By Kami-Leigh Agard
It’s 1 a.m., and I’m channel surfing as my daughter sleeps peacefully beside me. Landing on my go-to favorite channel, 13 (PBS-WNET), I am dumbstruck when I discover, “Astrid et Raphaëlle,” a French whodunit sleuth series centered on the unlikely relationship between two women: Astrid, who is autistic and works in the Paris Police Criminal Records department, and District Commander Raphaëlle Coste, a well-meaning, yet emotionally all-over-the-place detective. The two develop a partnership in solving cases together, with Astrid continually discovering key details or connecting incidents the police investigators miss. I’m immediately drawn in because the series’ namesake is autistic, and curious to see how the show treats the subject of autism. Was Astrid going to be typecasted as a savant-like “Rain Man” or would the show pivot that clichéd route, and instead take a deep dive into all the nuances of what it means to be autistic in a neurotypical (NT)-dominated world?
Spoiler alert! The series is in French with English subtitles. However, the translation is brilliant in how it captures the humor, charm and authenticity of the characters. In the first episode, (Series 1), the show opens with Commander Coste’s (“Raph”) first encounter with Astrid when she is investigating a suspicious suicide. Astrid’s responsibilities at the criminal records office are to scan and file case records, but she has a photographic memory, and quite nimble in finding patterns. However, despite Astrid’s reluctance to emerge from the safety of her quiet records office and anything that would thwart her daily routine, Raph is able to lure Astrid into helping her solve a case (a revenge plot involving voodoo zombie dust). You might say Raph is manipulative, even callous because she discovers Astrid’s hook is puzzle solving, and uses that as bait to lure Astrid into assisting her. Soon Astrid is not waiting to be summoned to consult but is tagging along automatically every time there’s a puzzle to solve, promising murder.
However, an endearing element of the series is the symbiotic relationship developed between Astrid and Raph. Astrid’s textbook autistic behavioral traits are quite pronounced. For example, she doesn’t make eye contact, wears noise-cancelling headphones to block out surrounding noise, panics in crowds, her gait and fidgety movements, staccato and precise speech, unbending routine, and obsession with puzzles. Juxtapose these with Raph’s (who in some respects, reminds me of myself): always late, disorganized, rule-breaking, impulsive, has a chaotic social life, with a separated husband, joint custody of a child, and challenges with committed relationships. While the two women are polar opposites, as the series progresses, they become drawn to each other, and a genuine affection is born.
Raph starts attending an autistic adult self-help group with Astrid to learn what the NT (neurotypical) world feels like for individuals on the spectrum. Throughout the series, there are heart wrenching flashbacks of Astrid as a child, when she was teased mercilessly in school until the headmaster insisted that she go elsewhere, being abandoned by her mother, the death of her devoted father, and the overwhelming everyday challenges of coping in a NT world. One particularly tearjerking scene is when Astrid gave Raph a thimble for her birthday. Here’s the dialogue: Raph: “Why did you give me a thimble?” Astrid: “It is you.” Raph: “It’s me? What do you mean?” Astrid: “To sew, you must use a needle. But you can get hurt. So, you can choose not to sew, or you can accept the fact that you could get hurt. Or you can choose to put on a thimble to protect yourself.”
“Astrid et Raphaëlle,” is a dazzling tour de force in realistically portraying the world of autism, and illustrating how patience, love and understanding can help autistic individuals feel accepted and valued in a sometimes-obtuse world. While the concept of a crime sleuth who is considered “atypical” is not new, and certainly the odd couple story is as old as time, “Astrid et Raphaëlle,” feels fresh and lends hope to autistic advocacy.
You can find “Astrid et Raphaëlle” on channel 13 (PBS-WNET) or on the PBS Masterpiece channel on Amazon Prime, Roku or Xfinity1.
Rockaway Beach Autism Families’ next family support group meeting is today—Thursday, October 26 via Zoom. Also, join us at our Annual Halloween Beach Treasure Hunt happening this Sunday, October 29 at 11 a.m. For more information, visit Rockaway Beach Autism Families on Facebook or Instagram.