Growing up on the autism spectrum is far from easy. While I was diagnosed at 2 years old, I did not notice that my behavior was extremely different from that of my peers until middle school. Even now during college, I notice that other students who are either my age or even younger, have aged more than me, both mentally and emotionally.
Seeing how much further ahead than me people are in life adds to my insecurities. Whenever I try to escape my real-life struggles of understanding people and society, I turn to fiction. During middle school when I was at the peak of my crisis of not belonging, I turned to “Lab Rats,” a show on Disney XD that started in 2012 and followed Leo (Tyrel Jackson Williams) whose mom, Tasha (Angel Parker), marries tech billionaire Donald Davenport (Hal Sparks). After moving into Davenport’s house, three bionic teenagers who have been sheltered away from the real world are discovered by Leo.
The bionic teens are Adam (Spencer Boldman) who has super-strength, Bree (Kelli Berglund) who has super-speed and Chase (William Brent) who has super-intelligence. The siblings being shut away from the real world and craving human interaction but not knowing how to initiate contact is relatable to a neurodivergent person such as myself.
While I was able to relate to some of the things presented on this show, that does not mean that these are accurate representations of neurodivergence, nor does it mean that all neurodivergent experiences are the same.
This article will go over particular scenes and storylines from the show that I related to throughout my journey of growing up on the autism spectrum.
Sensitivity to everyday things
Chase’s bionics not only provide him with super-intelligence, but also with heightened sensitivity to things such as sound or dust. In the first episode of the show, “Crush, Chop, and Burn,” Leo sneaks the bionic trio out to his high school, and when the class bell rings Chase freaks out and has a physical reaction to the sound.
There have been many instances of supermarket music making me uncomfortable due to its rapid tempo, especially stores that played old school Italian and opera music. I also tend to shudder whenever people are close to me and get too loud, or when multiple conversations are going on at once and I have to pay attention to one.
Naivety in social interactions
One of the biggest conflicts to happen in “Lab Rats” was the fight against Marcus (Mateus Ward). When first introduced, Marcus appeared to be a whiny pre-teen who wanted to wedge himself into the lives of Adam, Bree and Chase while pushing Leo out. While Marcus was nice to the bionic siblings, he was nasty to Leo.
From “Concert in a Can” (season 1, episode 19) to “Bionic Showdown” (season 2, episodes 14-15), Leo would constantly tell Adam, Bree and Chase that Marcus had threatened him or brought up suspicions about him as well. The Davenport siblings would just tell Leo that he was crazy and that Marcus was to be trusted.
In the end, the siblings were wrong, as Marcus turned out to be a bionic android intent on following one mission–to kidnap Adam, Bree and Chase and eliminate Donald and Leo.
While I was yelling “believe Leo” at the siblings through the screen, it is important to acknowledge that they did not have friends other than Leo, nor the ability to figure out how to deem someone trustworthy. And when it comes to finding belonging in a place where you know you are different from everyone else, you get a little desperate to find friendship.
During middle school, I had a bunch of friends who I now realize were not my friends. I constantly go back to memories of them making comments about my weight and appearance, my odd interests – ironically including “Lab Rats” – and them going off to hang out with people from their circle. I did not know that those comments were made to mock me until late in my high school career, when I made friends that actually respected and loved me.
Just like Adam, Bree and Chase, I had “friends” who did not care about me. After graduating middle school, none of my peers reached out to me, and I realized they were not truly my friends.
Fighting for belonging, and messing that up
Something that Leo and I have in common is that we will go to great lengths to impress people that we believe we may have a shot at being friends with. And sometimes we go a little too far with those lengths.
For instance, in “Air Leo” (season 1, episode 16), Leo signs up for a basketball tournament despite not being athletic, just to impress Janelle (Madison Pettis). Leo ends up using sneakers designed to give people extra bounce when jumping, therefore securing his chances of winning. Janelle finds out about his cheating and gets upset; while Leo proves himself to be integral later on by playing the game without cheating, it showed how far Leo went to impress a girl that he liked.
As someone who still finds it hard to make friends and determine whether those people like me, I will go to great lengths to ensure my friendships last. People pleasing and constant niceties are common things I can relate to when building connections.