Is Netflix’s Atypical Series Depicting Life with Autism Accurately?

This summer, Netflix debuted a new show named Atypical. Atypical is a dark comedy involving a teen with autism. The show revolves around Sam, skillfully played by Keir Gilchrist, and his family tackling the complexities of romance and dating with autism. Although at times, I felt certain scenes didn’t depict life with autism too accurately, the series did manage to highlight some of the daily struggles that a family with autism encounters.

Is Netflix's Atypical Series Depicting Life with Autism accurately? 1 poster

Photo Credit: Netflix

Like many other parents with kids on the autism spectrum, I was excited to hear about Netflix’s new series Atypical, since there have been very few tv series or movies about autism. A decade ago autism wasn’t the topic of any movies or tv series. The only movie that comes to mind is Rain Man, and it came out back in 1988.  But Rain Man didn’t help the public understand anything worthwhile about the disability. In fact, it distorted the perception of many. To this day some people I meet still ask me if my son with autism is a math whiz.

About Atypical

Atypical was released on Netflix and consists of eight different episodes. The writer Robia Rashid has quite an impressive resume as a producer that I feel helped with the creation of Atypical. She has produced How I Met Your Mother and The Goldbergs. Now she is out raising autism awareness with the Atypical series.

The Cast

  • Keir Gilchrist – Sam Gardner
  • Jennifer Jason Leigh – Elsa Gardner – Sam’s mother
  • Michael Rapaport – Doug Gardner – Sam’s father
  • Bridgette Lundy-Paine – Casey Gardner – Sam’s younger sister
  • Amy Okuda – Julia Sasaki – Sam’s therapist, and love interest
  • Nik Dodani – Sahid – Sam’s side kick
  • Jenna Boyd – Paige Hardaway – Sam’s “practice girlfriend.”

 New Perspectives

Judging but the posters for the series one of its primary goals was to redefine normalcy. Does the series get the audience to rethink the parameters of what’s normal? Well,  Yes. Apparently, the boundaries are pushed and blurred not only by the plot but by the sheer title Atypical.

A second goal was giving viewers a unique insight into Sam’s mind. Unlike other series and movies where the story focuses on how the world perceives people on the autism spectrum, Sam narrates this one in the first person. I found this as a refreshing change. Atypical shows him as a teen preoccupied with pretty much the same thoughts and feelings as his peers. Ok, minus the obsession with Antarctica.

 

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Hope for the Future

Although Sam is not Mr. Popular, he still manages to function relatively well, in my opinion. We can argue whether this is a correct depiction of people with high functioning autism or not. But what is abundantly clear to me is that as parents we’d all want to see our kids be like Sam.

Sam is a senior, getting good grades, and manages to maintain a job. Moreover, like “normal” high school kids, Sam has a best friend and gets a girl interested in him.  Call me a softie, but a story line this even though somewhat unrealistic for some, made me hopeful that my son will one day have some of the same experiences too.

Sensory Struggles

I  found the series’ depiction of  Sam’s sensory challenges to be reasonably good.
Sam struggles with noise, crowds, textures and even too many zippers. These are all authentic sensory issues that many with autism have to face every day. As a mother to a son with autism, I identified with the motorcycle jacket scene, as well along with, the bus scene when all the different noises cause Sam to go into sensory overload.

With that said, I was somewhat baffled that the writers didn’t follow the concept through. The scene where Sam wears a confining tuxedo with a bow tie is a jarring example. From my experience, someone with such sensitivities could not possibly tolerate a suit and tie, not even for love.And the fact that he jumps in the pool to retrieve the necklace and then proceeds to walk around the dance hall in wet clothes. No way!

Is Netflix's Atypical Series Depicting Life with Autism accurately? sam sitting

Photo Credit: Netflix

Family Dynamics

Undoubtedly the show’s major accomplishment is highlighting the unique dynamics of families with autism.
Atypical touches on the topics that parents like me face on a regular basis. Preventing meltdowns, continued focus on the kid with autism, the obsessive need to shield disabled children from the world can all take a toll on family life.

And that’s why Sam’s family is struggling so hard to stay together. The dad couldn’t cope with the son’s diagnosis, left home and now try to make amends. The mother is tired of being seen as the ultimate caregiver, has a brief affair and feels horribly guilty. And even the sister, though when being ignored jumps in when her brother is in trouble. These are all circumstances that many parents to kids with autism have lived through.

However, the overall underdevelopment of the main characters is troubling and gets in the way of identifying with them. We get that Sam’s parents are flawed in their ways, but we aren’t privy to what keeps them going. Questions like why the dad left the house and why they parents are still together are just the tip of the iceberg.

The sister’s character could use much more depth. In fact, she’s a bit too superficially perfect! Considering she is the younger sibling, one can argue that she cannot miss what she’s never had. All her life, the family attention was centered around her brother. However, after watching her, I found it hard to believe, that she bears zero no resentment towards for her brother.

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Photo Credit: Netflix

The Ugly

I don’t know about you, but I could have done better without the penguin beheading scene. It was unnecessary and in today’s political climate even insensitive. I would give the writers a big fail on that one.

The second is a bit more subtle but still controversial. Paige doesn’t seem to bear any real consequences for her punching incident. Yes, I get that it was a gut reaction to ugly bullying, but I think the message here is a bit fuzzy and stretched. Responding with violence isn’t the correct answer! And I think she should have needed to face a harsher punishment.

But what hit home for me, was the portrayal of the mom. Did they have to make her so awful? She is probably the least sympathetic character out of the series. I think the first season should have focused more on her struggles to keep it together rather than having a senseless affair! I understand the writers wanted an interesting storyline but her portrayal as a villain of sorts isn’t going to score them any favors with most mommy viewers.

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Photo Credit: Netflix

The  Message

When I watch a movie or TV series I always look for the message the writers and producers wanted to relay to their audience.
Atypical‘s  general message is pretty straightforward-  autism shouldn’t be pitied but accepted better. As a whole, the series tries to portray persons with autism and their families in a positive light. But underneath that, there’s a  more subtle one.

But underneath that, there’s a  more subtle message.It tries to tackle the topic of parenting.Elsa like so many other parents to kids with autism is torn between maintaining the barrier she has created to shield Sam from the world and helping him become more independent. If nothing else, the series provides parents with a powerful reminder how important it is to seek and maintain the delicate balance between the two perspectives.

So, does it depict life with autism accurately?

My answer is somewhat.No two people with autism are the same, and no two families live the same type of life.
I didn’t feel that the creators set out to depict autism accurately, to begin with. Though at times the series does have more realistic sounding moments, like Sam being bullied in school, many others are contrived.

Some scenes like locking Paige in the closet and pulling a girl’s moving ponytail, were a bit over the top, in my book, considering Sam is high functioning and capable of verbal communication. It did seem that sometimes the writers chose to go for extra laughs at the expense of overblowing Sam’s autism symptoms to the point of ridiculousness.

Yet, though Atypical is a far cry from being the perfect series to showcase autism, it is a great start.Most mothers with kids on the autism spectrum seemed to praise it. The fact it stretched the boundaries didn’t really matter too much.Personally, I found the series funny, entertaining and painfully relatable in its overall depiction of what plagues families with autism.

Have you watched the Atypical series yet? If so, what scenes did you like best? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Thank you for writing this. I’ve been having concerns about ABC’s new show that is suppose to be about a young doctor with autism. I think this is a way for all the contributing factors fueling this epidemic to put a positive spin on it. No one has to feel bad about why this is happening if a TV show makes autism out to be a good thing, right? I would like there to be a show that accurately depicts the children who have severe autism, what it takes to take care of them and what their futures look like as they become adults.

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