I went in to the Netflix show Atypical prepared to hate it. I’d seen autistic people rip it apart online, the tone certain reviewers took when speaking about the show irritated me and the trailer did not seem very promising .
One of the criticisms of the show I heard from autistic people was that an autistic character was being played by an actor who is not autistic. There was a time when I would have said to myself “A neurotypical person playing an autistic person? Have these people who are complaining about that never heard of something called ACTING?”, hardy har har har! However, I’ve since changed my tune. Autistic people as a group tend to be marginalized. They tend to be denied job opportunities because those job oppurtunities are catered to neurotypicals, not autistics. Therefore when a job opportunity comes up that is catered towards autistic people, it seems like a real shame to not give that job to someone who’s actually autistic.
Furthermore, I was irritated by the way in which a certain reviewer responded to that criticism. He said that such a criticism was shortsighted because an actor of Gilchrist’s caliber can do a tremendous job of humanizing a condition like autism. Wow, thanks for not no subtly implying that autistic people are not fully human. Thank goodness we have neurotypical actors to humanize our condition for us. There’s no way someone who’s actually autistic could have brought humanity to such a role!
Then there was the actor from the show who described Atypical as going deep in to the magical world of the mind of someone with autism. Once again, thanks for implying that autistic people aren’t quite human. Magical is an acceptable word to use when describing fairies, pixies or elves. It’s not an acceptable word to use when describing autistic people. If a magical carpet ride is what you’re after, maybe you should watch Aladdin instead.
And you know what? It really does grate on the nerves to see a neurotypical person talk about how challenging it is to play an autistic character on a TV show when you’ve faced the challenge of actually living with autism every single day of your life.
Then I watched the trailer and it was so centered on sex, romance and boobs, that I was afraid the show was basically going to be American Pie goes Autistic. It ended up having more heart than that though.
I was hooked from the beginning when it opened with Sam, the main character, sitting in front of his therapist twirling a rubber band. I do that all the time. There was also a scene toward the end that resonated with me. It involved Sam asking a restaurant for spaghetti with just butter on top. That’s one of my favorite dishes and I always have a hard time convincing waiters that it’s what I actually want.
There were various scenes throughout the series that I could relate to. In general I’m not quite as literal minded or socially inappropriate as Sam is but I’ve certainly had my moments. I don’t have sensory issues to the degree that Sam and many people on the autism spectrum do but one of the sensory aversions I did have involved romantic contact. Luckily, unlike with poor Sam, in my case, it didn’t result in me physically injuring anyone.
Overall I found the series funny and touching. There were several scenes that made me laugh and a few that warmed my heart. I heard complaints that this show was laughing at people with autism. I don’t approve of mocking or teasing an autistic person if they’re not laughing with you but the best advice I can give to anyone on the autism spectrum is to cultivate a sense of humor about yourself. A dark one if necessary because let’s face it, if you’re on the autism spectrum your life is probably going to be rather dark at times. So rather than being devastated or humiliated by all those social blunders you make, once you’ve learned from them, laugh at them. It will make a hard life that much easier. There’s a stereotype that autistic people don’t have senses of humor but it’s mostly just a stereotype. I’ve met some autistic people with great senses of humor.
Another complaint about the show was that it perpetuated stereotypes about autism. Yes, it does perpetuate stereotypes but let’s look at it for what it is-a fictional dramedy show. Is there anyone on a sitcom who doesn’t get stereotyped? I imagine the creators of this show did want to advocate for and spread awareness about autism but they also wanted their show to do well, requiring them to entertain a mostly neurotypical audience.
I think this show will help by spreading awareness of what is known as high functioning autism AKA autism that is accompanied by adequate or advanced verbal skills. Many people think of autism as only applying to those with limited verbal abilities, to the point that they won’t believe that people on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum are actually autistic. There have been shows that feature characters who have characteristics of high functioning autism but those shows have mostly shied away from using the A word.
This show highlights autism from the perspective of a straight white male and that frustrates autistic people in the more underrepresented groups. Autism varies highly from person to person, even among straight white males. It would be impossible for one character to show all the different facets of autism. That’s why I wish that instead of having Sam’s mom visit a support group for parents of autistic kids, we’d seen Sam visit a support group for autistic people. That way we would have gotten a more diverse perspective on the different people that are affected by autism and the different ways in which they are affected.
Moreover, I wish we’d learned more about the effect autism has on areas of Sam’s life aside from romance. Romance is very important in the lives of many people but it shouldn’t be the be all end all of anyone’s life whether they be neurotypical or autistic and it shouldn’t be the sole focus point of a show about autism. It would have been nice if we’d learned more about how autism affects Sam academically, vocationally and in terms of platonic relationships. He’s on the cusp of adulthood, which means he is experiencing a push towards independence. I would have liked to know what his plans are for the near future, whether they include college, a full time job or living away from his family. These are important, challenging issues for any young adult to navigate and they present special challenges to young adults on the autism spectrum.
More time could have been devoted to exploring these aspects of Sam’s life if less time had been devoted to the other characters. I get the importance of focusing on other characters but I don’t think we needed to know so much about the personal life of Sam’s psychologist or about his mother’s affair. I’ll admit that I laughed when Sam’s mother saw the word ‘slut’ on stop signs but the slut shaming was irritating and the whole affair storyline was awkward.
I guess the point of focusing so much on other characters is to reinforce the show’s message of “No one’s normal/everyone’s weird”. The other characters certainly behave in bizarre ways at times, especially Sam’s girlfriend. The “No one’s normal” message can feel a little condescending and dismissive when used by a neurotypical person to comfort an autistic person because neurotypical abnormalities aren’t really comparable to autistic abnormalities in terms of the societal response they tend to garner. But if the intended message is that neurotypical people should stop judging autistic people for their differences because they’ve got their own shit and normal isn’t something to aspire to anyway, I can get on board with that.
Since the producers of this show didn’t hire an autistic actor, they could have at least consulted autistic people when doing their research but they mostly stuck to neurotypical autism experts and it shows. There’s a scene where Sam’s father gets reprimanded for using the term “autistic person” rather than “person with autism” in the parent support group. I wonder if the creators of this show realize that most people on the autism spectrum prefer “autistic person” and dislike “person with autism”.
Despite my criticisms of Atypical, I did end up genuinely enjoying a show I was fully prepared to hate watch. There’s much that could be improved upon and expanded on but that’s what Season 2 is for.