An Atypical Depiction

Initially I was sceptical of ‘Atypical’ considering the depictions of mental illness/neurodiversity in two other Netflix original series,‘13 Reasons Why’ and ‘To The Bone’, both of which received criticism for portraying their lead characters’ illnesses insensitively and against the advice of mental health professionals. ‘Atypical’ itself  has also been criticised for “perpetuating stereotypes”, presenting Sam being autistic “as a tragedy” from his parents’ perspective and using him as the “butt of the joke”– none of which are entirely unfounded but despite its issues I found the series sweet and funny and relatable. I’m glad to see an autistic character who is explicitly named as such instead of implicitly coded to be- and it’s not as if those kinds of characters are lacking (my favourites are Brennan from ‘Bones’, Moss from ‘The IT Crowd’, Anya from ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and Tina Belcher from  ‘Bob’s Burgers’).

The DSM-5 defines Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as persistent difficulties with social communication and interaction alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interest which limit and impair everyday functioning. Included in this are sensory issues, difficulties picking up on social cues such as non-verbal communication, and taking figures of speech literally. Sam displays all of these traits and he is the one who gets to explain them and his management strategies directly to the viewer in most cases. He wears noise-cancelling headphones to protect from distressing background noise, uses comparisons to his special interest of the environment and habitat of Antarctica to make sense of his world and occasionally has all-consuming meltdowns from becoming overwhelmed. Other explanations of autistic traits are demonstrated through other people’s actions for example his mum, Elsa, recalls a long telephone call she had in order to track down a very particular kind of cotton t-shirt Sam likes that had been discontinued, supported by Sam telling us he doesn’t “like things that are new unless they’re exactly like the old things” and once he accepts things into his routine he finds it hard to let go of them.

There’s always a risk when portraying autistic characters that they might seem cold and inconsiderate of others and therefore unlikeable, but Atypical successfully keeps you on Sam’s side even when his actions negatively impact other people. Part of this is probably down to just how much we see from Sam’s perspective and hear from him in the voiceover. His meltdowns are shown directly as a result of being overwhelmed and upset which counters any potential perception of them as a tantrum or intentional lash-outs, which autistic meltdowns are often written off as. Once, a meltdown happens after an unpleasant encounter with a group of people in school and Sam goes temporarily non-verbal, unable to speak from sheer distress; again after an almost-sexual encounter where he ends up pushing the girl away because gentle touches register to him as physical pain and he was unsure of how to communicate that to her. Recovering from these meltdowns means Sam has to avoid pretty much all stimuli, wrapped up like a “skinny white boy burrito” only watching Frozen Planet on repeat, which I found hilarious because I’ve been a recovery burrito before! I’ve never seen that on TV before! Despite people writing off the show as a “stereotypical” portrayal of autism I was surprised that Sam’s issues with empathy aren’t that he doesn’t have any at all – which I would expect of a truly stereotypical character- but that despite having trouble determining why someone is upset once he knows, he feels like he cares too much (this of course isn’t true of all autistic people but it’s refreshing to see an alternative take on autistic empathy).

The whole “coming of age/out to get laid” plot of the series seems a bit shoehorned in in order to keep the show marketable or at least recognisable for an audience unfamiliar with autism by keeping all other variables the same with the exception of switching out an allistic main character for an autistic one. I don’t resent it because autistic people don’t want sex or relationships but because of the entitled way Sam is encouraged to act by his friends, therapist and Dad to act towards girls and his life during the series is consumed by the goal of losing his virginity.  He also struggles with pinning down exactly what love is, how you categorise it and what exactly it should feel like and despite knowing Sam and how he thinks, it seems as if everyone he knows forgets how important rules are to him (even though he literally takes notes in front of them) and that he will take sentimental/metaphorical speech literally. He researches how to flirt and ends up on Youtube watching a pick up artist recommend negging (undermining someone’s confidence as a flirting techinque) which he later echoes while on a date. His best friend is presented as sex-obsessed but with good-intentions, he takes Sam to a strip-club where apparently he’s a regular but it never occurred to him that Sam wouldn’t cope with the lights and noise of the environment (let alone how to act in an unfamiliar setting). His dad helps Sam break into his therapist’s house in order to “steal” her away from her boyfriend. His sister who is very protective and defensive of Sam also gives him bad advice when he’s signing up for online dating sites by encouraging him to not be himself and to suppress his excitement about his special interests. It’s often when trying to follow all of this conflicting and unnatural advice that lands Sam in trouble instead of the fact that he is autistic.. When he pushes the girl in her college dorm away – which has been one of the more discussed and controversial scenes from the show- his internal monologue is debating whether or not it would be weird to disclose his sensory issues to her which results in him panicking and shutting down after the girl shouts, “are you retarded?” at him. He also approaches another girl to ask her on a date and reassures her that she would only be his “practice girlfriend” which of course doesn’t go down well – neither does the pro/con list he makes in order to decide whether or not he likes Paige enough to be in a relationship with her but it’s mostly Sam figuring out what he thinks is the right thing to do that goes down best, even if it’s not what anyone else would do.

Part of the conflict caused by the misguided advice Sam is given is down to how Sam seems to be infantilised in the relationships he should be most comfortable and accepted in.  Even when Sam starts going out with Paige, who seems to like Sam for who he is and takes it upon herself to organise an autism-friendly school dance so he can be involved, she devises a three-card system to stop him from boring her with his knowledge of Antarctica. On the other hand though, a lot of the issues with Sam’s mum are happening because she is unable to infantilise Sam now he is eighteen and doesn’t depend on her the way he did as a child.

Throughout the series references are made to how much Sam’s mum, Elsa, has given up and missed out on to care for him. After being encouraged to take up dancing again by her husband Doug, a hobby we’re led to assume got neglected as a result of having to dedicate all her time and energy to Sam, Elsa starts an affair with a bartender which by the end of the series becomes a threat to her marriage and relationship with her daughter and the stability of Sam’s relatively sheltered life. It’s revealed to Casey that Doug briefly left Elsa and their kids after Sam was diagnosed because he couldn’t handle having an autistic child. She accuses him of not even liking Sam, and of being ashamed of him, which prompts him to actively be more involved in Sam’s life- which coincides with Sam starting to date- and they’re able to bond over Sam asking his dad for romantic advice. Their parental attitude towards Sam does seem a bit odd considering Sam is doing well in mainstream education and working a part-time job. The relationship between Sam and his sister Casey makes a lot more sense. Despite only being sixteen, Casey often acts a lot older than she is as a result of being overlooked or forgotten about while Sam needs immediate attention and help. She feels a lot of responsibility towards Sam – even considering passing up a scholarship opportunity so she can stay in the same school as Sam to look out for him but it doesn’t seem like she resents him and their relationship is very sweet and real which makes the strangeness of Elsa’s character being used as a plot device feel more obvious in comparison.

There are a few more confusing aspects to the series which seem unnecessary, for example Sam’s therapist asking him to donate his brain to science but clarifying that she means after he’s dead; and the support group for parents of autistic children that Sam’s mum attends insisting that the correct way to refer to autistic people is not the identity-first language (“autistic person”) that the autistic community generally agrees is preferable, but person-first (“person with autism”).There’s a subplot of Sam inadvertently prompting his therapist’s boyfriend into ending their relationship after breaking into their home and generally having a quarter-life crisis that leads to her shouting at Sam and ridiculing him. I would have preferred to see that screen time utilised in a more relatable way. Sam’s crush on his therapist is the main difficulty in his relationship with Paige (he breaks up with her publicly and bluntly due to fancying his therapist) and isn’t something most autistic people are going to experience. Other people in Sam’s life who don’t play such an influential role in his life are incredibly considerate of and familiar with his needs (the bus driver who brings him home from a meltdown, his boss) treat him better than his therapist does. Sam’s girlfriend Paige also has her questionable moments- she tolerates being put in a wardrobe for being annoying (she is really annoying) but can’t put up with Sam sharing special interest information with her. Suspicious. I wish there were more scenarios that rang true in the series. One part that did feel very real was when another parent asks, “Why should we change everything to compensate for one kid” during the discussions about changing the regular school dance to a silent disco. That’s an attitude that most people with a disability will be familiar with. In the end the dance does go ahead and the theme, fittingly, is a winter wonderland complete with an igloo built by Sam’s dad where Sam and Paige get back together again.

There is nothing in that show that made me feel like Sam was the butt of the joke. I liked when a girl says to Sam, “oh I thought you were kidding” and he replies, “no, I don’t do that.” The two funniest moments in the show, in my opinion, were – in second place- when Sam bursts into Paige’s French class to present her with a necklace (that “Zahid’s mean girlfriend” got him a discount on) to tell her he doesn’t want to stay broken up and the teacher makes Paige speak to him in French; and – in first place- when Paige shows up on Sam’s front lawn after they break up a second time with all her sentimental mementos from their dates. Sam watches with the faintest wistful smile as she pulls out the giant penguin she was going to give Sam from Christmas and slices it open with her keys before driving away- I was cackling.

In all, despite the odd subplots that are there purely to spice things up and cause drama, I think this show has been researched incredibly well and Sam, played by Keir Gilchrist, could not have been cast any better. And the soundtrack is so good. I hope there’s going to be a season two.


[Charlotte Roberts]

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