In April 2020 Netflix released the first season of Special. Ryan O'Connell is creator, writer and star of the series, based on his 2015 memoir I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves. The book and series pull directly from O'Connell's life of hiding his cerebral palsy behind injuries sustained from a car accident.
"I moved to New York and people were like, 'Oh my God, your limp, it's all from your accident,' and I was like, 'Twist! It is!'" O'Connell told NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg that, at the time, he thought it was easier to go with a false explanation that everyone could immediately understand. "Now, obviously lying who you are ends up being kinda bad for yourself," he said.
O'Connell kept his CP a secret from his friends and co-workers for four years. During that time he began his writing career in his early 20s for the website Thought Catalog, where he wrote popular humor pieces like, "How to be a 20 Something" and "How to Appear Cooler on Facebook than You Really Are."
His writing got the attention of a book publisher, and at age 25 he was offered a book deal. "Miraculously, I realized I was going to use this opportunity to write about my cerebral palsy. I went to Simon & Schuster for a kickoff meeting and was like, 'actually I don't want to write the book I initially pitched to you - so sorry about that. But I want to write about my cerebral palsy.' And they were really supportive."
O'Connell said that writing truthfully about his life, for the first time, was a challenge. "I hadn't processed any of my stuff, at all. I didn't have the language to describe internalized ableism or what it meant to be disabled in this culture. I was unpacking it in real time for a book. Which I would not recommend. It was too soon. I was too young. I had no business writing it. I mean, I'm glad - because I think the show [Special] is a more evolved version."
The new season of Special features some new details from his life, like his love of swing sets. "In season 2, my character goes on the swings and he ignores children that want to go on the swings. And that's really ripped from the headlines. Like, kids are always tapping their feet impatiently waiting for me to get off - but I just look away and pretend I don't see them because I deserve to be there too."
For his Ask Me Another challenge, O'Connell played a game that combines his love of the Olsen twins and the reality series The Real Housewives with geography.
On using "LOL" in everyday speech
Here's the deal... Talking is so boring. You have to do it all the time, so to me, I have to mix it up otherwise I will fall asleep.
On his love of the Olsen twins
I grew with them and I have loved their evolution from sort of basic tween stars and then their pivot into NYU fashionista, boho chic, to being CFDA nominee award winning whatever fashion designers. I love where they have landed though because they are so kooky, so chic, so fragile, so insane and I could look at paparazzi photos of them forever.