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Why the Autistic Character in 'The Umbrella Academy' Season 2 Is Groundbreaking

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I recently watched season 2 of the show “The Umbrella Academy” on Netflix. This season added a new character, Harlan, a child on the autism spectrum who is nonverbal. First, I want to say kudos to Netflix for being the streaming network depicting the autism community and doing what they can to promote autism acceptance. They started with “Atypical,” then came “Love on the Spectrum,” and now we have a strong supporting character who seems to tie into the upcoming “Umbrella Academy” season 3 somehow.

I believe the person who wrote the script definitely knew the realities of properly depicting an 8-year-old nonverbal autistic boy growing up in Texas, roughly 30 years before they started diagnosing autism in children. Whoever created the character of Harlan surely must have a nonverbal autistic child or one close to them to nail it so perfectly. Everything about Harlan, from the way he looks at things, to grabbing people’s clothing for attention, to seeking out water, to having the perfect meltdown, is an accurate portrayal of common traits of a nonverbal autistic child.

When we first see Harlan, he’s riding in the back seat of his mother’s car, as she is hitting a newly arrived Vanya Hargreeves in October of 1963. Nothing stands out about him in the car; we first get a glimpse that he may be autistic by the way he’s standing in the backyard, just staring at the windmill.

Right after his mother tells him it’s time to go inside, you really start to see Harlan for who he is. He grabs Vanya, who stayed with the family, and puts his hands over his eyes in a language of his own, asking her to play hide and seek with him. The way he tugs at Vanya’s clothes and makes sounds, instead of using words, looks as if they truly had a nonverbal autistic boy playing the role, but that isn’t the case. For reasons that are never really explained, Harlan tends to bond more with Vanya than he does his own mom.

That brings us to his family, facing the unknown in 1963. No one had a clue how to support Harlan back then, but his mother loved him and helped him any way she could. Dad was a different story. Dad claimed he loved his boy more than anything, yet he tended to go out at night and get so drunk, he barely slurred a phone call home for a ride. He also mentioned on several occasions wanting to send “the boy” to an institute. Out of sight and out of mind, right?

Too many kids who would be getting help today were simply warehoused back in the 1960s, and even more recently. These kids could have grown up to have happy, successful lives, but were left to languish in terrible conditions with no opportunities to be part of society.

The show also accurately portrays meltdowns. Too often when you see an autistic person portrayed on TV or in the movies (which is way too rare) what you see is much more along the lines of a tantrum, rather than a true meltdown. Those of us on the spectrum ourselves or parents/family/loved ones of someone who is autistic, know the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown.

At one point in the show, Harlan is listening to record albums, the only way to listen to music in 1963. Suddenly, the record hits a spot and keeps repeating itself over and over again. The repetitive sound is too much for Harlan’s ears. He quickly grabs them, starts yelling random sounds, then grabs the needle and promptly scratches the whole record, once again making a sound his ears did not want to hear. He goes back to grabbing his ears and yelling, then takes the whole phonograph and shakes it until it starts breaking apart.

With a meltdown as opposed to a tantrum, once the record player was destroyed and the troubling sound stopped, Harlan calmed right down, his stressor now gone. Once he stops his meltdown, he sits down and starts playing with a wooden sparrow. If you decide to watch season 2, which I recommend you do, keep an eye out for sparrows.

For me, the ultimate moment was one I literally cringed at, as I looked a step ahead and just knew that Harlan was going to make a break for it, and that somehow water would be involved.

I was right.

Harlan took off like a bat out of hell. It wasn’t apparent if he knew exactly where he was going, but the big splash a few moments later showed that he probably did.

Vanya is the most powerful of the seven Hargreeves children and among other powers, she can move things with her mind. And that’s exactly what she did. Vanya lifted all the water out of the pond, grabbed Harlan, moved him to shore, and began giving him CPR. He quickly regurgitated the water in his lungs and life was good again.

There are so many great things to say about the creation of the character and especially to the writing team, led by Steve Blackman, Gabriel Ba, who inks the comic books, and Gerard Way, creator of the Umbrella Academy comics from Dark Horse and lead singer of My Chemical Romance. I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out the near-perfect portrayal by young actor Justin Clark Kelly.

I believe Harlan is truly one of the great autistic characters of the moment and quite possibly for a while. You owe it to yourself to watch at least two or three episodes of “Umbrella Academy” season 2 on Netflix, just so you can see for yourself how great the character actually is.

Image via Netflix.

Originally published: August 9, 2020
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