How 'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' avoids Hollywood's (and Sia's) pitfalls portraying autism

Kelly Lawler

For Josh Thomas, the most boring part of putting together his Freeform comedy series "Everything's Gonna Be Okay" is the part he gets asked about most frequently. 

"I get asked about the research for the show a lot, but it's really boring, isn't it? It's research. There’s never any drama."

Thomas, who created and stars in the series, and his writers spend a lot of their time researching autism for "Everything," which returned for Season 2 on April 8(10 EDT/PDT). The comedy won acclaim when it premiered last year for its portrayal of characters with autism, particularly because several actors are on the spectrum. 

"I think when we decided to cast this show with authentic autistic casting, there was a lot of people that were like, 'How's that gonna work?'" Thomas said in a recent panel discussion hosted by the Autism Society. "The way we approached it was to not just assume that it's going to be hard, you know?"

Josh Thomas, who created "Everything's Gonna Be Okay," also stars as young guardian Nicholas.

"Everything" is about a 20-something man, Nicholas (Thomas), who takes custody of his teen half-sisters Matilda (Kayla Cromer), who has autism, and Genevieve (Maeve Press), after their father dies. Barely an adult himself, Nicholas struggles with his newfound role as a parent, treading the line between authoritarian and friend. In addition to Matilda, the series includes multiple characters on the spectrum, including her girlfriend Drea (Lillian Carrier). 

Thomas, 33, who in an Instagram post and New Yorker article Monday shared that he too has autism, says in an interview this week that in writing the show, "we start running storylines by consultants to check my work. ... They read the script and let me know if they think anything seems false or offensive. Which has never happened." 

Far from offending people in the autism community, "Everything" has been celebrated as a series that authentically looks at the wide variety of experiences people on the autism spectrum have. 

"This show has done well, especially with hiring a lead autistic (actress) to represent Matilda's character," says Maria Davis-Pierre, CEO and founder of Autism in Black, an advocacy organization that supports people with autism in the Black community. "They have covered sex, dating, family relationships, grief, even ableist views from the family towards Matilda and didn't make it a mockery of the autistic community."

Kayla Cromer as Matilda and Maeve press as Genevieve on "Everything's Gonna Be Okay."

How autism is portrayed onscreen has been a frequent topic of public discourse this year in light of pop star Sia's movie, "Music," which came under intense criticism both for its portrayal of a person with autism and casting a neurotypical actress (Maddie Ziegler) to play the character. 

"I just kind of watched that and I just felt really sad for everybody," Thomas says of the film. "It just seemed like a really (expletive) situation. There were no winners."

More:Sia's 'Music' angers the autism community: 'I don't even know where to start'

"The overarching problem with Hollywood when it comes to autism is that they find it too inconvenient to talk to, cast, and hire the actual individuals they are trying to represent," Davis Pierre says. "Rather than provide accommodations, they take the easy way out of hiring someone neurotypical because in their view they would be easier to work with ... And that is a major problem because the story gets filtered and you end up reinforcing stereotypes and continuing to be ableist to a community."

Thomas plans to bring some of his own personal journey into the series, including having Nicholas discover he is on the spectrum. 

"I realized that by coming out as autistic before this season comes to air that people are going to look at Nicholas in a different way," he says. "And we'll talk about it eventually in this series, but not for ages."

Season 2 also deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, and Thomas was excited to write episodes set within the confines of a quarantined house. 

"It kind of has gone on so long now that it's almost ordinary," Thomas, who previously created and starred in the Australian cult hit "Please Like Me," says. "At the beginning, it felt like a risky choice, but now being in a semi-lockdown situation feels like, yeah, that's what life is. ... I really like this intense amount of self-reflection time people have had, and how that's made people a little bit weird. I’m interested in that."

Like so many of us, the pandemic derails plans for the major characters. Nicholas' boyfriend Alex (Adam Faison) finds his dental career on hold. Matilda, who at the end of Season 1 decided not to attend Juilliard, New York's prestigious performing arts school, after a visit to the city went poorly, is holed up in her room looking for direction. 

"She is really trying to bounce back after New York City and rethinking her life goals and where to go next," Cromer says. "She has more time on her hands. Google search has become a go-to source for her and figuring everything out." 

The new season also introduces, via socially distant driveway hangouts, Richard Kind and Maria Bamford as Drea's parents. 

Maria Bamford and Richard Kind guest-starred on "Everything's Gonna Be Okay."

"You know Drea doesn’t have not-kooky parents," Thomas says. "I was really excited to get to have Maria and Richard; I don't think they’ll be offended if I say that they're a little kooky."

Thomas isn't thinking ahead to a potential third season, but if it happens he'll be well prepared. 

"I'll probably dust off the binder that we had with Season 2 storylines (pre-COVID-19)," he says, laughing.