Louie are both on the autism spectrum. In the case of Valdez, he was diagnosed at 22 months, which allowed him to get into applied behavior analysis therapy at a younger age than most. The earlier the diagnosis, the better the response to treatment.

“He’s really similar to me,” Valdez says. “It’s almost like this role was made with me in mind.”

Valdez — and Louie, for that matter — are rare. There aren’t that many characters with autism on TV, especially ones played by neurodiverse actors like Valdez. (One notable actor with autism is comedy legend Dan Aykroyd. He has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is at the high-functioning end of the spectrum.) In fact, about 81% of adults with autism, intellectual and/or developmental differences don’t have a paid job at all, according to the National Core Indicators study published in 2018.

This week, Valdez is making his own professional acting debut in one of Apple’s first original productions, Little Voice. The show focuses on a 20-something musician in New York, trying to figure out where she belongs. There are complicated love interests, an alcoholic musician father and a friend coming to grips with her own identity. At the center is Bess, a singer-songwriter who’s juggling her fledgling music career with odd jobs and taking care of her friends and family — including her beloved brother, Louie. Though younger, it’s often Bess (played by Star’s Brittany O’Grady) swooping in to save the day.

The show became available Friday, and a new episode will debut every Friday thereafter until all nine are live. Little Voice features music by Grammy and Tony Award nominee Sara Bareilles and was co-created by Jessie Nelson, the writer and director behind films such as Corrina Corrina and I Am Sam. The two women previously collaborated on hit Broadway show Waitress. J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot company produced Little Voice.

The New York Times called Little Voice “a twee musical fairy tale,” while Rolling Stone dubbed it “charming” and said it “feels like a love letter to a seemingly ancient New York where live music is everywhere.” But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for Bess and the other characters in Little Voice.

On-screen diversity

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of Minnesotan George Floyd, issues of racial and gender diversity have been cast into the light. But people with disabilities are also battling for representation, rallying for corporations and the public to respect their needs. At the same time, the novel coronavirus pandemic has brought new challenges for people with disabilities, who are trying to ensure they’re not left behind as society adapts to a new normal.

About one out of every 54 eight-year-olds in the US is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from March, and there are about 6.5 million people in the US with autism, intellectual and/or developmental differences. Globally, autism affects about 74 million people, or 1% of the world’s population, the CDC said. ASD is manifested in a variety of ways, but many people on the spectrum have trouble communicating with others and understanding emotions.

In the past, the portrayal of people with autism in film and TV often focused on people with severe communication problems or autistic savants like Dustin Hoffman’s character in 1988’s Rain Man. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Hoffman nabbed the Best Actor award. Other neurodiverse roles in film and TV have been played by non-autistic actors. I Am Sam, a 2001 movie written and directed by Little Voice co-creator Nelson, featured Sean Penn as the title character. He earned an Oscar nomination for his role as a man with an intellectual disability who is trying to regain custody of his daughter, played by Dakota Fanning.

“At the time I made that movie, I was not allowed to cast an actor with a disability in the lead,” says Nelson, Little Voice’s lead writer, director and executive producer. “I could barely get the movie made. It took me years and years and years to convince people that this was a story worth telling.”

That’s changing, albeit gradually. In the 2019 to 2020 broadcast TV season, the number of series regular characters with a disability increased slightly to 3.1% from 2.1% in the previous season, according to a study by GLAAD. The percentage “falls monumentally short of reality,” the advocacy group said in November, but it’s still an all-time high.

Cable and streaming services fared slightly better, and GLAAD specifically tallied characters on those platforms who are both disabled and LGBTQ. Its survey didn’t include characters on Apple TV Plus, which launched the same month GLAAD published its results. Apple’s service has a show, See, that features a large cast of actors who are blind or low vision.

“I was so pleased with how far we’ve come that Apple was so supportive of finding an autistic actor to play this role,” Nelson says. “This is a very different moment in history.”

Autism’s visibility

Increasingly, autistic actors are playing characters on the autism spectrum. And those characters are moving beyond the male autistic savant stereotype, says Arianna Esposito, director of lifespan services at Autism Speaks. In a previous role as adjunct professor for Saint Joseph’s University in the Autism Behavioral Studies program, one topic covered in Esposito’s class was autism in the media. Autism on television is starting to better reflect reality: a spectrum of different abilities and characteristics.

Having a person with autism playing a role like Louie “really brings an authenticity to the character,” Esposito says. “It feels true, and it feels accurate. … There’s that shared experience between the role and the person the autistic actor is playing.”

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