Nothing lights up my social media feeds like something in pop culture that includes a character with autism. Last week, when Netflix introduced “Atypical,” an eight-episode series, I was immediately inundated with all kinds of reviews. Surprisingly, opinions appear to vary widely. Some people adore this show, while others are completely angered by it. Others are simply bored by it. One thing is clear: There are some very strong opinions out there about this series! I thought I’d share some interesting insights that I’ve read, as well as offer my own opinion.
“Atypical” focuses on Sam, an 18-year-old autistic boy who attends a regular high school, his sister, Casey, and his parents, Elsa and Doug. While most of the series focuses on Sam’s desire to have a girlfriend (and well, mostly… sex), each family member does have their own story line. (Eventually, another storyline becomes devoted to Julia, Sam’s therapist.) I have written in the past about how few characters there are with autism in pop culture, so seeing a show focus so squarely on autism is exciting to me.
Sam is very verbal, but processes language in very literal ways. He says things out loud that others might think of as private. Like many people with autism, he relies on “rules” to get through life – which he carefully documents in a notebook that he takes everywhere. In addition, Sam’s sensory processing issues make it difficult for him to get through a noisy, overstimulating world. He wears noise-canceling headphones and hides from people when he needs to.
If you have not seen the show, check out the trailer (which you can view below, or through this link):
What the Critics Say
This show is not perfect, but I am absolutely glued to it. I’ll get to why in a bit… first let’s look at what the critics have said. First, the New York Times weighed in, stating that Sam’s character is so familiar to us because we already see male-nerd characters like this all the time on TV. This is absolutely true, I think. We have seen characters like Sam in “The Big Bang Theory” (Sheldon) and in “Community” (Abed) – but those characters were never labeled as autistic in their respective shows. In my opinion, actually using the word “autistic” within a show to describe a character, is a big deal!
Matthew Rozsa, in an article in Salon, felt that “Atypical” presented autism in an offensive way, and all the characters in the show were simply stereotypes filling in roles that we have seen before in so many sitcoms. He ended his review by stating that “…it left me so underwhelmed that questions of under-representation became an afterthought. Honestly, the most enjoyment I got out of ‘Atypical’ was the opportunity to write this scathing review.” Ouch.
Probably the most poignant review has come from the best latest source of opinion and news coverage this decade, the surprisingly eloquent Teen Vogue Magazine. Mickey Rowe, an outspoken autistic actor, wrote about how upsetting he found the stereotype of Sam. Rowe is offended that Sam’s autism is presented as a joke, with a lot of laughs aimed at the character. He writes: “To me, ‘Atypical’ teaches us to laugh at people’s differences — and not in a good way. It is entirely possible that the show’s creators aimed to prove that Sam’s issues were the same as anyone else’s — who hasn’t felt awkward as a teenager or in relationships? But the way the storylines execute their punchlines and morals doesn’t seem to provide a lot of room to create those connections.” This is where I disagree with Mr. Rowe. I feel as though the humor really does make us sympathize with Sam! I feel closer to understanding the autistic experience by experiencing the laughter through him.
But, I do agree with Mr. Rowe on several points, including the fact that they did not consult with any autistic people in the making of this series.There were no autistic people consulted for the first season, and this needs to change. In the disability community, the phrase “nothing about us without us” is a constant refrain, and the show should take note of the politics involved if they don’t include autistic consultants for the next season.
“Atypical” is not a perfect depiction of autism, by any means. There are several storylines and performances I dislike. I am particularly unsettled by Julia, Sam’s therapist, who is seen teaching a college course about autism and laughing to her class about a particular discussion she has had with Sam. Her character, as a whole, seems unrealistic in so many ways. In addition, I find it odd that Sam is at a typical high school without a paraprofessional, holds an after-school job at Techtropolis, and yet still needs to have his sister carry his lunch money. That seems highly unlikely. The other characters are just okay to me. It’s true that the mother and father seem to be the stereotype for a white, heterosexual TV couple… but the world they do inhabit is familiar to me (after all, those are my labels, too), and I can’t help but watch to see how they handle things.
Sam is nothing like my autistic son, Quentin. Like most autistic characters portrayed in pop culture, he is very verbal and displays very few repetitive physical behaviors. That’s not my kid. And my family is really nothing like the family shown on “Atypical,” even though we are a white, heterosexual couple with a son on the spectrum and a daughter who is not. Other than those basic similarities, all of our personalities, interests, and behaviors are completely different. But that does not mean I cannot relate to the show.
In fact, I could not stop watching! I zoomed through the first eight episodes. I find that I relate to the very little things in this show. Here are my most relatable moments (with some possible spoilers, so skip these bullet points if necessary):
- Laughter: In one scene, Sam is taking a bus by himself. His interior monologue is thinking about Antartica and penguins (a favorite topic of his) when he thinks about something funny. Sam laughs out loud and other people stare at him. This reminds me so much of my non-verbal kid, who will giggle uncontrollably at what appears to be a random moment. I would so like to see Sam laughing more at his own thoughts and humor.
- The Language Debate: In the special needs support group, Doug is scolded because he does not use “person first language.” This brings up a debate that is really a source of conflict throughout the autism community. Some people insist that you should say “person with autism” to be politically correct, but it’s actually autistic self-advocates who argue that the exact opposite is preferable – just say “autistic person” instead. (I myself go back and forth on the language issue and use both versions interchangeably depending on my comfort level or grammatical needs.) The fact that it was brought up is both cringe-worthy and relatable.
- Siblings: I love Casey, Sam’s sister. While her character is nothing like my daughter, I do see some similarities: Her need for parental attention rings true, as well as her deep-seated need to protect her brother. She’s my favorite character in the series, as she is complex and multi-dimensional.
- Autism Acceptance: I was almost brought to tears Paige, the girlfriend, who asked the PTA if they could create a sensory-friendly Prom so Sam could attend. The idea was perfect (wireless headphones for group “silent disco” experiences are all the rage) and something that would appeal to all teenagers. This is autism acceptance at its best!
- A Glimmer of a Mention of a Kid Like Mine: Julia, Sam’s therapist, mentions to Doug (Sam’s Dad), that her brother is autistic. She shares a memory of her family being stuck in a parking lot, unable to leave until her brother has read all the license plates out loud. Wait… What? That sounds like Quentin! This is a quick moment, but I actually re-winded it to hear it again. If a likeness to my son’s version of autism is not depicted as a character in this show, at least there is a small reference to a behavior that sounds like him! I have learned to take these small morsels and rejoice in them, savoring them.
- The Meltdown: Finally, in the last episode, Sam had a meltdown on a bus which was hard to watch, but it was very accurate, in my mind. This is what an autistic meltdown can look like. Even the depiction of the post-meltdown – Sam curled up in a bed with blankets, watching a favorite video – is something I could relate to, as this is exactly how my son needs to calm down.
It’s these small moments of recognition and understanding that make me want to keep watching. At the heart of this show is a coming-of-age story that makes us sympathize so much with Sam. Adolescence is hard for everyone; it’s hard for autistic kids, too.
A Show for the Autism Moms
Ultimately, through all the positive and negative comments I was seeing on social media, I came to a conclusion: This is a show for Autism Moms. I realized that all the positive feedback on my social media feeds was coming from parents with autistic children – and most notably, the moms – just like me. Lisa, who writes the blog Atypical Familia, made it very clear in her review: “I laughed. I cried. ‘Atypical’ is all the damn feels.” I get you, Lisa! Yes, this show is not perfect, but I cannot stop watching.
Responses from other special needs moms were similar. So much of the content is relatable to parents. Eldina, posting on my Facebook page, wrote: “Although my son is only four, watching the show gives me hope that my son, too, can be high functioning once he enters HS. Looking forward to Season 2 for sure!” Marian shared that it was the brother-sister dynamics that made her love the show: “The sibling relationship in ‘Atypical’ is what I want for my kids. What some saw as dysfunction, I saw as what a relationship between an NT younger sibling and an older Autistic sibling should be–warm and funny, with fights and tears, and full of love. This is what a sibling relationship should be, and the best support our children could have.”
So, there you have it, Netflix – this may not be a show popular with the critics, or with autistic adults, but hey – you have the Autism Moms. We want to see more of this show. It’s not perfect… but then again, we Autism Moms already know that nothing is.