Pablo thinks differently, sees the world in different ways!
Too many autistic characters are still played by non-autistic actors and written by non-autistic writers, with too little input from autistic people — but that is starting to change.
Pablo stands out for having a cast of autistic characters all played by autistic actors, and an autistic writing team — although the lead writer, Andrew Brenner is not autistic himself, all but a few early episodes have autistic co-writers. Even those without autistic co-writers draw on ideas from autistic writers, including the late Donna Williams.
Just as importantly, the show is lovely.
A northern Irish co-production from the BBC and RTE, Pablo is a series about a young autistic kid who makes sense of the confusing situations he finds himself in. He does this with the help of his animal friends in an animated world.
The live-action sections of the show set up the story for each episode, in a charmingly stimmy style that gives us a sense of Pablo’s rich — but sometimes fragmented — sensory experiences, and why he is often disoriented and sometimes overwhelmed. When he picks up some crayons and starts drawing, we shift into the world of his imagination.
In crayon-world, a diverse set of characters represents a good spread of autistic experience. Pablo himself is minimally-speaking in the physical world, but chatty in crayon form. This implies that his language abilities are much stronger than they look from outside — perhaps apraxia or anxiety keeps him from expressing himself fluently in person. This is true-to-life, since many autistic children have a much stronger grasp of language than they are able to openly express.
Pablo’s Internal Cast of Characters
Tang is an exuberantly energetic and outgoing orangutan. Noa (short for Noasaurus) is sweet and sensitive, but finds it hard not to stomp around. Mouse gets upset when people are too noisy, unfortunately, and has a great love of the quiet.
Wren is flappy and musical. Llama communicates in echolalia, with snippets of what other people have said repeated in her broad Yorkshire accent. Draff is a giraffe who has a strong urge to share facts and very little tolerance for nonsense.
Right from the start, then, we see something that’s still extremely unusual in visual media: the series is one of a tiny number that passes what I think of as the Autdel Test, meaning it has multiple, named autistic characters, who talk to each other about something other than autism. This is the autism equivalent of the Bechdel Test for the representation of women in fiction: it sets a pretty low bar, which is frequently missed.
Important Social Messaging about Access Needs
The setup also makes us think about conflicting access needs: Noa and especially Tang sometimes find it impossible to stay as quiet as Mouse needs them to be. Draff’s impatience for things which are not right clashes with other characters’ need to be a bit silly and play with concepts (‘in point of fact, it’s not actually the sea you’re hearing — it’s actually the hollow inside the shell…’).
We really don’t talk about conflicting access needs enough. I was introduced to the idea at Autscape, an autistic space where hundreds of autistic people gather in one place — meaning that everyone needs to learn pretty quickly about things like how one person’s noisy stims can clash with another person’s sensory sensitivities.
There are no perfect solutions to these conflicts, but we can learn to navigate them with care and understanding — something that Pablo helps us get to grips with. With a bit of work, we might even find ways for one person’s strengths to make up for another person’s challenges.
Relationship with Objects
Besides the regular cast, crayon-world is often populated with sentient versions of the objects Pablo encounters in the physical world, jostling for attention – a nod to the tendency many autistic people have to personify objects.
Pablo’s way of imagining objects is not shown as a problem, but as a way for Pablo to use metaphor to solve abstract problems. With the help of his friends allowing him to see things from different perspectives, Pablo usually has an adventure working out what is going on in the real world and what he wants.
It is a gentle formula for a show, and the primary audience is really pre-school children, but I have to say that as a 42-year-old autistic person with no kids, I find it compelling, entertaining, and validating. The scenarios are made relatable even when they don’t reflect anything I’ve experienced myself.
The animation style, with crayon-textured articulated sprites, is delightful – especially the little details like the flicking of Llama’s ears and the expressions on visiting objects. The writing is simple but witty and thoughtful, and the actors are convincing and often very funny.
The whole thing is just so wholesome, and so needed. Autistic kids still have so few opportunities to see people like themselves on screen. Parents and teachers can learn a lot from the insightful ways that autistic experiences and confusions are depicted and resolved.
Other kids are exposed to the idea that different people think really differently, and that’s okay – a key message if we want the next generation of neurodivergent kids to have a better time than most of us had growing up.
There seems to be a trend of better autistic representation, with Everything’s Gonna Be Okay showing autistic teenagers coming of age, and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power featuring a very well-written autistic character developed with real autistic input, while shows like Steven Universe are really built around the power of appreciating different ways of being. Perhaps autistic kids growing up today will find it a little easier to fit in, and not to feel alone, thanks to all this.
- TV Review: Pablo - August 10, 2020
- Autistic Skill Sets: A Spiky Profile of Peaks and Troughs - July 5, 2019
- Autistic Spectroscopy: Exploring what the “spectrum” means - June 9, 2019