Not since Parenthood has a TV show created such a stir in the autism community as Netflix’s new dramedy Atypical, a coming-of-age series about a high school senior on the spectrum and his family.
Like many teen boys, Sam (Keir Gilchrist) is fixated on getting a girlfriend. While he’s highly verbal and able to attend a typical school, his challenges around social interactions, the need for rules and order, and sensory issues make it especially difficult for him to navigate waters that are murky enough for typically developing kids.
Much of the debate about the show centers around the lack of autistic input in its development. In a Teen Vogue op-ed, Mickey Rowe, currently the first autistic actor to play the lead in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, wrote that while he’d hoped Atypical “would be able to offer a glimmer of representation,” he was disappointed that Netflix and creator Robia Rashid (How I Met Your Mother) didn’t include autistics either behind the scenes or in any major roles. He objected to the fact that a scene in which Sam is wearing headphones to block out distracting noise is played for laughs and that at times Sam’s parents see their son’s autism as “a tragedy.”
Alex Plank, founder of Wrong Planet, an online community for autistics, has similar concerns. Plank – who consulted on the FX show The Bridge, which featured an autistic character — likes some aspects of Atypical but not others. “It seems like Sam’s a robot,” he says. “I’m not a robot. That could be changed with subtle things to show that he does feel empathy.” Another example Plank takes exception to: In one scene, Sam is told to smile in order to flirt with a girl and ends up with a creepy grin. “There are people on the spectrum who have trouble smiling,” Plank says, but if he had been there, he would have worked with the actor to make it more authentically awkward.
Sam also does things that might seem downright mean, and Plank worries that the show will influence how neurotypicals see autistics: “There are so few representations, when there are, it should be something positive. We’re already ostracized and bullied and seen as freaks in a way by some people.” He hopes that if there’s a second season, there will be more autistic input and actors.
Meanwhile, parents with kids on the spectrum have had mixed reactions. Autism dad Noel Murray wondered in The Week why Sam doesn’t seem to have a sense of humor. “Why does he rarely seem to take any actual joy in his hobbies?” he asked. (Sam is fixed on Antarctica and penguins.)
But Lisa Quinones Fontanez, who blogs at Atypical Familia, related to the family dynamics. She wrote that she’s struggling to give her young son more independence, just like Sam’s mom, Elsa, (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and that Sam reminds her of son, who also wears headphones, fidgets (Sam plays incessantly with a rubber band during his therapy sessions) and can have major meltdowns when overwhelmed by sensory input, which happens later in the eight-episode series.
Karen, who blogs at Confessions of an Asperger’s Mom and is the mother of two young men on the spectrum, also “gets” Elsa’s hovering and the stress on a marriage that can develop. But she thinks the show glossed over how difficult it can be socially for kids like hers. “My boys definitely want to be loved and accepted just like their peers,” she says. “But friends and opportunities for love are not nearly as easy to come by” as they end up for Sam by the end of the series.
Karen also relates to Elsa, because her sons’ autism has almost completely consumed her, too. “Elsa is always trying to create this bubble” for Sam, she says. “Her efforts to do so over his entire life have left her exhausted and lost. Facing the realization that the world is not indeed a bubble, and they are about to go out there into it, is a frightening thought.”
We’ll be waiting to find out if Atypical gets renewed. It would be interesting to see how Sam and the rest of his family fare as he steps further out of that bubble and into the typical world.