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June 07, 2021
Online Originals

Advocating for the Authentic

Autistic Actor Lillian Carrier shares her talent, knowledge, and her service dog in her groundbreaking role on Freeform’s Everything’s Gonna Be Okay

Brooke Carlock Lobaugh

Lillian Carrier didn't plan to be on television.

After graduating from high school, she intended to study biology, but had trouble finding a college that met her unique needs as an autistic student. Discouraged, and having tried out three different schools, Carrier met with a job coach assigned to her as part of a program to help assist with her transition into adulthood.

"The coach told me about an audition where they were seeking autistic actors for a role," Carrier explains. Her family, having watched Carrier enjoy acting on stage throughout her school years, encouraged her to try out for the part.

She gathered her courage, took her service dog Luke, and headed to audition for the part of Matilda on a new pilot called Everything's Gonna Be Okay, created and written by Australian comedian Josh Thomas.

On the show, Matilda, who is on the autism spectrum, and her younger sister Genevieve navigate the ups and downs of grief and growing up with the help of their 20-something, good-hearted, but often misguided half-brother Nicholas (played by Thomas), who agrees to become their guardian after their father's untimely death.

Although her audition went well, Carrier didn't get the part of Matilda, which went to fellow autistic actress Kayla Cromer. She and Luke so intrigued Thomas, however, that he ended up writing the pair into the series, creating a role for Carrier as Drea, Matilda's friend and eventual love interest, with Luke playing Drea's service dog Duke.

Carrier still marvels at her fortune. "It's amazing," she gushes, "I feel like it's almost better than getting the role of Matilda. I mean, it would have been an honor to play her, but to have a role that's written for you is just incredible."

Thomas met with Carrier and had lengthy discussions to make sure the show authentically represented her autistic traits. "For example, when I came into a meeting with Josh," she says, "I was wearing a chew necklace – a Stimtastic donut – and he asked me about that, and I put it in a baggie for him to hold it and explained what it was. And now that's a character trait of Drea's that she has a chew necklace.

"Another example is when I went into the costume fitting, I shared all of my sensory needs and they put that into my character. Also, I've told Josh a lot of stories about not understanding social cues and things like that, and how I would insult people without realizing it, and how it was just me being honest and not understanding the idea of a white lie. He used a lot of those stories to create Drea."

Thomas valued Carrier's input so highly that he ended up making her an Autism Consultant on the show, and he, the directors, and costume designers now seek her advice on everything from common sensory tools and how they're used, to situations where Luke (the first real service dog actor on a television show) might be accurately utilized.

In one scene, for example, Carrier's character gets so overwhelmed after saying "I love you" to Matilda for the first time that she has to lie down on the floor so Duke can put his paws on her chest.

"What Luke was doing in that 'I love you' scene is called deep pressure therapy," Carrier explains. "In that specific instance, Drea was overwhelmed to the point where she disconnected from her body, which is very common on the autism spectrum. We have very enhanced emotions that become so overwhelming we can't handle it.

"So deep pressure therapy is similar to, I would say, someone who wants a hug, but can't handle that human interaction. So, with a weighted blanket, or in my case a service dog, pressure is put on a specific part of the body. For me, it's the chest. And it's just very helpful to help you focus on something, to pull you back into your body and get you calm. Luke does that for me, and Duke does that for Drea."

Everything's Gonna Be Okay, now in its second season on Freeform, has garnered praise not only for its realistic casting and representation of autistic characters, but also for the genuine and heartwarming way it presents topics that are often considered risky or offensive to many networks.

Matilda and Drea are the first queer autistic couple depicted on a television show, for example, and often have very honest and blunt conversations about sexuality and physical touch. The representation is important to Carrier, who notes that a larger percentage of the autistic population identify as LGBTQ than the general population.

"I feel like, years from now, this show is going to be looked back on as a really groundbreaking show that could have changed history. This was the moment that you're casting autistic actors and you're using real stories. It's never been done like this before. It's so exciting to be a part of that."

Carrier not only represents those on the autism spectrum on television, but also through a nonprofit organization she co-founded along with her mother and twin sister. OurTism provides support, coaching, workshops, and social programs for teen and adult Autistics.

As Carrier notes, "A big thing with the autism and the disability community as a whole is that everyone wants to help children. But most disabilities are lifelong. When you reach the age of 18, there's just so little support out there for us, and that was a gap I really wanted to help fill.

"Especially with autism  - I've been in so many programs, and they're all so rigid and you have to it in this perfect little box. And if you don't, the program won't work for you. And we've found that, like, NO ONE fits in that box. The average person doesn't exist. The average person is imaginary.

"Everyone is unique, and special, and different. So we really wanted to make an individualized program where you can select and choose exactly what you want, and you, the autistic person, matter."

For Carrier, her transition into adulthood is looking bright, and she looks forward to continuing her acting career in both autistic and neurotypical roles, as well as advocating for the rights of autistic actors.

"I absolutely plan to keep on acting if given the opportunity. You know, autistic people are capable of doing these roles. Casting authentically, I think, makes these characters. It's why our show has succeeded in representation.

"People who watch it can see themselves because they've experienced autism similarly to me, which, you know, creates that authenticity and a real character without really having to work hard to make sure you're not being offensive. Hopefully we can go on to do so much more in this industry. I mean, we just had an Oscar winner. Anthony Hopkins is autistic, and he just won an Oscar. We can do it. We are capable."

Everything's Gonna Be Okay airs Thursdays at 10:00pm ET/ 7:00pm PT on Freeform.



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