As any long-time reader of this blog will know, media representations of Autism are a tricky thing. Everyone wants to be progressive it seems, and they all want a piece of the neurodiversity pie – which, I should say, is awesome because more allies are always welcome! The problem is, however, that such people are often not fully aware of exactly what ASD really is. Because of this, many (not all – I’ve already mentioned in the past how awesome both Pidge Gunderson and Billy Cranston are as positive representations of autistics and aspies in media) shows that try to present a nuanced, positive view of life on the Spectrum fall flat on their faces while passing through stereotype land…as though they were Sideshow Bob stepping on a thousand rakes one at a time yet still not learning from the experience. This is exactly where Netflix’s new series ‘Atypical’ finds itself, and if I’m being honest, it is a show that has conflicted me to the core.
The thing about a show like ‘Atypical’ is that – contrary to what you might read on several Neurodiversity blogs – it’s not ALL bad. If it was, this would be far easier. The fact is, I actually found quite a bit to like about this show. As autistic main characters go, Sam may be problematic, but he’s far from unlikeable. He’s an awkward, nerdy, isolated teenager lost in his own rich inner world, and who connects with real life through the lens of his own intense special interests – an approach to life which is intimately familiar to me, and to which all of those on the Spectrum should be able to relate in some form. When we first get to hear Sam’s internal monologue and realize that he makes sense of his dating life through his understanding of the mating life of penguins? I was smiling ear to ear, remembering all the times I’d done that myself with video games, computers, Star Trek and Star Wars. The fact that he has such a supportive and accepting best friend throughout the run of the show – one who never once makes a big deal of or points out Sam’s autism as a failing – adds to the list of things I found impossible not to like about this show. On some level, it’s charming and you can’t help but smile.
On the other hand, there’s a far uglier side to all of this. Shockingly, I don’t even necessarily mean Sam’s mom – a character who built her entire existence around Sam’s autism and protecting him from the world. In her case, I was surprised to realize after the first few episodes that she was essential as both a commentary on the excesses of parents’ groups and as a foil for Sam – a barrier he could overcome and grow because of it. Even his father – despite some ball-dropping on his part – manages to be extremely likeable. He pushes Sam to try things even when his mother doesn’t believe him capable, and despite his many personal failings, he always tries to bond with his son as a human being – something I really appreciated seeing. The problem isn’t with either of Sam’s parents individually; it’s with when they come together as a familial whole. Taken as a group, the show definitely communicates that Sam’s Autism is somehow a burden to his family – his mother is driven to an affair because of his autism and how invested she became, his father laments the son he never had, and his sister feels as though she can’t live her own life because of him. While true to life in that this is a sad reality that impacts many families, it is also an unfortunate message to be sending in a show that is supposed to be about raising consciousness around the lived experience of neurodiverse individuals. If Atypical truly wanted to make a statement, it would present a family that didn’t consider Sam to be a burden, and instead focussed on all of the hilarious misadventures and challenges that affect those on the Spectrum. Trust me, there’s enough material there alone to write a compelling and funny series about.
On that note, Sam’s characterization is also slightly problematic…mainly due both to how inconsistently he’s written and how one dimensional he sometimes comes across. As I’ve mentioned above, when Sam is written right, he’s a loveable, awkward weirdo and dork who I couldn’t help but find endearing and relatable as one spectrum-dweller to another. When he’s written wrong, however, a whole host of unfortunate implications ensue. He displays sexist behaviour towards women, treating them more like objects than people, and has creepy tendencies (like breaking into his therapist’s house to proclaim his undying love for her). Many would make the case that there are in fact autistics who display these traits, but I would counter with the fact that – yes, there may be – but they are learned behaviours not intrinsic of people on the spectrum. Including them in a character that is supposed to represent the human side of autism, if anything, just makes the rest of us look like disabled monsters. I also question the intensity with which Sam manifests autistic traits. While yes, there are many autistics who do have Sam’s experience of the world, that is not true of everyone’s lived autism experience. Sam is overly stereotypical, which is understandable in a way since the show is trying to help people grasp autism better, but I can’t help but feel this would have been served better with greater nuance. The fact that Sam’s girlfriend tries to shut him up about his interests and makes him feel badly about them rather than letting him explore them is also problematic. We all need to learn the lessons of the world, and I distinctly recall being taught not to talk too much about the same thing socially myself, but that doesn’t make it any less cringe-worthy to hear her talk about him having three pass cards after which he can’t talk about penguins any more that day. I mean – what is he? A well trained monkey?
At the end of the day, I’m willing to concede that shows like ‘Atypical’ are part of the very early consciousness-raising efforts surrounding neurodiversity. In that sense – as an early ‘alpha’ if you will – it is essential. It naturally will make lots of mistakes and fall flat despite it’s best efforts because, quite frankly, people still don’t know a lot about Autism outside of the stereotypes. That, however, is where show needs to do its most growing. I can’t deny that the showrunners mean well with how they’ve put things together, but if anything, I think they themselves would benefit from immersing themselves in the Neurodiversity scene. The lack of any autistic writers on the staff, the fact that the only source consulted in the project was a medical autism researcher, and the fact that the lead wasn’t played by an autistic actor, combined with the problematic portrayals of Sam’s family and his own character make this a deeply flawed show. It has heart, a loveable (if problematic) main character, and genuinely tries – things I can’t take from it – but in this case, simply having one’s heart in the right place isn’t enough.
I have no doubt that ‘Atypical’ will help raise acceptance and awareness of the real human stories on the spectrum for many viewers. For that it should rightly receive praise. I WANT to love it, even. But the fact remains, for a show about promoting Neurodiversity, it needs A LOT of work.
As always, yours in diversity,