The Much Needed and Overdue Portrayal of a Nuanced Autistic Character in ‘Young Royals’

© Netflix

Sara Eriksson is one of the few female Autistic characters we get the opportunity to see onscreen, but how exactly do Young Royals capture such an accurate portrayal? Aisha Oppong explores this valuable piece of representation.

Spoiler warning: This feature contains spoilers for seasons one and two of Young Royals.

Written by Lisa Ambjörn and directed by Erika Calmeyer, Young Royals follows the romance between two teenage boys from two incredibly differing worlds- Wilhelm, the Crown Prince of Sweden and Simon, a working-class boy who attends the elite Hillerska Boarding School with a scholarship. After a tumultuous incident involving a fight in a nightclub, Wilhelm’s parents decide to enrol him at Hillerska where he meets Simon, and both develop a romantic relationship with many obstacles thrown mercilessly in their way.

So, who is Sara Eriksson?

Before I delve into Sara Eriksson’s character, I need to highlight that Autism is so much more complex than what many believe or may have seen in the media. People know it is a spectrum, hence the name, however, many envision a linear scale between the mildness and severity of the disability, which is a massive misconception. Autism is a spectrum of specific needs and traits such as; sensory processing, intense fixations, verbal and non-verbal communication, and more. So, the amount of or type of support and accommodations the Autistic person needs depends on each individual. This does not make them more or less Autistic – there is absolutely no such thing. Instead, it shows that every Autistic person is very different and, therefore, it is vital to know that they are, despite the neurological differences, is just as complex as a neurotypical one.

Suffering at the hands of bullies at her previous school, Hillerska is meant to be a fresh start for new student Sara Eriksson. We are first introduced to her riding Rousseau, fellow student Felice’s horse, with whom she shares a deep bond. Sara, unlike Felice, can handle him, and therefore sparks Felice’s insecurity over Sara’s better management of her own horse. Both Sara and Rousseau are treated with impatience, leaving the viewer with a sour first impression of Felice’s character and sympathy for the gentle Sara. After a party at school, however, the girls soon become the best of friends.

Throughout most of the series, Sara is a considerably terrible person — this will be explained further. Yes, it is important to recognise that her Autism plays a factor in how she navigates social situations; as it is equally as crucial to understand that it is in no way an excuse for her arguably unforgivable actions. Actor Frida Argento was rightfully cast for the role, as not only did she phenomenally capture the role of Sara; but she is also Autistic herself and therefore understood Sara’s way of thinking better than anyone.

As one of the few female Autistic representations in the media, Sara Eriksson is also quite a rarity. Most Autistic representation that has been seen is predominantly male and this is quite problematic, given that girls are usually diagnosed later in life than boys, given that they are usually better at masking.

Sara Eriksson, played by Frida Argento, is a rare example of an Autistic girl on screen. | © Netflix

Representation through relationships

As I mentioned above, Autism commonly factors into how people navigate social situations, including relationships with friends, family, and lovers. For that reason, it’s important to take a look at how Sara interacts with those she loves — for example, her best friend, Felice.

Felice is the supportive and emotionally available best friend that Sara never had and could have only dreamed of. Although unlikeable when the viewer first gets to know her, she soon goes through rapid character development which ultimately sets her as the kind, understanding and fair person that she is. When they first became friends, Felice included her in her friend group, who welcomed and grew to care almost as deeply for Sara as Felice did herself, which is why Sara’s betrayal comes as an excruciatingly painful blow for Felice; the aftermath leaving her depressed and hopeless, struggling to get over her best friend for whom she loved so dearly.

There is one instance that some may misinterpret as Sara backstabbing her best friend when in actuality, she was displaying her inability to read social cues. When Parent’s Day rolled around, the pupils’ parents arrived to eat lunch and, in most cases, and caught up with their children whom they hadn’t seen in a while. As Felice, Sara, Simon and Wilhelm ate with their families (except Wilhelm’s), Felice’s parents politely inquired about everyone’s hobbies, to which Sara’s mother told them that her daughter enjoys horseback riding. Sara elaborates by directly stating the truth that she didn’t know Felice had intentionally kept from her parents: that she always rides Felice’s horse, Rousseau, because her best friend does not enjoy doing so. From Sara’s perspective, she simply told the truth without anticipating Felice’s reaction and the horribly awkward atmosphere that would be created afterwards. Simon chided her for oversharing which she may have taken very literally to the point of hiding crucial information from him.

This brings us to masking, described by The National Autistic Society as “a strategy used by some autistic people, consciously or unconsciously, to appear non-autistic in order to blend in and be more accepted in society”. Throughout most of her interactions with other people, Sara masks extremely well; maintaining eye contact, using appropriate facial expressions and tone of voice, and a prominent example: her dress sense. As Sara is welcomed and becomes more integrated into her newfound friend group (consisting of Felice and her three friends, Stella, Fredrika and Madison), her effortless casual attire makes a transition into more formal and dressier wear. We first see this when she joins her family at the dining table for dinner sporting a red dress, Felice’s hair clips, and reprimanding Simon and his friends for their table manners. Given that she had suffered bullying at her previous school, it is more than understandable that Sara’s hyper-awareness of her peers’ behaviour and unconsciously implied expectations increases tenfold, and she begins to mirror them, in a sense, to survive. Throughout the series, however, Sara is very straightforward and direct, pointing out what is obvious to her, without recognising how socially inappropriate her some of her comments are.

Some of Sara’s actions throughout the show are clear examples of ‘masking’. | © Netflix

To delve more into Sara being an utterly terrible person during most of the series, I will introduce another character: August Horn of Årnäs. Born into the noble family Horn of Årnäs and Prince Wilhelm’s second cousin, Ambjörn concocted the perfect antagonist. Arrogant and twisted, he reveals Simon and Wilhelm’s relationship to the public by anonymously posting a sex tape of them online. Sara, the witness, instead of informing Simon, Wilhelm or Felice of the culprit of this calamity, visits August’s room. From then on, to the horror of the viewer whose impression of Sara had been positive so far, a romance between the two develops, as well as an alliance. Sara’s Autism didn’t drive her to make such a detrimental decision to protect August from being found out or to selfishly explore her sexuality with the student who essentially ruined her brother’s life.

Personally, I struggled to look past the couple’s actions to see the positive in their relationship, so I therefore missed the well-written nuance of it. When I begrudgingly went back to examine them further, there were some sweet moments highlighting the genuine chemistry and love they seemed to have had for one another; take August being available for Sara during her heartbreak at Felice’s horse being sold, or Sara’s occasionally blunt, awkward, yet intentionally helpful attempts at reassuring August or calming him down. Mutual respect is also present, but Sara’s wish to keep the relationship secret because of her fear of Simon and her friends’ rightfully horrified reactions brings the viewer back to the hideous reality of Sara’s selfishness and backstabbing behaviour, as well as August’s unforgivable actions. This is proof that she knew just how awful her actions were.

In conclusion…

Sara, like all the other characters, is incredibly flawed and, wonderfully, not one-dimensional. What the show does successfully is not give any kind of reason to excuse her behaviour in any way just because she is neurodivergent; in fact, she is treated just like the other nuanced characters in the show. Sara’s Autistic experience must never be invalidated, but it must also never blind someone’s perception of her character. Now that I had been able to finally get a grasp of the gem that was the multi-dimensional representation of Autism in Young Royals, there is hope that such understanding and research of the multiplicity of the spectrum will increase from a screenwriter’s end, and that much more satisfactory Autistic characters will be seen onscreen in the future.

Words by Aisha Oppong

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