Representation of Autism in the Netflix TV Show “Atypical”

In the first season of the TV show “Atypical”, the viewer meets the Gardner family, a seemingly normal family with an autistic teenage son, Sam, as the focus. This show failed initially to deviate from typical portrayals of autistic people on screens, as a white male, intellectually gifted, and seemingly unrelatable, although it seemed to try. Sam acts in ways that seem almost unbelievable for even someone with autism to, such as when he declares his love for someone else in front of his girlfriend’s entire family.

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This made the plot of the show more interesting, but sacrificed Sam’s reputation to some degree. This failure to protect the dignity of an autistic person on screen, in my opinion, was a failed representation of autism on screen. Sam was not made to be relatable or seem in any way “normal”, and although the show claims support of autism and the desire to spread awareness, it actually seems to ostracize Sam and his autism.

For the filming of the first season, the show did not utilize people with an understanding of autism or who personally have autism to help censor its on-screen representation. The only person to help the show was Michelle Dean, an assistant professor of special education at California State University Channel Islands. She herself does not have autism. Additionally, the actor playing Sam is not autistic and must pretend to be so for the show. For Season Two, the show used the help of an autistic author, David Finch. This improvement in knowledge of the spectrum is more apparent to me in Season Two.

Season two of Atypical broadened the overall focus of the show and worked to shift the blame for the brunt of the families’ struggles off of Sam and onto the rest of the family too. In the first season, it seemed as if Sam was the catalyst for all of the family’s misery. He seems to be the only thing the family focuses on, causing Elsa (the mother) to have an extramarital affair and letting Casey (the sister) struggle through high school in secret. In the second season, everyone else’s problems come to the forefront and are obviously not Sam’s fault. Elsa spends the second season tirelessly fighting for her marriage after her affair, and Casey struggles with anger towards her mother and the exploration of her sexuality. These situations are depicted in great detail and one finds themself following the individual stories of each family member. Sam is no longer a standout but is seen as a functional part of the family. This shows to the viewer that, although Sam has autism, there are other things in their family to focus on. This makes the family more believable. Moments are also shown of the sibling interaction that make their family seem more like a real family- where the siblings argue and play, such as when Casey sits on Sam and acts like he is an egg she needs to protect. The show improves upon the former season’s failed representation of a real family.

In season two, Sam is a senior in high school and exploring his options following graduation. He decides to go to Art school, which is a big surprise to his family. One does not necessarily picture an autistic person pursuing an art degree, so I think this is a great improvement for the show. The peer group in which Sam participates also expands upon this. One student aspired to be a dentist, another had a fascination with Ambulances and presumably dreamed of being an EMT. In this aspect, Atypical did a good job of breaking the mold in comparison to shows like “Big Bang Theory”, where autistic people are portrayed usually as geniuses with no creative interests. All of the actors for this peer group were autistic, which I think is a great aspect. There is no better person to play someone with autism than someone who themself has autism.

In the show, Sam is not often told when he says or does something socially unacceptable. He breaks into his therapists house and later professes his love for her. After his therapist yells at him for it, she apologizes to him instead of letting him realize his wrongdoings. This seems like a situation where the therapist should get a restraining order, not apologize to Sam, let alone go to his high school graduation. In the only scene in which he was outright told something he could not do, his high school counselor informed him that his first experience being exposed to breasts was an inappropriate topic for a college essay. This seems to the viewer like such an obvious fallacy that Sam should already know is unacceptable.

The characters continually act like they need to walk on hot coals around Sam- careful of what they say and do around him. For instance, the family tried to keep the mother’s affair a secret from Sam, instead of just telling him before he found out himself. Sam tries to prove himself capable of things on his own when he decides to be totally “independent”, but this seems more like a last ditch effort to prove that Sam was not actually incapable. There is an unfitting contrast in the way he is treated at home and his accomplishments. I think it is also important to show viewers his capability and prove that people on the spectrum can accomplish great things and, often, can live mostly or fully independently. The portrayal of Sam as dependant upon his mother is an insult to his character and discouraging to anyone in a similar situation to his own.

The show would be a lot better off if they employed a so called “focus group” of teens on the spectrum at around the same age and capability level of Sam and use their example to portray a positive light upon Autism. The more realistic a show is, the better it will be taken in in today’s social context. As far as laughability goes, this show appeals to a certain type of humor. I find that the script often goes for the easy joke. The laughs are usually quite cringy and what some may call the “dad” joke type. It is not a show that will have you out of your seat laughing, but it generally leaves the viewer with a good feeling after watching.This show addresses a social problem more directly than most other shows of its kind. It is based around a young man with autism. The entire basis for the show addresses a problem- the treatment of people on the spectrum in our society today. I think anyone would be better off for watching this show because they gain at least a glimmer of awareness about autism than they had before. Scenes such as when Sam gets taken to the police station because he was reciting his penguin mantra raise awareness for situations like it and will, hopefully, someday help someone not to make the same mistake the police officer did. The officer thought he was under the influence of drugs and in danger. If you are looking for a show that will improve your knowledge of social issues today while still providing humor and light hearted fun, this is the show for you.

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