When I first started watching Dead End: Paranormal Park on Netflix, I noticed autistic traits in Norma. She’s awkward, passionate, and hesitant to touch people. Norma feels autistic-coded, right?
But that’s not it! Creator Hamish Steele started the series not as a TV show, but as a webcomic. Many readers said Norma seemed autistic to them. Steele said in an interview:
When I wrote the webcomics, I tried to make [Norma] “hashtag relatable.”…
I thought, Norma is autistic. So we had a consultant; we had autistic people on the crew. But every time I sent scripts or notes, the consultant said, “Wow, Hamish, you must have done so much research.” I was like, “I mean, a bit, but not really.” Long story short, I was diagnosed with autism during the show’s production.Hamish Steele
Not only did Steele write her as an autistic character, but Steele is autistic themselves. This helps Norma feel authentic.
It’s more than that too. Norma’s story avoids the worst autism tropes in fiction. (More on that soon.)
What are Norma’s Autistic Traits?
What made people think Norma is autistic? Let’s talk about some of the things she does. (Don’t worry. I’ll limit the spoilers.)
Norma shows signs of autism from the start. She obsesses over Pauline Phoenix, the actress who created the park. She knows all kinds of facts about the movies and the park. In fact, her knowledge saves Pugsley the dog early on.
Norma struggles socially. She flinches when Barney first offers a fist bump because she doesn’t know what he means. And it can be hard for her to make friends.
She also has a hard time recognizing people. This is especially true when they’re in a place she doesn’t expect. Many autistic people struggle with face blindness, so this makes sense.
The team-building episode dives into her struggles and fears. At one point, the guru tells her and her coworkers to make a “human knot” with their hands and untangle it. Norma’s stress grows until she curls up into a ball in fear and overwhelm.
But her different mind doesn’t just make her struggle. Norma fears things that feel fine to most people. But when it comes to things that scare most people, like demons, Norma handles them with grace. She stays calm while Barney shies away. This lets her keep her cool and save the day. Sometimes, seeing the world differently is an advantage.
Why Norma’s Story is One of the Best
Too many autistic characters show only an outside perspective. Think of shows like “Atypical” or “The Good Doctor.” The plot says, “these people are weird, so let’s talk about everyone else has to deal with it.” It can feel like a zoo showing you the bizarre creature known as Autism.
But the storytelling of Dead End: Paranormal Park helps you sympathize with Norma’s autistic experiences. It doesn’t set you up to laugh at her for being different. Instead, it treats her with the same respect that other characters get.
In fact, Norma’s moments of greatest distress are met with sympathy instead of judgment. When she struggles at the beach, Barney learns to understand her better. In a later episode, one of Norma’s key coping mechanisms is taken from her. Norma freezes and begins to cry.
In a classic “Autism Story,” this would be a moment to show how “difficult” Norma’s behavior is. But Barney would never think that. He runs to her side to help. And when another character judges Norma, Barney tells them in no uncertain terms to shut up. Then he returns to comforting Norma. When Norma struggles, she deserves help.
Norma is different. But her story isn’t about teaching others to put up with her. Instead, the characters (and the viewer) find ways to help and understand her.
Barney isn’t her teacher, her victim, or her counselor. He’s her partner and friend. They help each other.
How Dead End: Paranormal Park Helps Autistic People with Norma
When non-autistic people watch Dead End: Paranormal Park, they can learn from Norma. They’ll see examples of how to treat autistic people with respect. It shows them that autistic people need gentleness and understanding. And they’ll see characters making adjustments to help Norma feel comfortable and included in her own way.
Norma is never a burden to her friends. That’s important when so many autism stories say the opposite.
If you know a kid with an autistic sibling or classmate, this show would be great for them to watch. It models healthy behavior toward autistic people.
And it’s good for autistic viewers too. They get to see someone like them. They can watch Norma experiencing things that remind them of their own life. And when other characters treat Norma well, it sends the message that they deserve to be treated well.
The media teaches us things. It models lessons and social behavior. So when it shows an autistic character being respected, that matters.
What I’d Like to See from Season 2
First of all, I’d love a season 2. I hope Netflix renews this because I’m enjoying it.
While the creator of Dead End: Paranormal Park said Norma is autistic, no one says it in the movie. I’d love for the show to say the word for all to hear. Labels have power. If viewers see Norma labeled as autistic, it can help them understand autism better. Instead of thinking of Norma as quirky or “just anxious,” they can tie their understanding to autism. And that can help them let go of the many, many misconceptions that exist around autism.
Also, the story seems to hint at Norma and Badyah (aka Deathslide) being a potential couple. Those two have a sweet dynamic and I’d love to see it explored in season 2. We’ve already watched Barney’s cute romance begin, so let’s see some for Norma too! Autistic people can fall in love and be good partners. Plus, I love girls’ love stories.
Paranormal Park tackles so many ideas with grace and sensitivity. I think it’s one of the best cartoons I’ve ever seen. I’ll be recommending it to my sister. And if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it to you too!
We need more good autistic characters in fiction. Dead End: Paranormal Park offers us one.