Actor Mickey Rowe has felt the stigma around autism his whole life, whether it was growing up and trying to make friends in school or auditioning at casting calls as a professional actor.
Society often places a high value on skills that exclude autistic people — things like making eye contact and giving handshakes, Rowe said. And because autism is an invisible disability, it may not be immediately apparent that someone is autistic, leading to bullying, ostracism and “unintentional discrimination,” he told HuffPost.
But Rowe wants that to change.
Growing up, Rowe struggled with making new friends. He would pace the hallways at school during lunch because he didn’t know how to navigate social situations. It wasn’t until his grandmother brought him to the Seattle Children’s Theater when he was 5 years old that he felt safe and understood for the first time.
“When I got to sit in that audience in the dark and watch shows, sitting in that audience was really the one time that I felt seen, and the one time that I felt silently heard,” Rowe said. It was his theatergoing days with his grandmother that inspired Rowe to join the performing arts as a career.
In 2017, he became the first autistic actor to play the role of Christopher Boone in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre and Syracuse Stage productions. Now, he is the Co-Executive Director at National Disability Theatre and is an activist, speaking and performing at various events. Recently, he was the keynote speaker at the Arts for Autism Benefit Concert, held at the Gershwin Theater in New York City.
During job interviews or other interactions, Rowe said people often treat him like a child — a common microaggression that many disabled people experience. “It’s just hard because I’m not 14 years old,” Rowe said. “I’m a dad, and I have two kids. I need to pay the bills. I need to do all the things that an adult needs to do.”
These assumptions and other forms of ableism all contribute to the major lack of accurate representation of autism in Hollywood. Many popular films and shows that feature autistic characters, including “Rain Man,” “Atypical” and “The Good Doctor,” aren’t actually played by autistic people in real life. In fact, about 95% of all disabled characters on television are played by nondisabled actors, according to the Ruderman Foundation, a nonprofit that researches and advocates for full disability inclusion.
It’s a “mind-blowing” statistic, Rowe said, because when abled actors are cast in these roles, it shuns actual disabled actors and other artists whose lived experiences are reflected in the narrative but who rarely get to be included in the creative and production process.
“If you are doing a show or doing a play that in any way involves autism, you better be casting an autistic actor or hiring an autistic director or hiring an autistic writer onto the team,” Rowe said, “because people with autism don’t just want to be audience members. We want to be employed.”
“We are the experts on our own lives,” he added.
But hiring processes in the entertainment industry — like most industries — often require schmoozing and social etiquette that does not take autistic people into account, rather than simply focusing on the skills needed to do the job.
“If we can get over our need for in-person interviews with lots of small talk and eye contact and firm handshakes and really just think about working interviews, where someone gets to do the job that they love doing, autistic people are going to be hired a lot more,” Rowe said.