By Nils Skudra
Recently I have begun watching Astrid, a 2019 French miniseries which revolves around a criminal records specialist with Asperger’s Syndrome who uses her pattern-driven thinking to solve murder cases together with her neurotypical colleague. This show provides an intriguing look at the experiences of autistic individuals and the unique strengths and challenges that they have, including specialization in their fields of interest, a highly detail-oriented mindset, and difficulties with social cues and earning acceptance from neurotypical peers. Therefore, I felt that the miniseries merited a film review so that PBS viewers may be encouraged to watch Astrid and gain new insights about the lives of people on the autism spectrum.
Astrid Nielsen (portrayed by Sara Mortensen) is a young woman who works in the Criminal Records Division of the police headquarters in Paris. As an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome, she displays a variety of traits that most of her neurotypical peers ridicule and ostracize her for. These include a tendency known as “info-dumping,” which involves unloading a great deal of information about her topic of specialization without consideration for other people’s interest.
In addition, she is accustomed to following a strictly established routine, and therefore any deviation from that routine is unthinkable for her. For example, when Astrid is in the cafeteria, she brings a meal to a table where a couple is sitting and waits for them to respond to her, but they pay her no mind, after which she leaves. Initially, this may give the impression that she is volunteering at the cafeteria and is trying to deliver the meal, but it is later revealed that she was waiting for the couple to leave the table since this is the table that she always sits at for lunch, which she says she cannot have if her table is occupied.
Astrid’s tendencies are very common among autistic people since they often have a very singular mindset which involves following strict routines and focusing very narrowly on their subject of interest. In addition, since they tend to lack social inhibitions, autistic individuals often speak their mind very bluntly, which can have the effect of alienating their peers. This is manifested in Astrid’s interactions with her neurotypical colleague, detective Raphaëlle Coste (Lola Dewaere), who initially doesn’t understand Astrid’s particular quirks and is experiencing her own challenges with a divorce in which her ex-husband has custody of their son.
For example, when they are working together on a murder case, Astrid remarks that Raphaëlle is very unpredictable, which she blames for their lack of progress in the investigation. She crosses boundaries, however, when she states, “No wonder you don’t have custody of your son!” This infuriates Raphaëlle, who replies, “You can’t even look a person in the eye when you insult them. Go back to your bubble.” Consequently, this exchange brings about a brief period of estrangement.
Astrid also displays a series of unique intellectual strengths which prove invaluable for her work in Criminal Records. Since she is highly detail-oriented and thinks in terms of patterns, she can decipher clues from the compiled evidence in murder cases, some of which have been unresolved for years. This brings her to the attention of Raphaëlle, who enlists Astrid in working on a series of mysterious murders that have recently occurred. Initially, Astrid is resistant to this since her supervisor, an old friend of her deceased father, has warned her about the pressures of being a full-time investigator, as he is concerned about the impact of the accompanying sensory overload on her stress level.
It is further revealed through flashbacks that Astrid has previously experienced this in the form of bullying at school, where her classmates ridiculed her for correcting the information given by their teacher during a lecture. Although one female student seemed to show genuine kindness and interest in learning about Astrid’s knowledge about famous mathematicians, she later shared this information with the rest of the class in a mocking manner, prompting the other students to call Astrid “Rainwoman,” which led her to cover her ears in panic. This manifests itself again when the media crowds around Astrid and asks her questions about the investigation, and she becomes overwhelmed by the multitude of questions and flash photography and leaves the scene with her ears covered before Raphaëlle intervenes.
Despite Astrid’s reservations about becoming involved in the investigation, Raphaëlle encourages her to make her own decision by appealing to her interest in solving puzzles and patterns. This leads Astrid to join Raphaëlle, and her unique skills prove highly critical in solving their cases. In the process, they develop a close friendship, although Raphaëlle is sometimes irritated by Astrid’s bluntness. She, in turn, is introduced to an autism support group that Astrid attends, and she acquires valuable insights from listening to the other participants’ stories of their experiences with autism
For example, the group leader tells Raphaëlle that Astrid will be unresponsive to other topics that she has no specialization in, but once the topic of puzzles is raised, she will immediately delve into that topic and share a vast amount of information about it. This is illustrative of the singular mindset that often characterizes autistic individuals since the narrow focus on their subject of interest can lead them to excel in that area, but it can also sometimes put them at a disadvantage when they must tackle other subjects.
This has been true of my own experience since I have a strong passion for U.S. history, particularly the Civil War/Reconstruction period, which I have specialized in throughout my college and graduate school education but have struggled with math and science. For Raphaëlle, this knowledge gives her a new understanding of how to work with Astrid, whose pattern-oriented thinking makes her a highly important asset to their investigation.
In summation, Astrid is a compelling and sensitive depiction of the ways in which Asperger’s Syndrome can provide people with both valuable intellectual skills and significant social challenges and how they can harness these skillsets to their professional advantage. Sara Mortensen delivers a superb portrayal of Astrid, brilliantly capturing her unique tendencies and bringing a profound sense of empathy to the role. Dewaere similarly brings a stellar performance to her depiction of Raphaëlle, embodying her evolving compassion and understanding for Astrid.
Furthermore, the miniseries touches upon a wide variety of aspects of the experiences of Asperger’s individuals, including bullying, social ostracism, and the ways in which their intellectual strengths can make them valuable professionals. By watching this series, PBS viewers can hopefully develop a new understanding of autism and an appreciation for the potential of autistic individuals for academic and professional success.