Netflix’s latest original comedy Atypical has found itself as the point of contention for many in the autistic community this month: with some praising its portrayal of autism as ‘light-hearted and uplifting’ whilst others condemn it as ‘unlikable’ and ‘dull’.
Regardless of my opinion though, today I wanted to discuss where I believe these negative views are coming from, as I believe that behind, what has become a bit of a sore spot for many, lies a show with a lot of heart, a lot of depth and honestly one of the best portrayals of autism currently out there.
What Atypical gets Wrong:
So what makes Atypical different from every other coming of age comedy (other than its well earned rating of ’15’) is that lead character Sam is autistic. The weird thing about this (which is also where the show slips up for me and many others) is that, in trying to do this new twist on the genre, the show’s writers have unwillingly created yet another generic autistic portrayal.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the main character of this show is a quirky, literal thinker, who is socially challenged and has a narrow, offbeat obsession (in this case the Antarctic) – It’s the autistic cliché: the one which we have seen over and over again, and if you really want to nit-pick, it would also be easy to complain that Sam is yet another, straight, white, male depiction (although this is more of an issue with the film and TV industry, than that of the autistic portrayal itself).
This is something which has largely divided the autistic community, as for many it serves as a reminder of how little film has progressed in its depiction of autism since Rain Man. Granted, I do also agree with this, however, my argument for accepting it, is that the show just wouldn’t work if Sam was any other way.
Sam needs to be awkward, he needs to be quirky and I get that there is way more to autism than that. However, these are all essential ingredients in making Atypical’s amateur romantic hero both hopeless and hilarious (On which note it’s also important to mention that we are never expected to laugh directly at Sam’s autism, and in most cases the humour comes from the supporting cast’s inability to grasp it).
This is why, I personally feel that some reviewers have chosen to be negative about Atypical. It’s not a direct fault of the show but more an angry response to a lack of development within the industry itself. Simply put, Atypical serves as the straw that broke the community’s back.
What Atypical gets Right:
So, if I agree that Sam’s character is an overused autistic stereotype, then why do I believe that Atypical is currently the best portrayal of autism that we have? Well that’s because this article isn’t called ‘the new face of autism: Sam’, it’s called the ‘the new face of autism: Atypical’.
Atypical is a perfect example of how autism doesn’t just affect an individual. This can be seen in how the show takes time to focus on the ripples Sam causes amongst his friends and family.
From what it’s like to date someone with autism to what it’s like having an autistic sibling, there are few topics which aren’t covered in the show’s warts and all approach, in portraying the high and lows of autism. I believe this is something which is both brave and to be admired.
For me, the best example of this, is in the exaggerated way in which both Sam’s parents are shown responding to his autism. As what could easily be shrugged off as over-the-top characters at first, slowly develop into very grounded representations of the two extremes of how people can react to autism:
- Dad Doug tries to ignore his son’s autism and avoid any discussion of it altogether. In doing so, he falls victim of the age old saying of ‘you can’t outrun your problems’.
- Whilst ‘mom’ Elsa [insert frozen reference here] tries to take Sam’s autism head on. She discovers that in constantly spending her life trying to control it, it now controls her – I guess she couldn’t… ‘let it go’ (God I hate myself sometimes).
Atypical approaches this with a lot of tact. In a much worse programm, I can easily imagine one these two characters appearing in a scene where one of them snaps, has a breakdown and destroys every object in sight. Thankfully, this is something which never happens. Instead the characters react in much more realistic, emotional outbursts, giving many of the shows more upsetting moments, an unsettling feeling of familiarity.
I won’t say more than that for today though, as I don’t want to spoil the show for people who are still yet to watch it. I will however say that if you are still undecided, just take the plunge. Atypical is a refreshing take on a tried and tested formula which, I believe, will have you questioning, whether you have ever seen a better depiction of autism.
Carry on the Conversation:
But that’s just my opinion, so now it’s time to hear from you: Have you seen Atypical yet? what did you think of it? As always I look forward to hearing from you in the comments below.
For a more direct way to contact me, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading, and I will see you next Saturday for more thoughts from across the spectrum.