There has been a lot of buzz lately about Netflix’s new show Atypical, which revolves around how one fictional family experiences autism. Being “atypical” myself, I was waiting very patiently to watch and review Atypical. Before the show even aired, there was controversy in the autism community about how Keir Gilchrist, the actor who plays an autistic high school senior named Sam, is not autistic himself. Autistic actors such as Mickey Rowe, who plays an autistic character on Broadway, commented on the controversy when he reviewed the first episode. Further, no autistic people were consulted for the show. How could I not want to watch it?
Naturally, I binge watched Atypical. I couldn’t wait to see how the mainstream television was going to talk about autism. I’m sure I’ll be thinking similarly when ABC premiers its new show, The Good Doctor. The last time I saw autism talked about on television was with NBC’s Parenthood, where we saw Max Braverman grow up from his initial diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome at age 7 up until his high school years. Since Parenthood ended after a critically appraised run, it was about time for a refreshing take from an autistic perspective, and there’s where Atypical swoops in.
Atypical focuses on Sam Gardner, an autistic high school senior who is extremely passionate about penguins and really wants a relationship with a girl, and the rest the Gardner family: his autism warrior mom Elsa, ashamed paramedic father Doug, and his track star younger sister Casey. All of them have varying storylines of their own: Elsa’s infidelity, Doug’s acceptance of his son’s autism, and Casey’s promising athletic future and her first boyfriend (who also is a little bit of a troublemaker).
Here are the the things I absolutely loved about Atypical:
Sam is successfully employed at a computer electronics store. Oftentimes, autistic people are discriminated against in the workplace, or do not have the opportunity to work any job. This detail of Sam’s character eases my fears about integrating autistic adults into the community. To the contrary, Sam is a high school senior and has an after-school/weekend job. His boss seems understanding of his autism. Sam is even best friends with one of his co-workers and fellow high school students, Zahid. Sam’s relationship with Zahid is positive – Zahid is concerned with Sam’s sex life, and tries to help however he can, from unsuccessfully taking Sam to a strip club, to interrupting customer interactions to assure Sam, to using his own girlfriend’s employee discount at Claire’s to help Sam give a girl a gift.
Sam’s mother Elsa, sister Casey, and Sam’s classmate-turned-girlfriend Paige, are all fierce advocates for Sam. I consider this a double-edged sword since Sam is not an advocate for himself, except when he stands up to Elsa when he says that he is capable of picking out his own clothes and going to the mall without his noise canceling headphones even though the lights, sounds, and the waterfall at the mall are enough to make him overwhelmed and have a meltdown. Sam is willing to better himself, even if it’s only with the goal of finding a girlfriend of getting to lose his virginity, or to please his therapist (who he has a crush on). But before even going to the mall, his mom calls the manager and demands accommodations for her son. I respect and admire Elsa’s determination, but she also really just needs to believe in Sam and give him a chance to try before having to attempt to save the day. Casey stands up to other kids at their high school, makes sure he has lunch money, and tries to protect him from getting hurt by Paige. I also respected when Paige went to the PTA meeting to make the Winter Formal more accessible overall by successfully proposing a silent disco Winter Formal instead of the flashing strobe lights, loud music experience most of us are familiar with at school dances – and at said PTA meeting, we see a lot of parents lash out at Sam’s mom, thinking that she put Paige up to this (she didn’t). I did empathize when Elsa talked about how there are bigger concerns than hairdos for Sam, and that there are different concerns with special needs children.
I also have to give a nod to Sam’s father, Doug. There were a lot of touching interactions between father and son, as Doug aims to better understand his 18-year-old son. Doug is frustrated with his son’s diagnosis. He initially left the family shortly after Sam’s diagnosis, came back, and after hiding Sam’s diagnosis from a work colleague for years, Doug realizes his internalized shame about Sam. He aims to become the expert – he attends Elsa’s autism parent support group (where he immediately corrected about everything), talks to Sam’s therapist, apologizes to Elsa, and works on building a better relationship with Sam. So many parents are in denial that something is different about their children, and it was touching to see Doug come around and accept that autism is a large part of who Sam is.
My favorite performance of the show was Casey’s. Casey is a complex character with varying emotions, and a lot of teenage angst. She is frustrated by feeling empty or invisible in comparison to Sam. Her relationship with both of her parents is strained. She realizes her father left when Sam was diagnosed, and resents that her mother doesn’t seem to give her the attention and affection she desperately needs. Casey’s boyfriend has to stand up for her and shout at the dinner table for her parents to even acknowledge that Casey is being recruited by a top private school to run track, because it paled in comparison to Sam making a pro-con list to determine whether or not he liked Paige, and Paige sharing with everybody that she found Sam’s list. Her experiences are valid, complicated, and give Atypical a heart. I was really looking forward to all of Casey’s scenes, and again, admired her for standing up for Sam when she has enough to grapple with on her own besides feeling protective of her older brother.
Here are the things I absolutely disliked about Atypical:
Other than giving into television stereotypes of Sam initially wanting an intimate relationship with his therapist, coming of age stories, Elsa’s steamy affair with the bartender, and good-girl athlete Casey falling for a bad boy, I had genuine concerns about the show and its portrayal of autism.
Sam is totally the stereotypical higher functioning autistic character, except he isn’t obsessed with trains. Otherwise, he’s a perfect stereotype. Nobody is a perfect stereotype in real life. Sam simply misses every social cue, finds every excuse possible to talk about penguins and Antarctica, and appears inherently selfish and inconsiderate. He becomes the joke. He knows he’s weird, and he doesn’t really care, except when it comes to his quest to have a girlfriend and have sex. He ignores people’s feelings, and every line of dialogue he has somehow involves a social misstep. With autism, it isn’t always this obvious, and at least for me, the awkward moments and miscues are more nuanced. These stereotypes are damaging to autistic people, their families, and their friends. Instead of helping us, the show hurts us by falsely portraying us as creepy, insensitive, and just really awkward.
I was particularly disturbed by Sam’s relationship with Paige. There was a scene where he locked her in a closet because he was upset that she was touching all of the stuff in his room and ultimately touched his pet turtle. Obviously, his parents tell him to stop and know this isn’t okay. But Sam’s behavior absolutely is not typical of autistic people. It is consistent with abusive relationships, and people with disabilities and autistic people are far more likely to be the abused than the abusers. Atypical flips that fact straight on its head when Sam locks Paige in a closet, and not only is Paige okay with it, she takes one of Sam’s sweatshirts as a souvenir.
Paige also tries to defend her Winter Formal silent disco success to the student body after the PTA meeting. She explains how silent discos were ways to have raves and then makes some off-color joke about something that meth addicts and autistic people have in common. I know Paige’s heart is in the right place, but something about Paige makes me think she sees Sam as a zoo exhibit (after all, they did bond over biology class) or a case study. I don’t see how Sam makes her happy, nor did I see how she made Sam happy until he realized he was focusing too much on her being annoying like when she touched all his stuff. I do agree with Sam on one thing though – Paige is kind of annoying, in a do-gooder “I totally understand autism and am now the autism expert” way, but Sam likely is the only autistic person she’s ever known. Sam is the expert, not Paige, and not his family, and Atypical fails to capitalize on Sam’s potential to be the audience’s voice of reason about autism and the autistic experience.
Building on Doug attending the autism parent support group, I cringed a little bit when the parents immediately corrected and shamed Doug for saying the word “autistic” and absolutely insisting he used person first language and show disgust when he uses autism cure rhetoric. Saying “autistic” is not a bad thing. Some people do want a cure for autism and others do not. The support group rules are naturally a confusing dichotomy – autistic communities are against a cure and prefer identity-first language. Doug redeems himself from this patronizing support group when he declares that he frankly doesn’t care about whatever the proper language is, his son is still on the autism spectrum regardless of the words used.
In the words of Sam’s mom Elsa, “it’s okay to be a little selfish.” Elsa says this to Casey after her friends turned on her when she applied to the private school for track, but Casey feared leaving Sam to his own devices and putting a strain on the family financially. Elsa encouraged her with the line, “it’s okay to be a little selfish.” It’s okay to be a little selfish for my autistic friends and supportive autism allies to skip Atypical, fearing that the show further stigmatizes autism.
And my message to the autistic community – like Sam’s penguins – we need to just keep swimming because we have a lot of work to do in order to be accurately represented on television and to be heard by everybody else.